Miracle of Thought in Flesh

Sebastian Faulks, A Possible Life: A Novel in Five Parts

Hutchinson, 304pp, £18.99, ISBN 9780091936808

reviewed by Francis Hutton-Williams

Sebastian Faulks has said that his latest novel is written in the style of a five-part symphony, and there is room for both triumph and failure in the way that the parts never add up. A Possible Life abandons the unities of time and place in favour of a wandering depiction of what it is to be human. Though the five ‘movements’ of the book are clearly distinct, certain objects are allowed to cut across them like distant motifs - these include a chipped, plastered and repainted Madonna; a Victorian workhouse; and a lonely French farm. The reader is free to intuit what to take from this arrangement. As the record producer Jack Wyatt concedes at the end of the final story: ‘the list of facts that make my life … They could be mine, they might be yours.’

From ‘A Different Man’ to ‘You Next Time’, the stories all attempt to highlight the contingencies that underlie the false sensation of having a distinct self. The novel’s exploration of divided forms of consciousness, exchanged objects and rented buildings creates an isthmus between individualities, and asserts that the sensation of individuality arises out of arrangements of physical matter. In the third of the five stories, set in futuristic Italy, human consciousness is remodelled by two Italian neuroscientists who have led a breakthrough in understanding the mind’s activity. Their theorem, the Rossi-Duranti loop, demystifies (albeit temporarily) the biology behind the components of selfhood. The other four stories, set in earlier times and places, offer the background for this discovery while portraying dramatic shifts within characters who are pushed to their limits. These include a Holocaust labour camp victim (Geoffrey Talbot); a rag-to-riches property developer (Billy); an orphaned peasant (Jeanne); and an LA record producer (Jack Wyatt) abandoned by the love of his life (Anya King).

Occasionally, the compression of the novel’s prose indicates a rush to get to the major incidents in the life of a single character. The author’s allegiance to historical fiction, which has so often involved the division of France during the two World Wars, has been complicated here. The unusual arrangement of settings – centred on Vichy and Napoleonic France, Victorian London, futuristic Italy, and Sunset Boulevard – is used as a stylistic device to generate comparisons between different stages of the characters' identities.

The middle story has a lot of weight to carry in terms of giving voice to the novel's ideas, and is appropriately named ‘Everything Can Be Explained’. It also seems to be the most heavily worked of the five. The protagonist and famous neuroscientist, Elena Duranti, gives a definitive account of human consciousness that is ironically connected by the narrator to her emotional isolation as a child: the narrative voice, however, obtrudes into the reader’s ability to perceive the full effects of her later ideas. At one point, I found myself siding with the mechanistic Elena in opposition to the narrator’s doctrinaire humanism, whose totalising judgement made the lack of emotional depth in Miss Duranti scarcely credible: ‘My God, thought Elena as she sat on the side of the bed waiting for the ambulance, to think that as a child I used to long for solitude ... And now my father, Bruno and my mother ... gone.’

Faulks' doctrinaire humanism also creeps into the exaggerated contrasts that are set up between the ‘Kebab Man’ and Marcel Lagarde in the third and fourth stories. On the one hand, we have a hyper-alert dockworker who has had an iron bar skewered from the underside of his jaw into his brain; on the other, a member of the Grande Armée who has had half of his face sliced off by an Austrian blade. The disfigured war veteran tells Jeanne, an ignorant peasant, that: ‘One day there may be someone who understands everything, every little bit of how our minds work, not just like a philosopher but like a scientist.’ The figural representation of a divided consciousness could hardly have been executed more heavy-handedly. ‘Beneath his palms’, we are told, ‘he felt the borrowed skin of his face, though only his right eye could shed tears.’ The result is a stiff representation of reason and emotion, two thematic opposites that the narrator then directly addresses: ‘The underlying reason doesn’t really matter. It’s the action and the emotion it causes.’

A Possible Life is far stronger when the third-person narrator is less dominant, or even absent from the narration - when it allows the statement of received ideas to recede fully behind the development of the characters' personal histories. In any case, the author’s preference for ordering the five stories outside of chronology presents its own argument. Irrespective of the conclusions of war or science, it is the ability to ask questions and to absorb explanations that entwines the thought and flesh of characters, both before and after the middle story, ‘Everything Can Be Explained’. In the final story, entitled ‘You Next Time’, Anya frowns when the narrator asks her how the men in her songs connect with her own life:

‘They’re not all me, you know. Some are, some aren’t. Some of the ones that sound most like me – the ‘I’ ones – are made up and some of the ones that sound most like they’re about other people are really about me. But like this, it’s even better. Maybe. When everything is still just… possibility.’

The implicit parallel between Anya's songs and Faulks' novel emphasises this ‘possibility’ as the slippage that can arise between the third and the first person, when the accident of selfhood is free to go beyond and outside itself. Anya's song ‘Freddy’, the nickname for her lover Jack, opens with the words ‘Another life would be the same / My heart existing by a different name’. The couplet is highly effective in contrasting Elena Duranti’s pursuit of a single, authoritative explanation for the human mind, which her ex-soul mate Bruno playfully derides:

‘If you can’t have all you want rolled up into one place, one ideal existence, you’d be prepared to throw out the best part. Out of petulance.’
‘I would never do that,’ said Elena. ‘Never.’ At the same time she felt a kind of panic at the otherness of Bruno.

The contrast between the representations of selfhood in these two stories is emphasised again when Elena reaches for the SADS scanner to read the brain, while Jack lays his hands upon Anya’s hair and simply imagines the sleeping brain beneath. The underlying motif that the narrative builds upon here – through the disparate material of neuroscience and song lyrics – is impressive. While the identification of neural substrates in the third story swiftly kills off the divide between soul and matter (the mere mention of which causes Elena to break out in censure), Jack finds a different way to wipe out the distinction:

The culture I was raised in – London, respectable but poor – and the one I’d moved to – LA, not so respectable, less poor – had one thing in common when it came to men and women. They both thought ‘sex’ was the delinquent brother of ‘love’. To my parents and friends I suppose ‘love’ meant ‘marriage’ and to the people in Laurel Canyon love meant Zen and Buddhist wisdom and transcendental this and that.

They were both wrong, to my mind. We seem to be alive just once – in a random skin and bone that starts to move towards disintegration as soon as it’s old enough that you can kiss it. What Anya and I did with one another wasn’t the poor relation of anything. Once when we were making love, and she was propped up on her elbows, she looked down hard at where our bodies met and whispered, ‘Freddy, this is who we are.’

After Anya disappears, Jack, now unhinged from his relationship as the songwriter’s lover and producer marries an ex-lodger, one of a stray soul-sister duo called Becky. All along, Jack’s contribution to Anya's music has in fact been one of a supporting role, and is not as direct as the first-person narrative has led the reader to believe. The reverse is true of the second story of the book, where Billy’s first wife returns to live with him after having lapsed into a comatose state for well over a decade. In both of these first-person narratives, we become aware that another story, and another life, is either not being recovered, or is in the process of recovery.

Faulks' depiction of the disappearance or intrusion of other lives is most effective in the way it unsettles the dominant first-person narratives. Reading the novel creates the temptation to treat certain stories (like the second and fifth) as ‘parallel movements’ in a symphony, and to make a tidy job of interpretation. This, however, would underestimate the book’s intentional rejection of structural integration, which is designed with the elusive, fragmented nature of existence in mind. Whether real, imagined, or barely lived, the shifts of human consciousness in the novel reveal that subjective dramas are rarely as life threatening as they seem to individual characters; instead, they signal the birth pangs of other lives. At its best, A Possible Life confronts this slippage between the first and third person in its recurrent and untouchable dimension.