As every schoolboy knows, you can fit the whole of England on the Isle of Wight. The grotesque, visionary tycoon, Sir Jack Pitman, takes the saying literally and constructs on the island, "The Project", a vast heritage centre.
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Imagine being able to visit England--all of England--in a single weekend. Big Ben, the Houses of Parliament, Stonehenge and Hadrian's Wall, Harrods, Manchester United Football Club, the Tower of London, and even the Royal Family all within easy distance of the each other, accessible, and, best of all, each one living up to an idealized version of itself. This fantasy Britain is the very real (and some would say very cynical) vision of Sir Jack Pitman, a monumentally egomaniacal mogul with a more than passing resemblance to modern-day buccaneers Sir Rupert Murdoch or Robert Maxwell: "'We are not talking theme park,' he began. 'We are not talking heritage centre. We are not talking Disneyland, World's Fair, Festival of Britain, Legoland or Parc Asterix.'" No indeed; Sir Jack proposes nothing less than to offer "the thing itself," a re-creation of everything that adds up to England in the hearts and minds of tourists looking for an "authentic" experience. But where to locate such an enterprise? As Sir Jack points out,
England, as the mighty William and many others have observed, is an island. Therefore, if we are serious, if we are seeking to offer the thing itself, we in turn must go in search of a precious whatsit set in a silver doodah.Soon the perfect whatsit is found: the Isle of Wight; and a small army of Sir Jack's forces are sent to lay siege to it. Swept up in the mayhem are Martha Cochrane, a thirtysomething consultant teetering on the verge of embittered middle age, and Paul Harrison, a younger man looking for an anchor in the world. The two first find each other, then trip over a skeleton in Sir Jack's closet that might prove useful to their careers but disastrous to their relationship. In the course of constructing this mad package-tour dystopia, Julian Barnes has a terrific time skewering postmodernism, the British, the press, the government, celebrity, and big business. At the same time his very funny novel offers a provocative meditation on the nature of identity, both individual and national, as the lines between the replica and the thing itself begin to blur. Readers of Barnes have learned to expect the unexpected, and once again he more than lives up to the promise in England, England. But then, that was only to be expected. --Alix Wilber From the Inside Flap:
r acclaimed by everyone from Graham Greene to John Fowles to John Irving, a new novel, short-listed for the Booker Prize, which The Sunday Times of London calls "both funny and serious, a double-act that English novels rarely manage . . . A commanding imaginative achievement."
Picture an England where all the pubs are quaint, the Royals behave themselves (more or less), and the cliffs of Dover actually are white. Now imagine that the principal national treasures--from Stonehenge to Buckingham Palace--are grouped together on the Isle of Wight.
This is precisely the vision that Sir Jack Pitman seeks to realize: a "destination" where tourists can find replicas of Big Ben, Wembley Stadium, the National Gallery, Princess Di's grave, and even Harrods (conveniently located inside the Tower of London), and visit them all in the course of a weekend. As this land of make-believe takes on its own comic and horrible reality, Barnes delights us with a nove
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