Thursday, August 17, 2006

Love, etc, etc.

Love, etc
Julian Barnes
London: Jonathan Cape, 2000. (250 p.)
ISBN: 0-224-06109-7 (hardback)

Stuart: I've come to some conclusions in my time ... My conclusions may not be blindingly original, but they're still mine. For instance, I'm suspicious of people comparing things with other things. (159)

Love, etc is, in the pure sense of the word, a sequel. It continues the events first developed in Talking It Over, picking up the activity after ten years of silence. The structure of the novel is continued, as well, but take Stuart's statement above to heart, because further comparisons may prove tenuous at best.

Everyone and everything in Love, etc shows the age of the past ten years. Stuart's hair is grey when he returns to London after a successful stint as an American businessman. He is older and, at times, he seems wiser, but he is also still bitter about his past and his lost love, Gillian. Oliver is still struggling with his stormy career and is having a nice attempt at being a failed screenwriter. He retains his command of language, but his use of "crepuscular" and "steatopygous" within the first twelve pages serves only to echo his younger self -- and echoes are never quite as strong as the original voice they answer. One senses his wit and jovality will only carry him so far at his age. Gillian's emotions are confused by Stuart's triumphant return and offers of financial assistance. She is also worn, as all the characters are, by the ten years that followed the brutal scene which ended Talking It Over.

Barnes carefully maintains the tone of the novel, which will undoubtably be called "dark". The truth is that it is simply realistic. Reality is often cruel and sad and unexpected, and Barnes understands this well. Talking It Over was centered on the conflict between two best friends fighting for the love of one woman. While the final scene of the novel was surprising, the ending was not. Oliver won. We saw it coming. The joy of the novel was in the language and the pure pleasure and intimacy the characters brought to us. With Love, etc, reality takes hold -- of everyone. The struggle seems to be the same, but in reverse, as Stuart returns to reclaim Gillian as his own. But life has worked on these characters and on us as readers. Stuart points to this issue on page 1, "Oh, and by the way, you've changed too. You probably think you're pretty much the same as you were back then. Believe me, you aren't." Are we too wise to believe Barnes would simply reverse the tables of fortune and cover the old territory again?

One interesting feature of both Talking It Over and Love, etc is the role the reader plays in the story. The US edition of Talking It Over is built on the narrative structure of the characters talking to the reader. The reader is generic, colorless, and nationless and seems to act as one of the characters. The reader was an essential part of the characters' discussions. Each begged for direct attention and love. In Love, etc, the characters still play to the reader, still beg for understanding, but, at least in this UK edition, the reader is blatantly British. Terri, Stuart's American, second ex-wife, seems the first to address this fact when she says:

"We have our picture of Brits, especially in a city like Baltimore, which is a very American city in case you never heard. Wallis Simpson came from Baltimore, the one who married your King. We don't get too many of you coming through, so we buy into the stereotype, which is that Brits are snobby and stick together and don't pick up the tab for drinks if they can possibly avoid it" (34).

If the reader is not British, this simple statement seems to change their role in a subtle way. Instead of being an active character in the novel, playing the willing ear, the reliable shoulder, the non-British reader is made passive, aware that there is someone else, someone British involved. I mention this curiosity only because no British reviewer of the novel has addressed the issue. The novel's force is not lessened, of course, nor is its ability to move, but it poses an interesting theoretical question about the presence of the reader.

Of greater interest, is the novel's ending. No less dramatic than that of Talking It Over, the events which unfold are just as surprisingly obvious and unexpected, just as darkly sad and true. Love, etc forces us to approach the mirror of human frailty and look deeply into our own eyes. It is funny and sad, playful and deliberate. And when it is finished, we are left wondering what will happen next. Only Barnes knows for sure, but he isn't hinting. He offers only the statement, "Something will happen. Or nothing" (250).

-- Ryan Roberts, August 2000


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