A little girl lies in bed listening for the sound of her mother’s lover leaving the house. “I waited to hear the front door shut. You can always hear it because it needs an extra pull.” Fiction is full of vigils like this one (only think of Proust); but Julian Barnes’s door makes the least noise and yet the most definitive closing sound of any fictional door I can think of. He is a writer who goes for perfection and mostly gets it.
Love, Etc. comes across as an alarmingly perfect novel—penetrating, subtle, almost puritanical in its economy. The format is that of a talking book, in that all the characters—three major and four or five minor ones—take turns talking directly to the reader. The voices are so distinctive and so in character that the speaker’s name at the start of each confidential bulletin seems almost superfluous. Barnes’s verbal mimicry is inventive, accomplished, revelatory, and also fun. He’s an acrobat with words, a performance artist.
His new novel is the sequel to Talking It Over, which was published in 1991. In that novel, Gillian, a picture restorer, marries a shy, boring, decent, kind-hearted, ultra-conventional man who works in a bank: a disappointment to his parents, he says, and to himself too. Being chosen by Gillian makes him feel better about himself too. His name is Stuart and his conversation consists of hesitant little clumps of clichés. Gillian leaves him, quite soon, for his best friend (and best man at the wedding), who is called Oliver. Oliver’s first name is Nigel, but he has dropped it because Nigel sounds insurmountably middle-middle-class. Oliver thinks of himself as a free spirit above convention. He is a writer who doesn’t write much. He scrounges instead—and talks: cleverly, wittily, learnedly, easily dropping into French, Italian, and even Latin, pseudo-Shakespearean, pseudo- biblical, schoolboy slang, gangster-speak; quoting, punning, cynical, facetious, show-off, unstoppable, unbearable. He is meant to be over the top, and in the earlier novel, Barnes’s presentation of his over-the-topness is itself over the top; not so much in the sequel.
If Love, Etc. seems almost flawless, the obvious flaw in Talking It Over was that Gillian, a very attractive, sought-after woman in her early thirties, should ever have thought of marrying either Stuart or Oliver, especially since she’s cool as cool can be. Her signature tune is the expression “getting on with things”; she uses it all the time in both novels, and it defines her behavior. Oliver talks and talks and never gets on with anything. His marriage to Gillian is presumably meant—at least on her side—to rest on the attraction of opposites. But Oliver’s over-the-topness is so irritating—even to read about—that it is impossible to sympathize with him any more than with chilly Gillian. As for Stuart, in the first novel he is, mutatis mutandis (as Oliver might say), the equivalent of Pierre at the …