But these are constraints only in the way that handcuffs were constraints for Houdini, because although The Only Story contains some familiar elements, it deals with them in consistently surprising ways. It is a novel that quietly sinks its hooks into the reader and refuses to let go.
The Only Story, which steps through familiar Barnesian territory, giving us the English suburbs, an aged protagonist looking back over an unfulfilled life, all told in deceptively affectless prose. It would appear that the muted critical response to Barnes’s dazzling meta-fictive portrait of the life of Shostakovich, The Noise of Time, has persuaded him to return to the style and subject matter of the Man Booker prize-winning The Sense of an Ending (2011).... The ending is quietly breathtaking, evidence of the subterranean magic that’s wrought by those seemingly austere sentences.
The effect of this mutability, more than in the tricksier world of Flaubert’s Parrot, more than in the more obviously destructive world of The Good Soldier, is to create a readerly disappointment that’s all the stronger for the speed with which it occurs. The prose, though often playful and always elegant, propels us forward, first into joy, and then into despair, and there is no escape from the central story as it becomes bleaker. This intense, taut, sad and often beautiful tale may well be Barnes’s best novel for some years.
All this means that the exquisite moments – and there are many – in The Only Story come from its psychological acuity, especially about how we remember. In Paul’s narrative, experiences deconstruct themselves and personalities decay in a devastatingly convincing way. Susan is at first an alluring, rich, potent presence, full of ironic turns of speech from which we infer great intelligence; but she becomes reduced, by the middle of the book, to a series of repetitive tropes (“A played-out generation … this has all been frightfully interesting”), while even her nicknames, a vital part of her charm, are reduced to verbal tics: “Mr EP” for the man who hits her, “Mr Badger” for Paul. She carries on asking desperate questions until we, not just Paul, wonder if we ever knew her at all.