[First published 1980]
As a huge fan of Julian Barnes, reading his debut novel was always going to be steeped in expectation and even a hint of bias. This doesn’t mean that ‘Metroland’ was disappointing in any respect.
‘Metroland’ follows two friends in the throes of adolescence. They treat this time as a mere preparation for adulthood, as if they are enlightened in the ways of the world and the purpose of their youth. They live lives of angst, cynicism, and elitism as teenagers; looking forward to evolving into their adult selves for the freedom and sexual liberty. It is a petulant effort to break from authority in all of its forms. The irony is that they start displaying the bourgeois contemplation they scurry to avoid.
As Christopher gets older, and these theories of how things would be are dispelled by real life, the ideologies linger on in the background, as if having some kind of applicability. When he moves on to Paris, it is still in the adolescent desire to find the synthesis between art and life, yet he slips into the persona he so desperately sought to avoid in his youth. Toni, on the other hand, is hell bent on sticking to his rebellion. Christopher’s time in Paris, however, sees him given the distance from Toni to be truly autonomous and develop as he pleases. There is a distinct rejection of Englishness, with a tone reminiscent of his teenage musings – a feeling of belonging in the anonymity; a role of camaraderie fulfilled by Toni during his school years. He is desperate not to be average, and this is a time of discovery.
Christopher joins the masses in experiencing the rite of passage to adulthood as a difficult one. He flounders, yet carries on, laying pain down to experience. Barnes uses unusual emphasis in terms of plot, glossing over those experiences that are considered major life events, and concentrating on those most would rather forget. This is in keeping with the story and works well in terms of style.
‘Metroland’ is a book that looks at expectation versus retrospect. The boys’ adhesion to their boyhood ideologies means that the reader is forced to ask whether he or she is disappointed when Christopher grows into a conventional working, married man, with a mortgage and plans for his family. He doesn’t stick out as extraordinary by his adolescent standards – something Toni has no problem pointing out to him as he lives his reality. Toni, on the other hand, similarly doesn’t strike the reader as an immense success. Do Christopher’s justifications for how he lives his life and loves his wife convince us that there is beauty and art beyond the banal? Is there something wrong with him finding contentedness and security in having all of the things his teenage self would have rejected?
I found myself intrigued by Barnes’s insights into human relationships, projections, and the nature of marriage as the book continued – that, no matter how, in terms of expectation, Christopher may be a “sell out,” his life still yields surprises and the remnants of a youth, which combine to hold an all-pervading power.