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NEW YORKER Stories

Julian Barnes

"Complicity"

October 19, 2009

In mid-life, a man meets a woman with whom he feels complicit. Told that complicity "means planning to do something bad," he sticks by his preferred definition.

To me, it indicates an unspoken understanding  between two people, a kind of pre-sense, if you like. the first hint that you may be suited, before the nervous trudgery of finding out whether you "share the same interests," or have the same metabolism, or are sexually compatible, or both want children, or however it is that we argue consciously about our unconscious desires. 

The story is told with the tender ruefulness about Life and its Meaning that we often hear from male writers and that, for all its surface sweetness, is in fact a resolutely masculine tone. It is the song sung by a man who doesn't comprehend the mysteries of life, more's the pity; in Mr Barnes's case, the voice is usually sparkled with the slightly baffled self-deprecation of a stand-up comic who is nursing a heartbreak: the mysteries of life remain uncomprehended because the narrator has somehow failed to acquire a copy of the instruction manual that explains them. There is a feeling that women not only understand the mysteries of life but may even have dreamed them up.

The composition is obviously carefully crafted. The story begins with three paragraphs that start out with a progression borrowed from 1 Corinthians: "When I was a hiccupping boy..."; "When I was a twenty-year old..."; "When I divorced..." (The romance in the story takes place after that divorce.) And, as for planning to do something good, the story ends with a plan, undertaken in jest, to do something mildly bad: to bolt from a restaurant if a certain cheesy film theme pops up on the background music. When it does

We looked at each other and laughed, and she made a gesture as if she were going to push back her chair and rise, and maybe she saw alarm in my eyes, because she laughed again and then, playing along, threw her napkin down on the table. The gesture took her hand more than halfway across the cloth.

But she didn't get up, or push her chair back, just went on smiling, and left her hand on top of her napkin, knuckles raised, fingertips pointing toward me. And then I touched her.

The End. The complicity involved a good thing after all. Hurrah.

"Complicity" is a little romance about skin a tale told in terms of touch. It seems designed to be explicated in the French manner, assigning to each of the many tactile impressions a relative weight and drawing from it a little lesson about love, or some such. (This one, for example, would merit a rather low rating, so far as significance is concerned:

No one says, "Feel this piece of Parmesan," do they? Except perhaps Parmesan makers."

Although it may refer to a somewhat more meaningful instance in which the doctor who introduces the man to the woman compares the texture of mozzarella to that of a breast implant.) Such exercises are designed to teach students to read with care and appreciation. To adult readers, however, the effect is gratuitously puzzling. "What is Julian Barnes up to now?" In response, we could diligently decode the puzzle. We could, but we are not going to. Instead, we are going to pass the bonbons, without fingering them.

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