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More on Barnes: Where Do You Go When You Read

Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking? a poem about how a poem is written. And I see much in Barnes?s work that is about how narrative works, largely because one of the eponymous characters is one of the most famous writers of his time period. Interestingly, though, it is George who wonders most explicitly about how the narrative game works, as Arthur seems to oblivious, perhaps willfully, to the way he manipulates the story.

Arthur leaps into his defense of George with all of his overwhelming energy and enthusiasm. The way Barnes describes him, he comes across as very likeable but somewhat tiring figure; despite his Scottish ancestry (or because of it?) Arthur is, to this American reader at least, the quintessential Victorian Englishman. He is bluff and hearty, sure of himself, honorable to a fault, athletic and vigorous. When he meets with the condescending and racist Chief Constable Anson, Arthur is secure in his role as Holmes, and he is taken aback when Anson dismisses his concerns with a reference to ?the real world.? This is what Arthur thinks:

At this point Doyle more or less stopped listening. In any case his mind had snagged on the phrase ?the real world.? How easily everyone understood what was real and what was not. The world in which a benighted young solicitor was sentenced to penal servitude in Portland?the world in which Holmes unraveled another mystery beyond the powers of Lestrade and his colleagues?or the world beyond, the world behind the closed door, through which Touie had effortlessly slipped. Some people believed in only one of these worlds, some in two, a few in all three. Why did people imagine that progress consisted of believing in less, rather than in believing in more, in opening yourself to more of the universe?

Here Barnes does a neat trick: he takes the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle?s peculiar fascination with the spirit world and compares it to the world that we, as readers, are immersed in. This works particularly well since Doyle?s chief creation did, in fact, take on a life of his own that went far beyond the abilities of his creator to counter. Doyle killed off Sherlock Holmes, notoriously, and then was forced by the unbearable pressure of thousands and thousands of readers to bring him back. Today tourists still flock to 221B

Baker Streetdespite the fact that such an address never ?really? existed. In the latter half of his life, Doyle spent considerable time and effort trying to prove the existence of the afterlife, a fact that embarrasses many of his fans, who see his spiritualism (or ?spiritism? as he like to call it) a direct affront to the rigid logic and ratiocination of his famous detective. But is this any more irrational than believing in Sherlock Holmes?

Later, after Arthur has died, George contemplates his friend and champion?s autobiography. He is disturbed by a passage reading, ?For some time after these days of darkness I was unable to settle to work until the Edalji case came suddenly to turn my energies into an entirely unexpected channel.? George had actually written to Arthur himself and presented his case before the novelist; the autobiography makes it sound like something fortuitous for Arthur. In the narratives of our lives, we are, of course, the heroes. To George, Arthur?s attention in the case is about George?s plight; to Arthur, it is a way to forget the pain of his wife?s death.

Finally, at the end, George attends a memorial séance for Arthur. Albert Hall is packed with enthusiasts of spiritualism eager to see Doyle?s favorite medium try to channel his voice back to the ?real world.? George is a skeptic in this, and he feels the discomfort of the unbeliever in a church. The devout are so obviously enthralled by the events they are witnessing, and George can only think that there is some powerful snake oil selling going on. When the medium begins her routine, George sees it as an act, at least until he gets hit hard with a moment of panic. The medium speaks of an old man who wants to speak from the other side. The description of the man, his death date, and many other details seem to point to him being George?s father. As he wonders what message his father might have for him from the afterlife, he nearly swoons. He is finally saved at the last minute when it becomes clear to him that the medium is apparently channeling another old man not George?s father. He is relieved, but wonders, ?what if there was in the proceedings that mixture of truth and lies he earlier identified? What if some parts of what has happened are charlatanry, but others genuine? What if the theatrical Mrs. Roberts, despite herself, was truly bringing news from distant lands??

In the last lines of the novel, George looks through his binoculars at the stage, where an empty chair has been positioned to represent the absent (in body, at any rate) great man: ?What does he see? What did he see? What will he see?? And so it ends.

I think the answer to these questions lies in Arthur?s earlier contemplation of the ?real world? along with George?s gradual understanding of the role of the medium. The author knowingly creates a fiction?writing a novel is a big game of make-believe. But within that realm of fantasy lies (or should or could lie) something that is real. In the most restrictive sense of the word, Sherlock Holmes is not and was not ?real,? but try telling that to a Baker Street Irregular. Does it matter? Essentially, that is what Barnes is, I think, asking with those three unanswered questions that end his novel. Does it matter where the real world ends and the fictional begins? Do we even know where these boundaries are? What do we do when the borders are blurry and indistinct, or when there is some truth in fiction or some fiction in truth?

I remember reading books as a child that made me long so forcefully for the world within the books that I physically ached. I wanted Toad Hall to be a real, physical place. I yearned unbearably for a world where my dog could talk to me in complete English sentences. While I was in my imagination, those places were just as real as the world outside my bedroom. Barnes recognizes this space.

When you read, where do you go?

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