Talking It Over

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2146

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. Gillian, at least thirty years old, not shown as notably immature, married only a few months and self-professedly happy in her marriage, soon finds herself sexually aroused by Oliver’s voice. Stuart, helpless to turn this rush of events, slowly catches on, enlightened finally by Gillian’s betrayal of a great secret: though they told Oliver they had met at a wine bar, they had actually met at a singles mixer. Oliver, abstractly aware that he is betraying his best friend, goes ahead without compunction; his wit and self-awareness notwithstanding, he is a thoroughgoing exemplar of the “me generation.” At no point are Stuart and Gillian able to “talk it over” in any way that might resolve their crisis; all the talk is with the reader, who, significantly, is the only “character” in the novel who feels called upon to listen.

In the world of this novel, impulsiveness is a given, if not precisely a virtue. Inevitably, Gillian talks Stuart into a divorce and marries Oliver; only because she is vehemently talked into it by her mother does she wear a different dress to her second wedding. Stuart makes a sad spectacle of himself—comic to the onlooker—at Oliver’s wedding, his “face suddenly appearing…over the top of the tablecloth and staring at [Gillian] with a horrible grin and a ghostly light in his eyes. A Hallowe’en pumpkin come to life.” Then the happy couple moves to a village in France, where they live happily for a time with their baby daughter. Stuart accepts a transfer to Washington, D.C., where, understandably wary of emotional involvement, he frequents prostitutes—asking, as a special service, only that they call him “Darling” afterwards—and consoles himself with his newfound financial solidity.

But he has not gotten over Gillian. Having kept in touch with her mother, he knows where to find her. Earlier he had fantasized about revenge: He would a pay a female student at Oliver’s school to say he had seduced her, or he would make Gillian and Oliver sorry by pretending to kill himself. Now he takes a leave from his job, travels to the French village where they live, and (as Oliver had in London, when he was the outsider interloping on a marriage) rents a room across the street from them. His proud boast, at the outset, was that he alone had never changed his name; now he presents himself to his landlady as a fictional Canadian. What is his desire? To be vindicated, somehow, but perhaps above all to be real, to have his continuing existence recognized. Yet he is unable to achieve even that. He merely lurks in his room, watching; to Oliver, at least, invisible. The talk has dwindled to a deathly silence.

There is no talk, either, in the ordinary sense of communication, in Gillian’s bizarre final gift to him. Having deduced his presence, she decides, without telling Oliver what she is up to, to stage a vicious fight with her husband in the street where Stuart can see. In this she succeeds so well that Stuart, after a silent week in his room, leaves smiling, telling his landlady he is happy. But it is a vexed happiness, surely, based on the supposed (or perhaps real) misery of others; or on the belief, perhaps true in part as well, that his former happiness was illusory. The story now fades out, like one of the country and western songs Stuart has taken to singing, with the last word given to Stuart’s landlady. Oliver and Gillian, the mad English couple, leave the village a week after the staged fight, and no one knows what has become of them. A dog runs into the street and is killed by a car.

That unfortunate dog had been introduced earlier. Because it was deaf, it was the subject of an ongoing local debate: Should its owner keep it safe and miserable by chaining it up, or allow it a free, happy life, the unhappy ending foreordained? The dog practically screams “symbol”; the human analogy is all too clear, yet not really exact. Because the animal has no way of assessing the risks it is taking, because it suffers a physical handicap that cuts it off from its environment, its fate is determined by forces beyond its control. The human characters, on the other hand, are isolated by choice; by a failure of will, courage, finally of love. They are not deaf; they simply decline to hear. No external dangers—such as the fatal speeding automobile—threaten them; no dark psychological traumas in their past overwhelm them. Though their earlier lives are referred to from time to time (there were schoolboyish squabbles between Stuart and Oliver; Gillian’s father left her mother for a much younger woman), Barnes’s novel, like much contemporary literary fiction, is set firmly in the present; a psychotherapist examining the characters would have to plead insufficient data. The characters’ relationships self- destruct for no very profoundly explored reason. Relationships in the late twentieth century tend to do that, a phenomenon that literary novelists—often, as here, with tremendous wit and skill—tend to record.

Talking It Over, for all the wit, all the hilarious moments, is in its vision an anticomic novel. Comedy celebrates the triumph of life over death, the resilient spirit over the leveling forces of entropy; above all, in its more romantic forms, the renewal of community, most commonly in the form of a wedding. In ironic comedy, the hero may end up running for his life, but at least he goes with his values intact; saved by a clear-eyed ability coupled with a courageous willingness to see corruption for what it is, he ends up with the last laugh. Here, however, the irony is directed against the characters. They start out confident in their ability to run their lives competently, to achieve happiness in their relationships, only, through an insidious chain of events that they themselves instigate, to see it all wash away. They are so willfully unconscious of the implications of their choices that it is difficult, at times, not to see them as puppets, manipulated by the author for comic effect.

Why do so many talented novelists choose to write about characters who are incapable of sustaining significant relationships; that is, of mature love? Presumably it goes beyond a kind of statistical realism, the fact, observable from the divorce statistics, that many such people exist. A more cogent question from the reader’s point of view, however, is what such deliberately limited fiction has to offer. The reader, after all, has a right to expect that the books he or she buys will be interesting, and ideally that they will tell the truth. Cynical literature, by denying that truth exists to tell, falls short of greatness by its nature. Talking It Over is by no means great; in its verbal dexterity and clever manipulation of point of view, on the other hand, it is consistently interesting. To readers who yearn for characters more fully aware of the potentialities of human life, it may be less than entirely satisfying.

Sources for Further Study

Chicago Tribune. October 20, 1991, XIV, p. 3.

Library Journal. CXVI, September, 1991, p. 227.

Los Angeles Times. October 17, 1991, p. E4.

New Statesman and Society. IV, July 19, 1991, p. 35.

The New York Times Book Review. XCVI, October 13, 1991, p. 9.

The Observer. July 7, 1991, p. 57.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXXVIII, August 2, 1991, p. 63.

The Spectator. CCLXVI, July 20, 1991, p. 25.

The Times Literary Supplement. July 12, 1991, p. 19.

The Washington Post Book World. XXI, October 13, 1991, p. 5.

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