This is a slight book containing short stories about minor characters. And it is about to receive some fairly faint praise. A Possible Life, Sebastian Faulks’ 12th novel, does little to confirm exactly where he sits in the modern British canon. It probably does not matter greatly; on this showing, he is a competent creator of unmemorable prose, but there is little more to conclude than that.
His resolutely low-key approach is certainly deliberate. A Possible Life tells five separate life stories of individuals (two from the 19th century, two from the 20th, and one from the 21st), who struggle in their attempts to establish a meaningful existence.
There is Geoffrey, a rural schoolteacher sent to France as a spy during the second world war, who escapes from a concentration camp and seems doomed to a life of mental decrepitude. Billy is a Victorian workhouse boy made good, who ends the century with two wives in a railwayman’s cottage in Clapham. We also have the futuristic Elena, who discovers the anatomical location of human consciousness, and Jeanne, a simple-minded nanny in rural France who lives her life on a ‘low flame’. Finally, there is the story of Anya, a 1970s folk singer, with whom the moony narrator — an English rock star of sorts — is in love, and whose semi-successful album career is charted with breathless precision.
By my reckoning Faulks covers over 200 years of lived existence in a book of 300 pages. So while it may be laudable — contra Thomas Carlyle — to tell history through the biographies not of great men but of often mediocre entities, the pace of the narration means that Faulks has written no single character worthy of our prolonged attention.
Certainly, the overarching connection between the stories fails to convince. Faulks appears to be arguing that all humanity is united by the fact that each existence is arbitrary, and each person a random collation of atomic material that will ‘in the great economy of the universe be recombined for further use’. This notion goes back at least to Lucretius, but here feels little more than sophomoric philosophising: the unstriking idea that everything connects.
The idle reader will have the chance to count the tenuous links between the characters: Geoffrey teaches cricket to a boy called Cheeseman, who ‘plays horribly across the line’, and crops up later suing Anya’s record label; a madonna statue with a ‘one-eyed, minatory stare’ is purchased in a junk shop by Elena, having first been fingered by Jeanne in her local nunnery. Faulks never surmounts the problem, though, that randomness will always be a difficult fictional subject. A novel fails, like a broken pencil, if it is pointless.
The first story is by far the strongest, and Faulks’ use of understatement feels fittingly inadequate in the account of life in a concentration camp: ‘Geoffrey’s throat was raw with retching, raw with screaming. He shouted all the words he knew. Parts of human were dropping on him’. The camp’s brutalised individuals — shorn of their hair, clothes and dignity — reappear in the orphanages and workhouses of later stories. There is some force in Faulks’ contention that one central facet of humanity is its endless quest to dehumanise itself.
However, one finishes A Possible Life wishing for something more exceptional elsewhere. We are left with a sense of dissatisfaction: it is not thoughtful enough to be philosophy, not beautiful enough to be literary, not exciting enough to be a page-turner, and not original enough to be memorable.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 29 September 2012