Julian Barnes, England, England!, 1998.
I reread this novel by Barnes for reasons I cannot clearly explain: sometimes books on the shelves issue calls of loneliness that work their way subliminally to my impulses, asking me to return to worlds and characters and ideas that have grown only faintly familiar. I first read this book in graduate school, when it was recommended to us by the prof for whom I was TA-ing after a discussion on Baudrillard. He suggested—accurately, to my mind—that it would give the reader Baudrillard’s ideas without the lack of fun that accompanies reading Baudrillard (see Browning’s “Development” for a better expression of why this system is actually good pedagogy).
I remembered England, England! as a funny book, one that played with what England was while exploring the idea of the simulacrum and our own living with simulacra. What I didn’t remember was the anger, the ire more akin to a Juvenalian satire than to the Menippean satire I remembered. The plot revolves around a plan to turn the Isle of Wight into a tourist destination: all of the great historical events and places of England will be recreated in better ways, perfect for the quick and unthreatening encounter with history by monied tourists. The structure of the novel is somewhat awkward. The first segment recounts the development of the idea, dominated by the eccentric and forceful billionaire behind the project. The second relates his ouster and the running of England, England!—and the challenges that ensue: the smugglers start smuggling, Robin Hood is mad that Maid Marian won’t put out, and no one actually enjoys with a Dr. Johnson more remarkable for his depression than his witty aperçus, with a host of similar problems to accompany the aforementioned. The new CEO, a woman we readers got to know and like in both the prologue and the first part of the book, struggles both with how to solve the problems and with her own philosophical musings about what the immersion in the milieu is doing to the humans who are coming to over-identify the parts they play. (This latter concern expresses something I often wonder about: what must it do to actors to play roles like Iago day in and day out?) The final segment deals with her life after her own ouster and exile, a return to England (now Anglia) now depressed and restored to an agrarian pastoral idyll that itself is a simulacrum.
It’s in the final segment that the writing finds a balance that I think works; the satire is less angry but still omnipresent, as the villagers re-invent a fair that never-was but is as-they-imagine-it was—England, England! come to England, without the residents paid or paying for the privilege.
The book is not my favourite of Barnes’ oeuvre. It lacks the balance of Flaubert’s Parrot and the staying power of Talking It Over, or the genius of the brilliant A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters. The exposition of the theories of Baudrillard, both by the French theorist and by Dr. Max, does not read like a theory lesson but does genuinely engage the reader at the level of story. I enjoyed rereading it, and am left wondering about the rage I perceive in it. Thoughts?