“If You Can Get It”: David Lodge, Nice Work


“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 SouthNice 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.

nicework-1As 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.

nicework3It’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.

Recent Reading: Lodge and Lively

I enjoyed both David Lodge’s Deaf Sentence and Penelope Lively’s Cleopatra’s Sister. Both take what turns out to be a deceptively light tone to explore ideas that are actually quite serious and interesting.

Deaf Sentence lures us in with the funny side of deafness, particularly the misunderstandings, frustrations, and mishaps that arise from Desmond Bates’s attempts to carry on as if he can hear what someone says. Drawing on his own experience, Lodge is very specific about the technical options available to those struggling with hearing loss, including about their inconveniences and shortcomings. But as he remarks early on, deafness is not, really, very funny, and even as he points to the greater pathos conventionally attached to blindness, he frequently invokes the suffering of famous “deafies” including Philip Larkin and, of course, Beethoven, to illustrate the deprivation and isolation that follows from losing one’s connection with the sounds of the world. There are a lot of pretty lame puns (of the “deaf in Venice” variety), but the wry chuckles they invite also prove a kind of trickery, as the most common slippage is between “deaf” and “death,” and that relationship turns out to be the central one in the novel: death is, after all, our ultimate “sentence,” the ultimate end to conversation and relationships. Everything comic in it thus becomes infused with tragic potential: as we age, the novel incessantly reminds us, we lose things–our hearing, our coordination, our minds, control over our bodies, our friends and families, ourselves. There’s nothing really very funny about any of that. As Desmond concludes, “‘Deafness is comic, blindness is tragic,’ I wrote earlier in this journal, and I have played variations on the phonetic near-equivalence of ‘deaf’ and ‘death,’ but now it seems more meaningful to say that deafness is comic and death is tragic, because final, inevitable, and inscrutable.” The novel, then, explores the uneasy borderland between the comic and the tragic, or perhaps the uncomfortable proximity between the two (the most slapstick comedy depends on the wince of pain, after all). Deafness functions as a comic device, but also as a metaphor for our inevitable isolation from other people, which culminates in death:

The sure extinction that we travel to
And shall be lost in always. Not to be here,
Not to be anywhere,
And soon; nothing more terrible, nothing more true.

Philip Larkin [ Desmond reflects], the bard of timor mortis.

Deaf Sentence is not, I think, an altogether successful novel. Its various parts did not feel well integrated. The apparent main line of the plot, for instance, about the wacky graduate student with her morbid project on linguistic analysis of suicide notes, leads to some funny scenarios. But as the rest of the novel, especially the decline of Desmond’s father, took on substance, I had trouble understanding what she really contributed. Like many of Desmond’s little set pieces about contemporary life, technology, and politics, the trip to Auschwitz seemed more like something Lodge himself wanted to say than something that had to be in the novel. Of course, the Auschwitz excursion is relevant to the theme (if that’s the right word) of death, but its gravitas seemed excessive for the rest of the book, though I thought Lodge’s writing during that section was among the best in the novel–strong, spare, and evocative, whereas much of the rest of the novel is a bit too prosy and self-indulgently academic (the academic narrator / protagonist can take the blame, of course, as all this is in character, but still…).

Overall, though, I appreciate that this novel is about something. I’ve been thinking lately (for another project) about David Masson’s line that “the desirable arrangement might be either that our novelists were philosophers, or that philosophers were our novelists” (and, as a contrast, Henry James’s objection that in George Eliot’s fiction “the philosophical door is always open” and letting in a cooling draft). Events strung together do not make a great novel, though they may make a briefly entertaining one (take note, writers 0f popular historical fiction). It is much more rewarding, as a reader, to feel engaged with a view of the world and how we live in it, whether the emphasis is primarily ethical, aesthetic, political, or something else. Kazuo Ishiguro made a comment in an interview that I like a lot, about fiction being “an appeal for companionship in experiencing life,” with the author implicitly saying, “it’s like this, isn’t it? do you see it this way too?” You can agree or disagree, but either way, you’re in a good conversation. Lodge is not playing with any particularly obscure or profound ideas, I don’t think, but he’s trying to see and say something about where we stand in relation to other people, and what the inevitable end of our life means, or might mean, or should mean, for how we think about ourselves and how we act. In doing so through a (more or less) comic novel, perhaps he’s also suggesting we not take these problems too seriously, not so seriously, anyway, that they prevent us from enjoying life’s absurdities.

Cleopatra’s Sister is another novel thinking about things. In this case, Lively is preoccupied with the issue of contingency: why one thing and not another? She plays out variations on this theme elegantly across the different aspects of the novel, from the big evolutionary questions confronted by her paleontologist protagonist Howard Beamish, to the day-to-day incidents of chance that drive lives forward–Howard’s discovery of his first fossil, for instance, which turns out to initiate a life-long interest and thus his career. How far are we responsible for our own lives? is probably the novel’s central interest. Co-protagonist Lucy Faulkner, for instance, works hard to develop her credentials as a journalist, but many of her professional advances result from her being in the right place at the right time. If she seizes the moment, is it luck, or can she take credit for her success? What about all the “what ifs”? So many other things might have happened, if things had been just a little different, if somebody had made a different choice, even a minor one. The novel explores the randomness of life: every event is explicable, looking backwards (in this, Lively’s outlook resembles George Eliot’s version of determinism). But it is not predictable, looking the other way, a fact of which Howard and Lucy are repeatedly reminded, sometimes jarringly. The central episode of the plot, in which Howard and Lucy are among a group of British tourists taken hostage in the fictional country of Callimbia, is the ultimate example of the way events are formed by contingencies: the plane happens to have mechanical problems which happen to become urgent as they are closest to Callimbia, where, as it happens, there has just been a political coup (which, as we know from the interspersed chapters recounting the history of the imagined nation, is itself the outcome of a series of unlikely events). That both Howard and Lucy are on this particular plane is coincidental, or, more accurately, meaningless until later events give their meeting the aura of fate–or would, in a different novel. There is an inevitability about each step, and yet at every moment, it might have been otherwise.

Here, as in Moon Tiger, Lively is particularly interested in the way these moments are collected into histories, which give retrospective meaning because, in hindsight, we can see the steps that made a difference, that turned things in one direction or another. The juxtaposition of the Callimbia ‘history’ highlights this process (with due reference to the “Cleopatra’s Nose” theory of history), and also allows for some play on another theme familiar from Moon Tiger, which is the paradoxical relationship of unimportant individuals to the larger narratives of history. Lucy realizes at one point that all the ‘little’ people are the real stuff of which politics is made; this is true too of history, and yet most people live historical lives without knowing it. Thus Lucy and Howard’s chance experience of the political chaos and violence of Callimbia is also a reminder to them that they do not live outside of history: that their own lives can, for instance, become part of something Lucy might write a feature article about, or end without leaving descendents, like the fossil specimens Howard collects. I won’t spoil the ending–the second half of the novel becomes quite suspenseful, and as in Deaf Sentence, the comic potential of the set-up and the light handling of the prose leads us unwarily into much darker territory.

Next up: Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland, I think. [Update: What actually happened is that I picked up my copy of Daniel Mendelsohn’s The Lost to take a look and became totally engrossed; I actually stayed up much later than I should have last night because I couldn’t stop reading it, which is something I haven’t felt strongly for a while. It’s a remarkable book.]

Recent Reading

As the new term gets underway, I feel my opportunities for “leisure” (a.k.a. “not required”) reading slipping away–not that I’m sorry, of course, to have an excuse to read Bleak House again, or The Remains of the Day (too late now to worry that the latter is way too subtle a pleasure for my first-year students!). In the interstices of the past two hectic weeks, though, I have enjoyed reading a few things just for the sake of it.

A wise friend lent me both David Lodge’s Thinks…, which provided much amusement, and Nuala O’Faolain’s Are You Somebody?, which provoked much reflection. I’ve fallen quite behind with Lodge’s books, maybe because academic satires aren’t quite as funny when you are struggling with shaping your own academic life to your liking. Maybe now I’ll do some catching up, or at least reread Nice Work. Thinks… reminded me of another of my old favourites, Alison Lurie’s Foreign Affairs, though Lurie’s novel allows for a bit more sentimentality. I was rereading O’Faolain’s novel My Dream of You this summer and, again, enjoying especially the contemporary story (which, as in Byatt’s Possession–an inevitable comparison, I suppose–alternates with the 19thC story being investigated, or, in this case, largely imagined, by the 20thC characters), and I found O’Faolain’s memoir had very much the same wry yet elegaic tone, particularly in its descriptions of Irish landscapes, but also in its treatment of getting older. “How do people arrange to love their ageing selves?” O’Faolain asks. How indeed. I was particularly interested in her frustration with the cultural pressures towards romance–“reaching for me, trying to ruin me.” Her description of her Christmas alone moved me, with its carefully planned pleasures, its undertone of melancholy and its moments of being surprised by joy. And then it’s writing, she goes on to say, that fills “the emptiness.”

There are links between O’Faolain’s grasping after a storyline for herself that is not a romance plot and some of the main lines in Maureen Corrigan’s Leave Me Alone, I’m Reading (which, appropriately, I tried to read most of while on airplanes with two children who seemed to have an unending list of needs and wants that only I could satisfy!). I’d like to write at more length about Corrigan’s book than I have time for tonight, as it is an interesting variation on the “books about books” I’ve written up before. For now, I’m struck by Corrigan’s observations about the absence of stories about working, or “intelligent or bookish” women in the classic novels she studied. (Of course, social and historical constraints–and the literary constraint of realism–makes such plots unlikely until the 20th century, but there were certainly intelligent, bookish women throughout the centuries. As many feminist critics have pointed out, George Eliot lived a life her own fiction can seem to imply is either impossible or undesirable.) I was thinking Gaudy Night during this part of Corrigan’s discussion, and sure enough, Sayers’s novel is a key example in the next chapter. Corrigan is another critic who likes to take shots at her academic experience (“I had to pay a price for the self-knowledge I gained in graduate school: the price was being in graduate school”). There’s a lot of interesting bookish discussion in the book, though it is primarily a memoir; I found her comments on mystery and detective fiction of particular interest.

Now I’m reading Peter Robinson’s Friend of the Devil; next up is Penelope Lively’s Perfect Happines, which I “borrowed” from my mother’s wonderful book collection in Vancouver to compensate for not, after all, having been able to do any book shopping there. (Next time, it’s Duthie’s or bust!) Lively’s Moon Tiger is another of my long-time favourites.