“Maybe the universities are inefficient, in some ways. Maybe we do waste a lot of time arguing on committees because nobody has absolute power. But that’s preferable to a system in which everybody is afraid of the person on the next rung of the ladder above them, where everybody is out for themselves, and fiddling their expenses or vandalizing the lavatories, because they know if it suited the company they could be made redundant tomorrow and nobody would give a damn. Give me the university, with all its faults, any day.”
“Well,” said Vic, “it’s nice work if you can get it.”
Thinking about Elizabeth Gaskell this past week reminded me of David Lodge’s 1988 re-telling of North and South, Nice Work, which I hadn’t reread in many years. Rereading it this time, it lived up to my recollection that it is (as you’d expect from Lodge) a smart and often very funny book. Like North and South, it is also very much a product of and a commentary on its times: it is a ‘condition of England’ novel about Thatcher’s England, and also a ‘condition of the academy’ novel — about the state of universities in general but more particularly about the state of English departments and literary theory in the 1980s.
Lodge’s protagonists are Vic Wilcox, the managing director of Pringle & Sons Casting and General Engineering, and Robyn Penrose, Lecturer in English Literature at Rummidge University, where she specializes (for maximum metafictional effect) in the industrial novel. Lodge has fun setting Robyn up as exemplary of the convictions and contradictions of her academic moment:
According to Robyn (or, more precisely, according to the writers who have influenced her thinking on these matters), there is no such thing as the ‘self’ on which capitalism and the classic novel are founded — that is to say, a finite, unique soul or essence that constitutes a person’s identity; there is only a subject position in an infinite web of discourses — the discourses of power, sex, family, science, religion, poetry, etc. And by the same token, there is no such thing as an author, that is to say, one who originates a work of fiction ab nihilo. Every text is a product of intertextuality, a tissue of allusions to and citations of other texts; and in the famous words of Jacques Derrida (famous to people like Roby, anyway), “il ny’a pas de hors-texte“, there is nothing outside the text. . . . But in practice this doesn’t seem to affect her behaviour very noticeably — she seems to have ordinary human feelings, ambitions, desires, to suffer anxieties, frustrations, fears, like anyone else in this imperfect world, and to have a natural inclination to try and make it a better place. I shall therefore take the liberty of treating her as a character, not utterly different in kind, though of course belonging to a very different social species, from Vic Wilcox.
As that excerpt shows, Lodge enjoys the opportunity to have his post-structuralist cake and eat it too. And his novel overall is built around the difference between theory and practice as embodied in the inconsistency between Robyn’s theoretical beliefs and her insistent engagement with the world as if it is made up of individuals acting out of their own agency — something Vic Wilcox eventually points out to her: “If you don’t believe in lofve, why do you take such care over your students? . . . You care about them because they’re individuals.”
Lodge’s device for bringing Vic and Robyn together from their different worlds is the “Industry Year Shadow Scheme,” a plan cooked up by administrators hoping to cultivate better understanding between the university and local business. At first, it goes about as well as you’d expect: Robyn is horrified at conditions at Pringle’s, from the pin-up girls on the walls to the physical demands and numbing repetitiveness of the working conditions in the foundry, while to Vic Robyn’s work has neither meaning nor value, a discovery that disturbs her own complacent belief that it’s the most important work there is. “You know,” she muses to her sort-of boyfriend,
“there are millions of people out there who haven’t the slightest interest in what we do. . . . even if one tried to explain it to them they wouldn’t understand, and even if they understood what we were doing they wouldn’t understand why we were doing it, or why anybody should pay us to do it.”
“So much the worse for them,” said Charles.
“But doesn’t it bother you at all?” Robyn said. “That the things we care so passionately about — for instance, whether Derrida’s critique of metaphysics lets idealism in by the back door, or whether Lacan’s psychoanalytic theory is phallogocentric, or whether Foucault’s theory of the episteme is reconcilable with dialectical materialism — things like that, which we argue about and read about and write about endlessly — doesn’t it worry you that ninety-nine point nine per cent of the population couldn’t give a monkey’s?”
(Derrida, Foucault, Lacan — did I mention Nice Work is from the late 80s? That little speech gives me unpleasant flashbacks to my graduate course work, reminding me both why I found it so excruciating and why I enjoyed this novel so much when I first read it, probably around 1991.) True to its own intertextual influences, Nice Work follows them both through a process of mutual re-education: Robyn gains some appreciation for the challenges of business — which often reveal her own self-righteous criticism to be shallow or unrealistic — while Vic picks up both some habits of social critique and some appreciation for Victorian literature.
It’s an entertaining story, and like Gaskell Lodge does a good job exposing both the pride and the prejudices of his main characters without condemning them: both have simply taken their own insular worlds for granted, and both benefit from having someone challenge their starting premises as well as their daily practices. Unlike Austen or Gaskell, however, Lodge does not carry them (or us) forward to a happy resolution of the conflicts that initially divide them: the allusive thread he lets go of is the romance plot (Vic and Robyn do have sex, but that, as Robyn vehemently insists, is not at all the same thing as love). I think this is not just consistent with the cynical tone of Nice Work (which, like all of Lodge’s academic novels, is primarily satirical) but also a sign of a broader rejection of the hope that personal transformation makes much difference in a world riven by systemic injustices. That’s one way, then, in which Nice Work moves on, or away, from North and South. More generally — and this is only partly a function of the novel’s genre, I’d say — Lodge has little of Gaskell’s compassion for his characters, which means his fiction also does not radiate any warmth outwards towards his readers. His is too modern a sensibility for that, which you might think means Nice Work has more to say to us than North and South. For me, though, the effect is the opposite: Lodge’s lack of faith in any transcendent values or virtues made Nice Work actually seem more dated to me than North and South ever does. To put it another way, North and South can be updated precisely because there’s something lasting about its central commitments (to learning, to changing, to caring), whereas Nice Work itself, while clever and amusing, is a literary dead end.