Sebastian Faulks’ A Possible Life consists of five separate stories. The publisher calls it a novel. So does Faulks on the grounds that “it’s a novel basically because I say so.” He compares it with a piece of music. When you hear a symphony, you don’t think of it as four separate movements, each of which differs from the others. Rather you think of it as a single piece of music.
Faulks begins with the story of Geoffrey, a modest student and excellent athletic. He becomes a teacher, then a British agent in Occupied France. He is captured and sent to a concentration camp. He survives, “But some subtle rearrangement of particles had taken place within him.”
Billy is the subject of the next tale, an orphan sent to a Victorian workhouse where he also struggles to survive. In time, he makes a good life for himself, but his wife dies at an early age. “Once he thought he could win, but life had beaten him, like it beats everyone.”
Jeanne is an illiterate French peasant in 1822 France, who cares for two young children and the farm in which they live. She doesn’t know the point of trying to understand anything and makes no judgment on what she has seen in her life. “Death made her an orphan; life had made her poor; and she had made herself go through each day with no regard or trust for others.”
Anya King is a singer/songwriter in the 20th century. Her life is told in the reminiscences of Freddy, a musician who became her manager and one-time lover. She tells him “It’s life honey. It’s a bummer from start to finish. A total fuckup. Then you die.”
Freddy concludes his narrative, “I was almost sixty years old, but I didn’t understand anything. It all in the end seemed to have been a matter of the purest chance.”
Elena is the subject of the longest story in A Possible Life, set in near future (2029) in Italy. As a child she was a loner, a shy outsider who found other children “irritating.” As an adult she becomes a distinguished neuroscientist and, together with her colleague, discovers an important synaptic process that has significant implications for the nature of the self and consciousness.
She also develops a close bond with Bruno, another orphan, who was able to invent stories and people that “made her ache from laughing.” She felt her thoughts were never validated until she told them to him. But their relationship was difficult as they were separated by distance and in the end Bruno turns away from their mutual love for one another.
“Knowing one was comprised of recycled matter only and that selfhood was a delusion did not take away the aching of the heart.” Elena concludes that after a lifetime of her scientific research she understood nothing at all.
What can a reader conclude from these five tales? Is there something binding them together that justifies calling A Possible Life a novel? That when it’s all over, we know little or nothing? That life is all a matter of chance? That why bother to understand anything when nothing remains of our life?
Faulks is often asked what is the unifying theme of the stories? He doesn’t know what to say, as if to imply if he had one, it wouldn’t be necessary to write the book. Yet he answers,
“But I suppose it’s to do with individuality and to what extent our idea of ourselves as being a unique “self” is really valuable, or whether it’s actually, as neuroscience believes a complete delusion—what they call a “necessary fiction.”