For some years now literature has been under siege by "theory" in its various incarnations: deconstructionism, post-structuralism, Marxism, cultural criticism, and historicism, among other esoteric isms. Although most of the reading public continues to approach books and literature in much the same way that it has for at least a century or two, reading for plot, character, and meaning, anyone even dimly aware of the tenor of current academic literary criticism knows that literature has been cut adrift from its ontological moorings. Plot? A flimsy technical device, used to propagate consumerist cant. Character? A bourgeois myth, an illusion created to reinforce capitalist domination. Meaning? No such thing; post-structuralism has shown that owing to the nature of language, meaning is endlessly deferred along a string of signifiers. Authors? They don't exist. The author is merely an ideological construction that artificially limits the proliferation of meanings in the text. Coherent novels (or "coherent texts," in the academic vernacular) do not exist in current criticism; every text is shot through with other texts and with the seeds of its own de(con)struction.
But all this is academic nonsense to the common reader, who still reads to be entertained, enlightened, and perhaps even morally enlarged. Does "the best that has been known and thought" consist of nothing more than those works that make the most effective use of certain formal literary devices? What happened to Horace's dictum that literature should entertain and instruct? Must literature be reduced to deluding while indoctrinating (or, worse, to self-deconstructing)?
The answer to these questions is yes and no. This is nowhere better demonstrated than in the writing--both fiction and nonfiction--of David Lodge, a sixty-one-year-old British academic who retired from the University of Birmingham in 1987. Lodge has published five books of criticism and nine novels, along with assorted other books. He straddles the worlds of academia and middlebrow fiction. In Lodge the scholar of the novel we have an academic who has gone native. And in Lodge the novelist we have, in effect, a mole: he reports in his nonfiction on the latest in novelistic technique--this while in his novels pillorying the academy's continuing campaign to create a literature for professionals only.
Lodge's novels, in both their form and their content, reflect the experience and the language of the academic. Four of them--The British Museum Is Falling Down (1965), Changing Places (1975), Small World (1984), and Nice Work (1988)--feature academics in academic settings: in them Lodge the novelist parodies the sorts of discourse he produced as Lodge the professor. In fact, some of the language in the opening paragraph of this review was pulled from Nice Work and Small World. Lodge's criticism--in books with titles like Working With Structuralism and The Modes of Modern Writing--contains both some of the opaque academic language that one expects of academic criticism today (he can definitely talk the talk) and nuggets like this one (which perhaps indicate why he took early retirement from the university):
A lot of academic literary criticism and theory . . . frankly no longer seems worth the considerable effort of keeping up with it. A vast amount of it is not . . . a contribution to human knowledge but the demonstration of professional mastery by translating known facts into more and more arcane metalanguages
--which means something coming from someone who can actually understand these metalanguages.
Lodge defends his fiction against theory's assaults by co-opting them, incorporating the assaults into his stories. He anticipates the commentary of the academic critic and puts it into the voices of his characters. Let's, the narrator of Nice Work says, meet
a character who, rather awkwardly for me, doesn't herself believe in the concept of character. That is to say (a favourite phrase of her own), Robyn Penrose, Temporary Lecturer in English Literature at the University of Rummidge, holds that "character" is a bourgeois myth, an illusion created to reinforce the ideology of capitalism.
The narrator goes on in this mode at sufficient length to become unsettling. Maybe character is an illusion. But then Robyn's views are summarily (though good-naturedly) deflated.
In practice [these views don'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.
By such touches Lodge manages to have it both ways. He constructs wonderful stories and metaphors and narrators in his novels, points out in the same novels how these stories and metaphors and narrators can all be (in the dread procedures of academic criticism) deconstructed, unpacked, or historicized, and then makes fun of this process of deconstruction.
ONLY in a Lodge novel would a professor at a conference say, after giving a speech on narratology, "No, no, my presence [here] would be superfluous . . . I have performed my narrative function for tonight." His way of telling the other characters that he's going to bed now is Lodge's way of highlighting the fictionality of his fiction.
Lodge also plays with form on a larger scale: the last chapter of Changing Places, for example, collapses form and content into each other. Changing Places tells the story of what happens when a British and an American professor exchange positions (and, as it turns out, wives) for a year. On the surface the plot is fairly conventional: it uses a simple conceit--taking two characters and dropping them into unfamiliar contexts --to great comic effect. But Lodge manipulates the structure of Changing Places to experiment with form, so the novel is more complex than it might seem on the surface. Each of the six chapters alternates between Philip Swallow, the British professor, and Morris Zapp, the American (who has many of the idiosyncrasies of two prominent real-life American critics, Stanley Fish and Harold Bloom), and each chapter is written in a different style. The last chapter, called "Ending," is in the form of a screenplay. Its final lines consist of a kind of extended metafictional joke.
PHILIP: You remember that passage in Northanger Abbey where Jane Austen says she's afraid that her readers will have guessed that a happy ending is coming up at any moment.
MORRIS: (nods) Quote, 'Seeing in the tell-tale compression of the pages before them that we are all hastening together to perfect felicity.' Unquote.
PHILIP: That's it. Well, that's something the novelist can't help giving away, isn't it, that his book is shortly coming to an end? It may not be a happy ending nowadays, but he can't disguise the tell-tale compression of the pages. . . . I mean, mentally you brace yourself for the ending of a novel. As you're reading, you're aware of the fact that there's only a page or two left in the book, and you get ready to close it. But with a film there's no way of telling . . . There's no way of telling which frame is going to be the last. The film is going along, just as life goes along, people are behaving, doing things, drinking, talking, and we're watching them, and at any point the director chooses, without warning, without anything being resolved, or explained, or wound up, it can just . . . end.
PHILIP shrugs. The camera stops, freezing him in mid-gesture.
LODGE'S postmodern machinations whir and grind at a level beneath the surface of his stories--stories at times so conventional and straightforward (in a way that the flamboyantly post-modern stories of, say, John Barth or Milan Kundera are not) that they've escaped the notice of many academic critics, who place a modernist premium on inaccessibility, and wandered into the realm of popular fiction.