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October 16, 2009

Complicity — by Julian Barnes


His wonderful story appears in the latest issue (October 19, 2009) of The New Yorker.

Who knows how long it will stay up online?

My advice: print it out yesterday if you don't have the time to read it now.

Excerpts follow.


When I was a hiccupping boy, my mother would fetch the back-door key, pull my collar away from my neck, and slip the cold metal down my back. At the time, I took this to be a normal medical—or maternal—procedure. Only later did I wonder if the cure worked merely by creating a diversion, or whether, perhaps, there was some more clinical explanation, whether one sense could directly affect another.

The first time I met her was at a party of Ben’s; she had brought her mother. Have you watched mothers and daughters at parties together, and tried to work out who is taking care of whom? The daughter giving Mum a bit of an outing, Mum watching for the sort of men her daughter attracts? Or both at the same time? Even if they’re playing at best friends, there’s often an extra flicker of formality in the relationship. Disapproval either goes unexpressed or is exaggerated, with a roll of the eye and a theatrical moue and a “She never takes any notice of me, anyway.”

Your parents never warn you about the right things, do they? Or perhaps they can warn you only about the immediate, local stuff. They bandage the knuckle of your right middle finger and warn against getting it infected. They explain about the dentist, and how the pain will wear off afterward. They teach you the highway code—at least, as it applies to junior pedestrians. My brother and I were once about to cross a road when our father put on a firm voice and instructed us to “pause on the curb.” We were at the age when a primitive understanding of language is intersected by a kind of giddiness about its possibilities. We looked at each other, shouted, “Paws on the curb!,” then squatted down with our hands flat on the edge of the roadway. Our father thought this was very silly; no doubt he was already calculating how long the joke would run.

I used the word “complicity” a bit ago. I like the word. 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 decisions. Later, looking back, we will fetishize and celebrate the first date, the first kiss, the first holiday together, but what really counts is what happened before this public story: that moment, more of pulse than of thought, which goes, Yes, perhaps her, and Yes, perhaps him.

I tried to explain this to Ben, a few days after his party. Ben is a crossword-doer, a dictionary lover, a pedant. He told me that “complicity” means a shared involvement in a crime or a sin or a nefarious act. It means planning to do something bad.

I prefer to keep the term as I understand it. For me, it means planning to do something good. She and I were both free adults, capable of making our own decisions. And nobody plans to do anything bad at that moment, do they?

We went to a film together. I had as yet no clear sense of her temperament and habits. Whether she was punctual or unpunctual, easygoing or quick-tempered, tolerant or severe, cheerful or depressive, sane or mad. That may sound like a crude way of putting it; besides, understanding another human being is hardly a matter of box-ticking, in which the answers stay the answers. It’s perfectly possible to be cheerful and depressive, easygoing and quick-tempered. What I mean is, I was still working out the default setting of her character.

Our fingers must work together; our senses, too. They act for themselves, but also as pre-senses for the others. We feel a fruit for ripeness; we press our fingers into a joint of meat to test for doneness. Our senses work together for the greater good: they are complicit, as I like to say.

October 16, 2009 at 10:01 AM | Permalink


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