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Things That Go Bumps

Julian Barnes' new novel on faith and death


In his new memoir, Nothing to Be Frightened Of, acclaimed English novelist Julian Barnes twists the meaning of the well-known term into something truly disturbing. With a calculated logic, he deftly demonstrates that nothing is definitely something to be frightened of. Barnes thinks of death daily and can't shake the dread of no longer being around. Viewing God as an imaginary friend who offers no hope of an afterlife, the writer studies time-honored texts searching for an escape clause to mortality.

Great minds from the past are explored with an impressive dedication. Barnes repeatedly refers to "The Summing Up" by W. Somerset Maugham, a notoriously bleak look at the human condition. He devours Gustave Flaubert, Stendhal, Michel de Montaigne, Anton Chekhov and countless others seeking famous last words and strategies for slipping into the warm bath of eternity. At times, he feels he can almost glimpse the presence of a higher power in musical pieces like Mozart's Requiem or the paintings of Donatello, but Art always falls short of offering proof positive that God exists. Now in his early 60s, Barnes feels an acceleration of his fear of annihilation. His growing panic is almost comic and points to the folly of our human obsession with clinging to life at all costs.

Barnes' futile attempt to use logic to understand nothing takes us to the ultimate limits of the human mind. It's charming to observe such a great writer wandering through the archives of his overly tutored brain, questing after ways to comprehend what might exist beyond his own limited point of view.

At times, Barnes comes close to cosmic truths: "Psychoanalysts tell us that those who are most attached to their own personalities have the most difficulty dying." If the author took this profound statement to heart, he might diminish his suffering. But like a vampire surprised by the dawn, he quickly pulls his cape up to protect himself from encroaching enlightenment. Barnes seems incapable of grasping that his fear of death is being fueled by an ego determined to prevail by its own rules. Barnes is so caught up in preserving his carefully constructed sense of "I" that he never explores the true meaning of nothing. Why should we be afraid of it? Samuel Beckett once stated: "Nothing is more real than nothing." The very fact that something exists at this moment means that nothingness can't last forever. Scientists have shown that even in a vacuum, sooner or later, something begins to emerge.

Barnes tends to look at everything in the short term. He never lifts his vision beyond the headlights of his own personality to see the true meaning of eternity. Barnes needs to clean his goggles and become less attached to himself so he can enjoy his Golden Years in peace. Video gamers call it "self-forfeiture." You get so into the game, you cease to exist.

Woody Allen had it right: "It's not that I'm afraid to die, I just don't want to be there when it happens."