<%-- Page Title--%> Book Review <%-- End Page Title--%>
<%-- Volume Number --%> Vol 1 Num 134 <%-- End Volume Number --%>
December 19, 2003
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When, a decade ago, Julian Barnes wrote Talking It Over, in which a love triangle of self-absorbed characters opened their hearts directly to the reader and told their versions of the fidelities and infidelities that bound them, it seemed like a novel kind of novel. It was also, with hindsight, a prophetic one. In the 10 years since, the Talking It Over-style confessional has become something like our official national rhetoric.
In that time, often by default, we have become used to measuring our own experiences against the savvy solipsisms of wronged, ditched, angry and media-literate thirtysomethings. No north London marriage break-up these days, it seems, comes without a newspaper column, the promise of a hefty publisher's advance and the sniff of a film deal.
Daytime television is entirely based on the notion that an intimate problem shared (with a couple of million people) is, well, an intimate problem shared. Magazines have grown up to peddle true-life stories of the not-so-rich and barely famous, and our popular culture has been in thrall to imports - Sex and the City, Ally McBeal - that offer first-person girls-talk about designer relationships.
The Nineties' push towards recycling was nowhere as successful as with the emotional lives of the confessional classes, which are now routinely sifted and lucratively repackaged for general consumption.
Barnes plays these fashionable conventions for all they are worth. His book is by turns a precise, hilarious parody of the mores of self-serving confession, and a very stringent and stylish inquiry into the nature of truth and the compensations offered by love. His characters have moved on, changed, got a little older and a little more bitter (but then so, perhaps, have his readers: 'You probably think you're much the same as you were back then,' announces Oliver, cruelly, on page one. 'Believe me, you aren't.')
All three protagonists are still defence counsels for their own versions of the events that forced them together and apart, slick-talking, misty-eyed lifestyle attorneys appealing to our emotions and plea-bargaining for sympathy and special dispensations: 'Isn't there a statute of limitations for wife-stealing?' Oliver demands at one point, asking Stuart, Gillian - but more important we the jury - to deal with him a little more leniently.
Barnes is the sharpest and most humane observer of the particular frailties of the average middle-class Englishman at the beginning of the twenty-first century. He is also the consummate deconstructor of the lies we all tell ourselves about romance. He attends sharp-eyed to the syntactical shifts wrought by habit: Gillian frets, for example, that familiarity has caused her to drop the 'I' from 'I love you' when she says it to Oliver each day: is the love it describes also losing its subject? Barnes has us quietly wonder throughout in this way - and the 10-year time-lag heightens this sense of temporal decline - whether love is really not time's fool.
In some ways, this is the lightest of novels, a little social comedy that you can read in a long afternoon. But within it, and partly because of the format which leaves the reader without authorial compass and unsure where truths lie, there is a much darker book. There was always something claustrophobic about the range of options open to Gillian and Stuart and Oliver, but now their choices seem to have closed in on them still further.
Stuart, who has become wealthy in America, and remarried and redivorced, is protected from the world by his lack of imagination (he says things like: 'I'm suspicious of people comparing things with other things'); Oliver, meanwhile, has always attempted to protect himself from the world with his wild and whirling words and his faith in: 'Love, etc. That has always been my formula, my theory, my wisdom. I knew it at once, as an infant knows its mother's smile.'
He is the romantic child starved of affection - his mother died when he was a boy, his father took it out on him and his 'wife disgraced him by crying at his funeral'. His version of the world is a seductive one and it can take us almost anywhere with all the vitality of Barnes's most beguiling intelligence.
But despite the intellectual bravado of this voice, there is no triumph here for 'Oliver-speak'; Oliver earns his living pushing junk mail through letterboxes while writing screenplays in his head that will never get written. Gillian, touchingly, marks up the newspaper for him every morning to try to interest him in the world beyond his head: 'But news delights me not, nor features neither.'
All he resolves eventually is that: 'Stuart bores me. Gillian bores me. I bore me.' His sad, comical, little life hinges on the impossibility of one person ever knowing another person's reality. That, it also seems, is the message of Barnes's sparkling little novel, which ends with the question it dramatises, the question we are all stuck with: 'What do you think?'
Source: The Guardian, UK