Barnes’s ability to maintain this (on the surface rather unsatisfactory) inconclusiveness is dependent in large degree on the nature of his characters. Jean and Gregory, it could be said, are typically English. Neither complains. Neither seems to expect very much from life. Jean’s views on sex—since nobody has ever talked to her about it—are founded on a book of advice for young couples printed sometime before World War II, consisting of a mixture of raw biology, heavy sentiment, and pseudoscientific inhibition. Its advice for Jean is summed up in the phrase “be always escaping,” which she remembers for decades without feeling any compulsion to act on it or even understand it. Gregory is, if anything, even more passive than his mother. It is by no means incredible that such slow and peaceful natures should spend sixty to ninety years mulling over the meaning of minor “Incidents.”
This central pair is ringed, however, by more fiery characters. Rachel dominates her short stretch of the book with her thesis that all men are always wrong, and always wicked. Jean’s husband, Michael, she insists, is despicable for leaving Jean all of his money; he did it only to dominate her from beyond the grave. Yet he would have been despicable if he had not left her anything; that would have been an attempt to punish her. Actually, Jean says, Michael never made a will and died intestate, so that she got the money automatically. He was trying to have it...
(The entire section is 475 words.)