Julian Barnes's concern with the ways we reconstruct, or even invent, the past has been a rich theme in several of his books (Flaubert's Parrot, A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters). But in England, England his first novel in six years that theme has its strongest vehicle to date. Whether the past belongs to the lifetime of a single individual or to the historical annals of Barnes's native England, it is a slippery proposition. How do you distinguish the authentic from the phony, truth from embroidery? Barnes's answer is: much of the time, you can't.
England, England's other themes relate to the nature of nationhood, the excesses of a free-market economy, the fraudulence of the tourism industry, the search for love, and the possibility of personal salvation. Yet, being a novel by Julian Barnes, it is not ponderous; it is masterfully plotted, stylish, vivacious, and devilishly funny. Barnes, who loves French literature, has the withering wit, and frequently the moral stance, of Moliere.
Like a Moliere protagonist, the novel's central character bears the corporate title Appointed Cynic. Her name is Martha Cochrane, and the corporation she serves is Pitco, a multinational kingdom ruled by the megalomaniacal Sir Jack Pitman. We are a few decades into the next millennium, when Sir Jack, a kind of Rupert Murdoch/Donald Trump with Rabelaisian overtones, decides to crown his career by creating the ultimate theme park. Occupying the entire geography of the Isle of Wight, this leisure world encapsulates all of England's best-known landmarks and offers recreations of as many incidents from British history as the average Joe has ever heard of. The island with its replicas of Stonehenge, Westminster Abbey, Anne Hathaway's Cottage, and Buckingham Palace in time becomes more English than the mainland; it is therefore christened England, England. The old country, robbed of its vital tourist revenue and its standing in the European Union, gradually regresses into a near-feudal state. Even the royal family moves to the island, where their duties are minimal waving to crowds of tourists and their salaries large.
Julian Barnes is philosophical, like Iris Murdoch; narratively innovative, like John Fowles; satirical, like David Lodge; funny, like Tom Sharpe; erudite, like A. S. Byatt. Yet he is altogether, fascinatingly himself as any reader of England, England will gratefully discover.
Randall Curb is an essayist and reviewer in Greensboro, Alabama.