"MARTHA COCHRANE WAS to live a long time, and in all her years she was never to come across a first memory which was not in her opinion a lie." Cochrane, the 39-year-old heroine of Julian Barnes's waggishly philosophical new novel, England, England, finds herself in a typical Barnesian dilemma. She does not trust memory, but without it, she cannot move forward. And England, her country, suffers from much the same problem.
As the book opens, "Old England had cut its own throat and was lying in the gutter...its only function as a dissuasive example to others." Sir Jack Pitman, an egomaniac entrepreneur of Richard Bransonian proportions, seizes on the marketable voluptuousness of his country's decline. Using a crackpot team of young brains (of which Martha Cochrane is the appointed cynic), Pitman dreams up an idea that is bigger than himself: "We are not talking theme park, we are not talking Disneyland, World's Fair, Festival of Britain....We shall offer far more than words such as Entertainment can possibly imply....We are offering the thing itself."
Like Las Vegas's meta-city casino, New York, New York, Pitman's project sells a palatable simulacrum of England to tourists who are tired of the real thing. England, England, as the project is dubbed, is a smash hit. Visitors can visit Big Ben and the royals in the morning, drink with Samuel Johnson following late-afternoon cricket, and then watch Robin Hood raid the sheriff of Nottingham's bailiwick by torchlight. Americans flock there, charmed by the thatched roofs and beetle-black London taxis. Ironically, the Brits, too, prefer the virtual England to the real country--ferrying to the isle for history-as-entertainment and returning with emptied pockets and a truer sense of their Englishness.
While Martha struggles to maintain the façade of this fake country, she tries nobly to have a real romance with Paul Harrison, Pitman's "Ideas Catcher." But before they get too far in their relationship, the island's atmosphere catches up with them, making the pair question if they aren't just a cheap facsimile of a couple. The carnival atmosphere of the place and of our culture, Barnes seems to say, makes judging reality impossible. While the visitors leave well entertained, the actors, and the administrators of England, England, suffer a disorienting loss of authenticity. At one point, the actor who plays Samuel Johnson comes to Martha filled with sadness, and Martha finds herself unable to tell whether the emotions are truly felt or part of the Johnson act.
As is the case with Barnes's previous books, this novel takes off when the real Oz steps out from behind the curtain. While it's constructed as a theme park, England, England needs governance: Robin Hood is acting like Robin Hood, thumbing his nose at his contract and eating illegal raw meat; Samuel Johnson passes out or ignores visitors; and finally, Sir Jack is deposed by Martha, who blackmails him with knowledge of a scandalous fetish he indulges. Yet as England, England becomes a political nightmare for the people who run it, the site becomes so wonderfully "authentic" to the visitors that it replaces the "real" country in their minds.
In England, England, Barnes catapults us forward to show what happens when a person, or a nation, is "fatigued by its own history." While his previous attempts at dealing with history--Talking it Over and Porcupine--failed to rise above their cleverness, England, England asks the serious questions any great story asks of us: Who are we? And who is that strange creature in the funhouse mirror?