A review of Julian Barnes’ Love, Etc

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

Love, etc.
by Julian Barnes
Paperback, 240 pages, June 11, 2002
ISBN-13: 978-0375725883

Julian Barnes is probably the tightest writer in the English language. Despite the often spectacular verbal flourishes of his characters, his writing is always clean, spare and devoid of any excess. The impact is as powerful and instantaneous as poetry, without any overt symbolism. His latest book, Love, etcis no exception. There are paragraphs, mainly those of the character Oliver, which are amazing, worthy of stopping the narrative to read out loud, such as Oliver’s musing on the layout of the day: “while the approach of fealty dusk, with obliterating night on its coat-tails, is a forgivable time to suffer a heightened awareness of human frangibility and inevitable fucking demise, and while early afternoon in a similarly logical location, as the echo of the midday gun wails like tinnitus in your ear, the notion of cornflake tristesse, of yoghurt despair, is prima facie contradictory” (44) The story follows on from Barnes’ earlier work Talking it Overa self described novel of the personal life, which charts the relationship between three characters Stuart, Gillian and Oliver, and their love triangle. Ten years later, the series of confessional monologues or confidences continues, made more interesting by the obvious time lag between when we, the readers would have read Talking it Over and now, something the characters play on. The book is an easy read, and appears to be a simple, light story of love and betrayal, but on closer reading and reflection, it is much more sinister, where the truth shifts, meaning distorts and ultimately the reader’s own sense of meaning is challenged in a very Pinteresque, post-modern way. The main characters are unreliable, with Stuart and Oliver showing their insecurities and failings and Gillian changing her story quite dramatically at times. Are the characters grappling with love, or is it hatred; desire for closeness, warmth and meaning, or just power? The supporting characters, wise old Mme Wyatt, Terri, Ellie and Sophie are all charicatures, although their viewpoints serve as another form of post-modern test on the truth. At times the work is very funny, such as Oliver’s literary genre survey of the Tortoise and the Hare (156) – also the superficial theme of the story, or Gillian’s musings on marital sex. However, underneath the love, marriage and desire, is an emptiness, a 20th century meaninglessness where the search for love and life’s meaning is replaced by boredom and a self-centred desire for domination and a kind of strange success. As Oliver says: “We know the dream: the loamy soil, the cloud-dismaying sun, pole position on the branch – We are like the medlar, which passes from indigestible hardness to umber collapse in the space of an hour” (210). But who knows. The ending is very open. Oliver doesn’t commit suicide. Gillian doesn’t go back to Stuart. There are children. Everything turned around from Talking it Over and there is still a story to tell. Perhaps, as Mme Wyatt muses, something will happen. “Or nothing.” (250). Death is the only certainty, both for the characters and the reader. But in the space between, perhaps there is room in there somewhere for a brief moment of joy.