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Faulks’ ‘A Possible Life’ is a symphony in prose

And 1 and 2 and 3 and 4 – to the shelf of books explicitly or implicitly using the strategies of music to create literature, add British writer Sebastian Faulks’ 10th novel “A Possible Life.” Interviewed about the book, Faulks said, “I’d like for readers to think of the book rather as they might [be] going to hear a symphony, and when you come back out of having heard Mozart’s Fifth, I don’t think you say, ‘I just heard four interesting pieces of music.’ ” Faulks’ own symphony is subtitled “A Novel in Five Parts”: in these five separate sections and the nonlinear, associative, links between them, Faulks, like Beethoven, wrestles with the big conundrums of human existence — fate, mortality, consciousness, identity, the soul and love.

Music, like poetry, depends for much of its impact on the emotional makeup of the hearer. So it is with Faulks’ book. There is real poignancy here, but there is also the possibility of flat notes, or something heard only with the head instead of the heart. Nevertheless, Faulks’ music when it’s all over is subtly powerful, elegiac but redemptive.

Faulks’ project comes along on the heels of David Mitchell’s highly regarded novel “Cloud Atlas” (of 2012 movie fame also), and is on its face structurally similar — sections with separate narratives and characters stretching from the past to the future (in Faulks’ case from 1822 to 2029) that interweave in subtle, metaphysical, summative ways. However, the two novels share little aside from that basic formal conceit.

“A Possible Life” is conventionally told, smaller in scope than Mitchell’s epic, and less pyrotechnic in style and imagination and structure. That is not to say anything other than Faulks has something different in mind.

The lives comprising Faulks’ “possible life” are: “Geoffrey (1938),” “Billy (1859),” “Elena (2029),” “Jeanne (1822),” and “Anya (1971).” “Billy” tells his own story: “Anya” is told by her lover Jack. The other sections are third-person narratives.

“Geoffrey” is the story of a young Englishman who drifts into teaching and then into World War II and then into British intelligence work behind the German lines in France because his mother was French and he grew up bilingual. Billy is a workhouse boy in Industrial Age England who fights and sweats his way to something like a life. The middle, hinge story, “Elena,” relates the life of a lonely neuroscientist who makes a profound discovery about human consciousness. Jeanne is an illiterate orphaned French peasant who grows old in service to a rural family. “Anya,” finally, is a first-person story narrated by rock musician Jack about the great love of his life, a meteorically talented singer-songwriter.

Each section takes the central character or characters from childhood to middle age and beyond — each is a real life. Each also includes a lot of time passing in undescribed chunks. This is a narrative-driven book: a book that is frequently describing a story – this happened, then this happened, then this happened – rather than rendering it. The point ultimately isn’t the creating of a world or worlds – although there is plenty of that, depending on the narrative voice. Instead, the novel conveys ideas about existence and circumstance and what these might mean as they play out in their multifoliate ways — the roads not taken paralleling the roads taken, always, as they do in the world beyond books.

Each of the characters faces a variety of things that could break or destroy him or her, with one thing more central than others. In some lives, such as Geoffrey, there is the world-shattering experience of a Nazi concentration camp. In others, such as Elena, there is the loss of love. In Anya and Jack’s case, it’s the loneliness of talent. In Jeanne’s case, it’s a challenge to her faith. And in Billy’s case, it’s a grinding, Hobbesian world where life is nasty, brutish and short. In each case, the characters find ways to redeem or be redeemed, to survive and continue forward retaining an open heart. Sometimes this involves the hands of others: always it involves understanding themselves.

There are a number of ways the separate narratives connect, but none is explicit. Each of the five narratives addresses or is set within a key aspect of human culture: Geoffrey’s is war, Billy’s is morality (filtered through economics), Elena’s is science, Jeanne’s is religion and Anya’s is art. There are echoes among the stories in plot points and even physical elements of setting. All include a central axis related to love — romantic and filial. A country house plays a central role in each life: the same farmhouse, in fact, shows up as a key portal linking “Geoffrey” and “Jeanne.” Memory also laces things together both within and between story. What are memories? What is a life? What is identity?

Faulks’ narrative does contain flat parts and some sections labor under the weight of authorial exertion. This is one of the problems with something so driven by exposition and explaining rather than rendering. The third-person narratives are from an omniscient point of view, giving glimpses into the inner states of multiple characters. However, this is occasionally handled in ways that make the writing feel decentered and a little adrift — or merely driven forward by authorial will rather than any organic momentum.

Buddhist dharma includes the concept of the five skandhas: five layers of “self” that can be understood and peeled away. They are body, sense, emotion, thought and mind, and when they melt away, there is only — everything. The individual is the universe. In a sense each of the sections here corresponds to one of the skandhas: and as Jack says in ending “Anya” – “the list of facts that make my life … they could be mine, they could be yours … so when eventually my hour comes and I go down in that darkness, into the blackness of the black-painted wings, there’ll be no need to mourn me or repine. Because I think we’re all in this thing, like it or not, for ever.”


A Possible Life

By Sebastian Faulks

Henry Holt

287 pages, $25

Ed Taylor is a freelance Buffalo critic.