The Book Club

Ye Postmodern England

I basically agree with the specifics of your critiques of both books, but I was left a bit colder by the Barnes than I was by the Buruma. Truth be told, these are both minor works, and the Buruma especially tries to run on charm, much in the way I associate with writing in the Spectator–which, I’ll admit, I haven’t read for at least six years. (Buruma, by the way, does glancingly deal with the issue of spanking, in a quite amusing chapter on Olympics founder Pierre, Baron de Coubertin, who drew odd inspiration for a world unified by manly sporting prowess from reading Tom Brown’s School Days).

Barnes’ book, as you note, is indeed more than just an elaborate joke about the creation of an alternate England-cum-theme park. The book, in typical Barnes style, is a philosophical disquisition fighting its way out of the confines of novelistic form: He is articulating a complex of notions built around the ideas of authenticity and memory, and the ways in which the inadequacies of memory call into question the nature and meaning of authenticity. England, England is inarguably a conservative work: In what seems to be a kind of summing up, his heroine, Martha, says of England, now in terminal decline: “Look what happened to England. Old England. It stopped believing in things. Oh, it still muddled along. It did OK. But it lost seriousness.” But, Robert, you’re right, Barnes is also calling into question our relationship with the past: History, he is suggesting, is constructed from truths, misperceived truths, and outright lies, and its values and purposes are provisional, shifting, easily corrupted (cf. Milosevic). Traditions can sustain us, but they can also choke us. The book ends wistfully, but not grimly, in an England where the clock has been perforce turned back–the success of the theme-parked England, England has had the effect of driving (quite improbably from a narrative standpoint, but who cares) the non-focus-group-marketed, non-branded England back into a kind of post-apocalyptic pastorale. Martha is now an old maid in a small 21st-century town where the villagers, living what appears to be an actually authentic Olde England life but hopelessly cut off from the run of English history, decide they must re-create whole cloth a new set of traditions, to in effect confect their own back story.

Robert, I hope I’ve done Barnes at least some justice here. Still, the thing hangs together, to the degree it hangs together, uncomfortably. Early in his career, Barnes was able to cobble together essay and narrative by flying the metafictional banner (History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters was less a novel than a bravura exercise in omni-cultural, -historical criticism). Now, in mandarin mode, Barnes means to raise broad (if typically wry) satire to the level of ontology. I read England, England as a sober-sided response to Nabokov’s recurring theme of misreading as a kind of cosmic joke–Nabokov’s characters are forever getting things just a little bit wrong, with horrifying results–and we are meant to understand this kind of terminal misapprehension as being an essential aspect of the human condition. Barnes’ idea is that our failure to accurately access our own authentic memories, our authentic selves, leads to a kind of postmodernism of the soul: We are reduced to constructing our essential selves out of bits of memory, historical claptrap, and self-delusion.

This would make a great essay, but it does not make a great novel. England, England may be more than broad satire, but it is also broad satire. And as broad satire, it is for the large part unsatisfying: Sir Jack, the magnate who dreams up England, England, is a quasi-Maxwellian figure of prodigious girth who rules dementedly from his “porphyry toilet” and has a taste for diapers. His sidekick is a Saatchi figure of surpassing Zen-ness (in Barnes’ hilarious words: “His very presence provoked synergy”). And England, England is a 14-iterations-more-preposterous version of the kind of heritage parks found in Florida and Virginia. The problem is, none of the goings-on are terribly outrageous. Perhaps this is the American in me here, but no one who has been to the New York, New York casino in Las Vegas (with its “authentic” pizza parlors and charming ethnic storefronts) is going to find this particularly shocking. In America, the idea of retrofitting your own history is no longer the stuff of satire. It is big business: Think Martha Stewart; think Restoration Hardware; think, for God’s sake, Disney’s Celebration and the entire New Urbanism movement, which has plundered American history willy-nilly to bring us home to the Olde American town square.

Real life has a way of trumping even the most febrile satirist: Last summer, we went to a wedding in Napa Valley, where the only available hotel was a place called the Harvest Inn, a mishmash of California and English Tudor styles clumsily grafted onto a suburban cabana-style layout. There were the obligatory English gardens, the lawn jockeys, the plausibly distressed rock walls. Each (extremely overpriced) room was done up in tribute to a different figure in English history. I believe we stayed in the Guinevere Suite. And if memory serves, the breakfast room was, of course, called the Ye Olde Breakfast Room.