A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters Summary
by Julian Barnes

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A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters Summary

The novel is a collection of short stories with familiar and fictional characters. The first story, "The Stowaway," has a biblical character, Noah, and a fictional one, Woodworm, involved in a series of events related to a biblical story. The author tweaks the story of Noah's ark. In his narrative, God saves Noah because he is the most well-behaved of the bad batch. At this point, the reader realizes that this novel doesn't describe the history of the world from a familiar perspective, but rather, it describes it from the author's viewpoint. The remaining nine chapters are stories with different plots—from terrorist encounters to romantic tales to tragedies.

Anyone interested in this book should have an open mind and be ready for anything before reading it. The way the writer mixes different genres and still manages to come up with something interesting is absolute genius.

A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 34)

A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters, Julian Barnes’s fifth novel (chosen by The New York Times Book Review as one of the Best Books of 1989 and shortlisted for Great Britain’s Booker Prize), is a work much easier to describe than to summarize, which is to say that it resists being reduced to less than what it is: a deeply—and by turns also playfully—meditative text. It is multitoned, multistyled, multivoiced, and indeed, multigenred. Neither conventional novel (it is too diverse) nor unified novellike story collection on the order of James Joyce’s Dubliners (1914) or William Faulkner’s Go Down, Moses (1942), it exemplifies what Gary Saul Morson has termed “threshold literature”—work intended by its author to exist on the boundary between genres, sending its reader ambiguous, even conflicting, signals as to how it is to be read and by what generic rules it is to be classified. Like Flaubert’s Parrot (1984), Barnes’s highly acclaimed third novel, this work transgresses boundaries frequently and variously, calling attention to its own radical heterogeneity and its author’s ruminative genius. In subverting genres, Barnes’s novel necessarily subverts the reader’s expectations and, consequently, his or her efforts to know the text, to classify it in order to control it. The defeat of the reader is very much to the point in so far as the novel may be said to be about defeats, failures, and losses, and more especially about those subversive triumphs (including the author’s) that may be achieved against the odds and within the limitations imposed both by literature and by life.

The novel begins, subversively enough, with a decidedly unorthodox account of Noah and the ark narrated (as the reader only gradually discovers) by Anobium domesticum, more familiarly known as the woodworm. The woodworm’s Noah, unlike the Bible’s, is an inflexible and generally incompetent tyrant, blindly obedient to the oppressive God who has saved him for no better reason than Noah’s having been the best of a very bad lot. Along the narrative way, the woodworm narrator revises (down) not only God, Noah, the Bible, and the overly credulous reader made in Noah’s chosen image, but science as well. Charles Darwin, it seems, was wrong. There was no natural selection; there were only Noah’s whims, prejudices, and appetite for animal flesh: his makeshift, arbitrary selection of which species were to be saved, which abandoned, and which eaten. Against Noah’s selfish unconcern and against too the reader’s no less dangerous naivete’ and selective (generally self- serving) memory, the transhistorical woodworm offers itself as trustworthy guide, free of both constraining obligations and mankind’s flattering delusions of grandeur. “We had stowed away, survived and escaped—all without entering into any fishy covenants with God or Noah. We had done it by ourselves.”

For the expectant reader, “The Stowaway” prepares the way for a revisionist and entirely bogus, cheerfully indeterminate narrative not unlike Mel Brooks’s similarly titled film, History of...

(The entire section is 2,371 words.)