book Love, etc.

reviewed by Emily Banner

Published in Issue No. 46 ~ March, 2001

I…deal in subjective truth–so much more real, and more reliable, than the other sort…

Julian Barnes is, on the evidence of his novels, a man obsessed. For while his books assume different forms and deal with a range of subjects, they are all, at heart, about the search for truth. How has the story come down to us, and in what ways does it differ from how things actually happened? What was gained or lost in the shaping of the narrative? These questions form the crux of every one of his novels. Were he a lesser writer, this obsession would surely be bad news, each book a rehashing of old material. But he is a very clever writer, perhaps even a brilliant one, and he keeps finding new facets of the issue to explore, so that a new Barnes novel promises not just the pleasure of the work itself, but the excitement of seeing how he’ll come at it this time.

Love, etc. is the sequel to 1991’s Talking It Over, and readers of the earlier work will have some idea as to what awaits them in this one. The story is told entirely by means of first-person monologues addressed directly to the reader, and every character gets to speak. The plot centers on three characters: Stuart, Gillian, and Oliver. In Talking It Over, we saw Stuart and Gillian fall in love and get married; Oliver, Stuart’s euphuistic best friend, then fell for Gillian himself and won her over, and Gillian left the one to marry the other. Love, etc. returns to this trio ten years later. Gillian and Oliver are still together and moderately happy, living on the outskirts of London with two daughters. Stuart has just returned to London after a decade in America. All three are now in their early forties and ostensibly wiser than they were before, but as Stuart insinuates himself back into Gillian and Oliver’s lives, we see that maturity does not necessarily come with age.

The form of dueling monologues gives Barnes an ideal opportunity to delve into his pet obsession. His characters discuss the same events from different perspectives, often contradicting each other, and inevitably misreading each other’s intentions. As the plot thickens, with romantic and psychological and financial intrigues piling up, the cacophony of opposing viewpoints makes it clear that there can be no objective truth. Each event means different things to the different people who experience it; each character perceives the situation in his or her own way. The characters themselves are radically different depending on who is describing them. Stuart, in one view, is oafish but harmless; in another, he’s sly and even menacing. Gillian is either passively trying to hold her family together, or masterfully manipulating everyone to get what she wants.

Oliver is the cleverest of this trio, and he knows it. He has a penchant for flowery language and a tendency to theorize, and as such he gets all the best lines. The book’s title comes from his theory that life consists of love on the one hand, and everything else on the other, and that the world can be divided into two camps: those who live for love, and those who live for the rest. (He places himself in the first category, and Stuart in the second. Stuart, meanwhile, knows his theory and thinks it’s bunk.) Oliver is also the one who, amidst all these conflicting narratives, best understands the way a story is shaped by the telling. “Do we not, each of us, write the novel of our life as we go along?” he asks. “But how few, alas, are publishable…. What is needed is a sense of form, control, discrimination, selection, omission, arrangement, emphasis…that dirty, three-letter word, art.”

Barnes takes his plot right up to the brink of a crisis and then leaves it there. One could argue that he does this because, since we know that each character will interpret the denouement differently, there cannot be said to be a single denouement, so the reader might as well make it up for him or herself. The lack of an ending is frustrating, however, and a more skeptical view would be that Barnes either wanted to stop before he dug himself in any deeper (if he’d written another ten pages, he probably would have had to write another fifty) or was setting himself up for another sequel. Which might not be that bad; Love, etc. is a richer and more dynamic book than its predecessor, the writing sharper and the monologue form used with more flair. If a further installment continues this trend, it would be welcome indeed.

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Emily Banner is a co-founder of Inkberry, a nonprofit literary center in the Berkshires. She lives in western Massachusetts.