It's good to talk

Talking it Over

Whose opinion do you trust, when three friendships become a ménage à trois that disintegrates catastrophically? Who is the victim and who is the perpetrator? Is there an innocent bystander, an unsuspecting accomplice, or a selfish socipath in their midst? Can any one character ever be described in such extremes, when everyone might be guilty or blameless to some degree? Julian Barnes attempts to answer, or at any rate pose, these questions in Talking it Over. His three narrators all speak in the first person, discussing their own versions of events, their reactions and calculations, and their readings of each other's experiences: the last, with varying degrees of accuracy.

It's an an illuminating portrayal of three incomplete personalities which, while forming a whole that's just a little too big for the comfort of its component parts, would be unstable with any piece missing. But this method of contrasting first-hand accounts, while illuminating, has its own risks. Lengthy internal monologues have difficulties retaining emotional ambiguity. James Joyce and Mark Haddon both triumphed over the internal monologue's literalization and crystallization of emotion: the one by sly, ungrammatical undercurrents of id; the other by the transformation of an emotional dysfunction into emotional tension. But while Barnes effortlessly causes the reader's sympathy to move from one character to the next, by revealing some event or motivation that was never suspected, he nonetheless pins the sympathy in place after each move. We are in no doubt, on any given page, about who we should be rooting for, exactly how they are feeling and who is at fault; when the scene rearranges it quickly clears once more.

The characters, for all their development and internal coherence, often feel like two-tiered constructs, their structure designed specifically to illuminate the difference between how their outer surfaces are perceived and how their inner selves suffer. And there's much that Barnes doesn't address here that Beckett's Endgame covers admirably, even if Barnes is far more accessible. Still, Talking it Over is written with Barnes' typical and accomplished skill for characters and dialogue, and an attention to detail that serves him well as---almost as editor of these three personal accounts---he juxtaposes opinion with opinion so as to try to approach the truth. Whatever that might be.