by Julian Barnes
Published by Random House
250 pages, 2000
Buy it online
Reviewed by Margaret Gunning
From its offhand, flip title to the eye-catching color photo of three funky old shoes on the cover, Love, Etc. immediately reveals itself as a parable of romantic angst in the 21st century -- and that's before you even open the book. Once inside, it's more of the same -- lots of sardonic wit, hand-wringing about the ultimate purpose of life and relationships that ricochet off each other like the inner workings of a pinball machine.
Popular British novelist Julian Barnes set all of this in motion with a previous novel, Talking it Over, in which he chose the clever device of having his characters speak directly to the reader. The result is something like reading a script for a drama, or more aptly, the teleplay for a soap opera. Talking it Over proved popular enough to give rise to a sequel and we have it in Love, Etc., recycling the same format and three main characters.
As with any sequel, a fair amount of energy goes into recounting the story so far. Talking it Over was in essence a tale of romantic betrayal, in which the levelheaded but dull Stuart loses his artistic wife Gillian to the colorful, unstable layabout, Oliver. The fact that Oliver was Stuart's best friend in boyhood merely thickens the emotional quicksand these three find themselves in.
Fast-forward 10 years, and the 30-something trio is now middle-aged. Oliver, still a flamboyant good-for-nothing, has married Gillian and fathered two charming daughters. Stuart is just back in England after escaping to America for several years to lick his wounds. Though a lot of life has happened in between, the process of maturing has evidently not kept pace.
As Gillian remarks, "I've always thought of Stuart and Oliver as opposite poles of something... of growing up, perhaps." On the surface of it, it does look as if Stuart has moved into manhood, while Oliver still waffles around in an abyss of unfulfilled potential. As Gillian describes it, "Oliver's the one still waiting for things to happen," which is a nice way of saying that he can't hold a job and that he lives off his wife's respectable earnings as an art restorer.
Stuart comes home to England in apparent triumph: "Some clichés are true," he claims. "Like America being the land of opportunity. At least, a land of opportunity. Some clichés aren't true, like Americans having no sense of irony, or America being a melting pot, or America being the home of the brave and the land of the free. I lived there for almost ten years and knew lots of Americans and liked them. I even married one of them." Though the marriage fell apart, Stuart returns as the prosperous owner of a chain of popular organic food stores. He has slimmed down, gone gray and seems to want to pick up his friendship with Oliver and Gillian with no hard feelings.
But hard feelings abound in this book; it's as if there is no other kind. Resentment over his loss still seethes in Stuart: "There are a lot of things about life that aren't straightforward, don't you find? Not liking your friends, for instance. Or rather, liking them and not liking them at the same time. Not that I think of Oliver as a friend any more, of course." It slowly becomes apparent that Stuart, bland as he may appear on the surface, is still completely obsessed with Gillian -- and in an even stranger way, with Oliver too. The uneasy triangle of Talking it Over becomes an unwholesome trinity in Love, Etc., in which the insecurities and inadequacies of all three are peeled back and laid bare.
Not a lot happens in this novel aside from Stuart's endless attempts to worm his way back into Gillian's life. Even a fling he has with her coworker is just another attempt to get close to her. At a certain point he realizes that if he can't have love, he will have to settle for control, using financial bribes to get the couple under his power. This sick game undermines the already-shaky Oliver to the point of serious depression.
Novels that aren't plot-driven tend to be character-driven, but in this case the story barely seems to be driven at all. Rather it meanders, often bogged down in Oliver's long, self-indulgent, occasionally funny but ultimately tiresome monologues.
Oliver likes to say things like, "Do we not, each of us, write the novel of our life as we go along? But how few, alas, are publishable. Behold the towering slush-pile!" He gets off a few good one-liners like, "Another day, another doleur," and "All I pump is irony." But he can just as easily become virtually unintelligible:
Whereas at the time of Roncesvalles, when Johnny Sarocen's wickedly curved panga was slicing its way through the subcutaneous fat of Europe's soft underbelly... Momento -- haven't we been here before? Haven't I been here before?
Though Gillian appears to be the glue holding the whole thing together, she becomes less and less admirable as the thin story wears on. There is a small but disturbing subplot in which it becomes apparent that her older daughter Sophie is developing an eating disorder, to which Gillian seems totally oblivious. Secretly she thrives on the sexual power she wields over the two hapless men in her life. In fact, what passes for love in this book is nothing but heartless manipulation. Though Oliver's melancholic digressions can be amusing ("The street lamps blinked pathetically, while the tarmac gleamed like the rinsed flank of an Ethiope"), they're not enough to redeem a book that is long on clever devices and hip angst, and short on real content.
While Love, Etc. does reveal a few things (such as the secret of making a good chip butty, the meaning of the mysterious term "todger" and the real significance of those three shoes on the cover), it does nothing to enlighten, uplift or even solidly entertain. True to its daytime-drama tone, the ambiguous ending clearly leaves the door open for yet another sequel. But if Love, Etc. is any indication, it will have all the nutritional value of the aforementioned chip butty: easy enough to consume but leaving the queasy aftertaste of a meal without substance. | December 2000
Margaret Gunning has reviewed over 130 books but never gets tired of the grand adventure of reading. Her poetry has appeared in Prism International and Room of One's Own. She has written a novel (A Singing Tree) and a book of poems (Nonsongs and Neopsalms), and is currently at work on her second novel, Better than Life.