In Julian Barnes' last book, essays on death called Nothing to Be Frightened Of, he wrote of fearing the nothingness or oblivion of death. In Pulse, his understated but stealthily moving third collection of stories, Barnes' main focus is on love and intimacy — how it starts, and what accounts for its endurance or failure to thrive. Many of his characters suffer the loss of one of their five senses, or of a close relationship.
In the title story, a 30-year-old only son contrasts his own dismal marriage to his parents' long, happy attachment. He wonders whether talent or luck is at the heart of a successful union. When his father confesses, after losing his sense of smell, that what he misses most is the scent of his wife, the son marvels at this intimate detail. Later, he pictures his father rubbing fresh herbs under his dying mother's nose after they learn that smell and sound are the last systems to shut down. "Mum's dying, but Dad's losing her," he keeps reminding himself.
Barnes, whose versatile output includes the historical novels Flaubert's Parrot and Arthur & George, travels back centuries in several stories. "Harmony" is an absorbing but peculiar tale about a gifted 18th-century Austrian pianist whose hysterical blindness is temporarily cured through unorthodox treatment. Basing his narrative on an actual case — Franz Mesmer's treatment of Maria Theresia von Paradis — Barnes makes the curious decision to uphold "a routine literary mannerism" of the era, suppressing so many details that the opening of his story reads like Mad Libs: "The encounter between M— and Maria Theresia von P— took place in the imperial city of V— between the winter of 177— and the summer of the following year."
Several stories involve 30-something men rebounding from heartache and venturing into new relationships. "East Wind" packs a wallop, as a divorced estate agent sabotages a promising affair by snooping into the painful past that his new girlfriend was trying to escape. In "Trespass," a methodical hiker notes all the time one saves by being single — "extra time in which to be lonely."
A different sort of heartache is at the center of the powerful "Marriage Lines," in which a man who has lost his wife to sudden illness — much as Barnes lost his wife, literary agent Pat Kavanaugh, to brain cancer in 2008 — travels back to where they vacationed happily in the Hebrides, and realizes, "he was not in charge of grief. Grief was in charge of him."
Interspersed through the first half of Pulse is a quartet of witty, clever dinner party conversations, "At Phil & Joanna's," presented with little exposition. The tight-knit group of aging boomers who gather every few months manage to preserve their high spirits even as they banter about serious subjects, including American politics, global warming, health care, "the marmalade theory of Britishness," and gender distinctions in talking about love and sex. These snappy running dialogues evoke Barnes' conversational novels, Talking It Over and Love, Etc., as well as Raymond Carver's What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. They also demonstrate, along with the other stories in this graceful collection, that Barnes has his finger firmly planted on the pulse of topics that continue to matter to us.