In 1963, at age thirteen, Christopher Lloyd and his sidekick Toni are sophisticated men of the world, at least as far as that is possible in the bland neighborhood of Metroland (railway jargon for their section of London). They model themselves on Charles Baudelaire, Theophile Gautier, and Gerard de Nerval, French decadents whose fondest ambition was to shock the complacency of a bourgeois world. Since they are too shy to find fulfillment in the arms of beautiful women, they must be content with spying on girls through binoculars.
Five years later, Christopher is in Paris doing graduate work in comparative literature. In a sidewalk cafe he meets an intellectual French coed with an interest in Lawrence Durrell, Robert Bresson, and foreigners. Christopher loses his virginity and falls deeply in love, but by the end of the term he is married to a Briton.
By 1977, Christopher owns a house back in his old neighborhood of Metroland, which has become a fashionable address. Formerly an advertising copywriter, he currently edits expensive coffeetable books. His friend, Toni--an aging radical -- stops by now and then to drink Chris’s liquor and argue about capitalist oppression.
These self-proclaimed hipsters never seem to know what is really happening. Conspicuously absent in Part 1, at least to an American reader, is an awareness of the British rock scene. Although this was the heyday of the Beatles, the Stones, and the Who, Christopher and Toni never listen to the radio. In Part 2, similarly, Christopher is completely oblivious to “les evenements,” the abortive student revolution that shook Paris to its very foundations in 1968. Consequently, it is difficult to ignore a hint of self-rationalization in Christopher’s paean to domestic tranquility at the end of Part 3. In fact, he has become just the sort of bourgeois pig of whom he made fun when he was thirteen.
Everyone who read FLAUBERT’S PARROT in 1985 immediately wanted more from this unknown author. Apparently in response to this demand, his publishers have reissued METROLAND, Barnes’s first book. Although it is a competently written coming-of-age novel, METROLAND has none of the breathtaking virtuosity of the later book. In fact, it is difficult to believe that they were written by the same person.