Talking It Over

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Julian Barnes’s sixth novel explores the permutations in the relationships of its three main characters, Londoners in their thirties: Gillian Wyatt is married first to Stuart Hughes, then after a very short time to Oliver Russell; Stuart and Oliver begin as best friends and end as worst enemies. The jacket copy is worth quoting as much for what it reveals about contemporary literary fashion as about the novel’s point of view: “What we hear are three…voices telling three wildly different versions of one story—presenting the protean facts of disintegrating and escalating affections…all in an attempt to get at the endlessly elusive truth.” Thus the “how” of storytelling is given primacy over the “what”; point of view, here with its implications that truth is unknowable in any significant way, is elevated over character and plot. Actually, Talking It Over is a good deal less pretentious than is implied by the blurb, which in any case is inaccurate. The story is told not only by the three main characters but also by several minor ones, and the accounts, while differing in detail, are close enough to give a fair picture of what happens. This novel is a brilliantly written example of a common contemporary story: the unsuccessful struggle of emotionally rootless characters to make satisfying connections. Comic in tone almost throughout, it comes to a darkly problematical ending, one that raises troubling questions about the author’s intentions.

In old-fashioned fiction (that of Charles Dickens, for example), character is revealed principally by action and by the paraphrasable content of dialogue; the aptness and generosity of detail give such novels their life. Here, on the other hand, tone of voice is everything, and it is difficult to give much sense of the characters without quoting them. Here then is Stuart, the somewhat stodgy, literal-minded banker: “He was my best man. Not strictly speaking, because the wedding was in a register office, and you don’t have a best man. In fact, we had a silly argument about that as well. Really silly; I’ll tell you about it some other time.” Gillian, the reserved, solitary restorer of paintings: “I haven’t got anything to say. Wherever you turn nowadays there are people who insist on spilling out their lives at you.… What are they all doing it for?… Why can’t they simply get on with things? Why do they have to talk about it all?” Lastly Oliver, the irreverent, sophisticated, economically marginal teacher of English as a foreign language: “Yes I do know it’s bad for my health as a matter of fact, that’s why I like it. God, we’ve only just met and you’re coming on like some rampant nut-eater. What’s it got to do with you anyway?” In his rendering of voice, a critical skill for writing this sort of book, the author never falters.

A speaker implies a listener, of course, the reader is at once confronted with the “you” whom the characters address. Implicitly, as in Oliver’s passage, this listener also speaks; elsewhere questions, reveals interest or boredom, expresses a view point; at times, but by no means always, passes information about what one character has said to another. The “you” might be thought of as the author, recording without comment everything he hears, or as the collective readership of the book. If the reader is in effect a central character, the only one with access to all that the others are able or choose to reveal, the result is what might be called an interactive novel: One is invited to piece it all together as best one can. Another result of the dramatized “you” is that the characters, talking to someone they know the others are also talking to, constantly self-justify. Thus the elusiveness of truth is less philosophical—that truth is simply unknowable—than psychological: The characters find it painful and therefore decline to face it.

In plot, with the crucial exception of the denouement, Talking It Over is the stuff of domestic farce; in comic invention brought off by verbal dexterity, the novel is at its most enjoyable. The plot turns of comedy are delightfully alarming in their implications, and so with Oliver’s abrupt realization, a month after Gillian and Stuart are married, that he is in love with the bride. Given the impossibility of sharing, this creates an unstable situation portending—one might think—a winner and a loser. In traditional comedy, loss is not permanent; the Charlie Chaplin figure, the born loser (with whom the stolid Stuart has something in common) is knocked over and dragged through the mud time and again but each time gets up and goes on: His triumph lies in his gallantry, his painfully recovered dignity. In contemporary literary fiction, on the other hand, however rich the story in comic detail, frequently there is at the end no gallantry, no dignity, and very little hope.

The emotionally needy Oliver (for all that he thinks of himself as an independent blithe spirit) had already made an unwanted third of himself by meeting the returning honeymooners at the airport; now, determined to woo and win Gillian for himself, he rents a room across the way from her house and bombards her with telephonic declarations of love....

(The entire section is 2146 words.)