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The Importance
of Being Contradicted
Julian Barnes's Love, etc.

by Doug Childers

In his new Love, etc., Julian Barnes returns to his 1991 Talking It Over and offers a witty comedy with a dark twist.

Jean-Paul Sartre famously suggested in his play No Exit that hell is best conceived as the place where the presence of a third person keeps you from telling the sort of self-effacing lies that make life...well, less hellish. Julian Barnes suggests pretty much the same thing in his new novel, Love, etc., but for most of its length it's a hell of a lot funnier than Sartre. It's a sequel to Barnes's 1991 novel, Talking It Over, where he introduced three memorable characters and let them tell their sides of the story directly to the audience (with help from a few minor characters). He replicates the pattern here in Love, etc. to amusing if decidedly darker effect. The novel's big joke, of course, lies in the contradictions manifest in the rival speeches and in the characters' partial ability to respond to each other. The effect is something like watching volleys go back and forth across a tennis net in an uneven doubles match.

Love, etc.
Julian Barnes
Alfred A. Knopf
227 pp.
$23 order now logo

Perhaps, though, we should first refresh readers' memories of Barnes's three central characters. Oliver--certainly the most colorful, memorable character in Talking It Over--is a mellifluous-voiced, pompous raconteur in the Wilde tradition; true to Wilde, he exhibits a gloriously, willfully unreliable memory and is prone to giving speeches about the value of subjective truth. Stuart, his former best friend, is a prematurely middle-aged, pragmatic man who knows his limitations and yet can't seem to keep from trying to overcome them (like telling good jokes or coming up with a quick pun). "My key words," he tells us, "are transparency, efficiency, virtue, convenience and flexibility." While Oliver extols the virtues of creative lying, Stuart prefers to read nonfiction because "I like to know that what I'm being told is true." According to Oliver, Stuart wore "a little three-piece suit and pinstripe nappies" in his pram. Stuart in turn tells us that Oliver's "egomaniacal" tendency to refer to himself in the third person is peculiar: "You couldn't exactly call him famous, could you? Yet he refers to himself as 'Oliver,' as if he was an Olympic gold medallist. Or a schizophrenic, I suppose."

Rounding out the novel's uneven doubles match is Gillian. She began Talking It Over as Stuart's wife, and it ended with her trying to convince him that her having left him to marry Oliver had rendered her appropriately miserable. She is certainly the least combative of the three, if only because she's the object of their contention (is she, in fact, the volleyed tennis ball itself?). She occupies a mid-ground between Oliver's artsy idealism and Stuart's pragmatism--as an art restorer, she lives in a somewhat rarified world of art, yet she manages to make a little money off of it too. She is also the one to whom the reader turns for relatively objective analysis and for help sorting out the contradictory versions of reality offered up by Oliver and Stuart. "What you have to understand," she wisely tells us in the opening pages of Love, etc., "is that Stuart wants you to like him, needs you to like him, whereas Oliver has a certain difficulty imagining that you won't."

As Love, etc. begins, ten years have passed since Gillian staged her scene of marital misery for Stuart's benefit, and their circumstances have changed considerably. Stuart is returning to London after a successful stint as an organic grocery store chain owner in America. Oliver is involved in various film projects that never seem to come to fruition (among them, a prequel to The Seventh Seal), and Gillian is running a busy, two-person art restoration studio. While Stuart is financially comfortable, Oliver and Gillian now live in a London neighborhood where, as Stuart tells us on his first visit for dinner, gentrification hasn't worked. After that first reunion, Oliver is unwilling to admit (for the obvious selfish reasons) that Stuart has changed, but Gillian recognizes it right off:


Stuart's grown up a lot. He's thinner than he was, and grey hair seems to suit him, but mainly he's just more at ease, more relaxed. Which was surprising under the circumstances. Or perhaps not. After all, he's gone out there, into the world, made his own life, made some money, and here we are, still the same as before except for the children, and being a bit worse off. He could have afforded to be patronising, but he wasn't at all. I got the impression he was slightly impatient with Oliver; no, that's not quite right, it was more as if he was watching Oliver like a cabaret act, waiting for the show to be over before serious business started. I ought to have resented it on Oliver's behalf, but somehow I didn't.


True to character, Stuart hasn't stepped back into Oliver and Gillian's lives impulsively. He has a plan, as it turns out--but the problem for us readers is figuring out what, exactly, his plan is. Or which version we're supposed to believe.

Barnes, like Oliver, is preoccupied with the inherent subjectivity of his characters' stated truths (the epigraph for Talking It Over is "He lies like an eye-witness!"). And while he may not agree with Oliver's notion that subjective truth is "so much more real, and more reliable, than the other sort," he doesn't seem willing to clarify, as an author might, which of the subjective truths on display comes closer to matching up to the objective world. Many of the contradictory Rashomon-style testimonial 'truths' are harmlessly humorous. At that first dinner together, for instance, Gillian tells us she overcooked the lasagna ("I was cross with myself about that"), and Oliver agrees ("Gillian was so tense that she cremated the pasta"). Stuart, on the other hand, declares it "delicious."

Far darker disagreements appear in the final pages of the book, though, and we're finally forced to question even the most settled traits of Barnes's characters. This, we rather belatedly realize, is not at all the straightforwardly amusing comedy Talking It Over offered. Alert readers will have noted, though, that Barnes tells us up front, on page thirteen, that Love, etc. isn't really going to be simply an enjoyable, witty divertissement. "Mostly," Stuart tells us,


you get what you pay for. Mostly, people do what they say they will. Mostly, a deal's a deal. Mostly, you can trust people. I don't mean you leave your wallet open on the table. I don't mean you hand out blank cheques and turn your back at the wrong moment. But you know where you are. Mostly.

No, real betrayal occurs among friends, among those you love. Friendship and love are meant to make people behave better, aren't they? But that's not been my experience. Trust leads to betrayal.


Memory, it seems, may be subjective and even downright faulty, but when it comes to betrayals and rejections, it can be long-lived. Love, etc.'s darker developments may disturb readers who enjoyed the light, witty comedy of Talking It Over, but it's undeniably a work whose deeper themes merit our attention, and Barnes's cunning (if not exactly playful) presentation of them is, as always, refreshingly adept. Click here to find any book!


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