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Books -- April 1996

Right, Here Goes

by Scott Stossel

THERAPY

by David Lodge.
Viking, 321 pages,
$22.95

Buy Therapy

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.

THE END


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.

His best novel may be Small World, a send-up of the world of international academic conferences, which chronicles the haphazard comings and goings of a herd of professors (including Morris Zapp and Philip Swallow) all over the world. The novel has as its formal model the chivalric romance, in particular the Grail quest as interpreted by Jessie Weston in From Ritual to Romance (a book that T. S. Eliot used as a major source for The Waste Land). Lodge hews fairly faithfully to his chivalric analogue. The hero's name, Persse McGarrigle, is a variation on Percival, the name of the knight who in most versions of the legend undertakes the Grail quest. Arthur Kingfisher, a doyen of literary criticism, has become impotent sexually and tapped-out creatively--just as in the Grail legend the lands of the Fisher King had become dry and sterile. There are numerous plots and numerous Grails in this novel--Persse, for example, a young and innocent T. S. Eliot scholar, is questing for the woman he loves--but the Grail that most of the academics in the novel are in avid pursuit of is a new chair of literary criticism, which comes with the highest salary in the profession, tax-free, and which can be occupied wherever its possessor wishes to reside. Kingfisher chooses the chair's occupant when Persse, like Percival, asks the appropriate question--one that cuts brutally to the heart of what academic literary studies are about.

While the Grail quest provides the structural skeleton around which Small World is built, numerous other models and allusions and formal games dance at the edges of the text. Lodge uses these allusions and formal tricks ("intertextuality," in the jargon) throughout to deepen the meaning of the story by lending it mythic resonance and at the same time to sharpen its satire: giving mythic status to the petty ambitions of these careerist academics highlights their absurdity. Lodge also uses his formal games to point out the fictionality of his conceit. When he has a character describe the genre of romance as "a pre-novelistic kind of narrative . . . full of adventure and coincidence and surprises and marvels . . . [and] lots of characters who are lost or enchanted or wandering about looking for each other, or for the Grail, or something like that," he is doing what he has called in his critical writings (borrowing from the Russian literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin)"baring of the device": he is having the character describe the fictional conventions on which her reality--the reality of Small World--is based.


LODGE'S humor and wit have earned him his reputation as a comic novelist. His novels, especially those published after Small World, have done well, both popularly and critically. Paradise News (1991), for example, his next-to-most-recent novel, spent a considerable amount of time on British best-seller lists, outselling Michael Crichton's Jurassic Park in 1992. Both Small World and Nice Work were turned into popular and acclaimed television programs in England. Graham Greene declared himself a David Lodge fan after the publication of Lodge's early novels (which were swollen with bile toward the Catholic Church), and Anthony Burgess in 1984 ranked How Far Can You Go? (1980) as one of the best novels published since the beginning of the Second World War. Lodge has also been short-listed twice (for Small World and Nice Work) for the Booker Prize.

But he has never actually won the Booker (in 1984 Small World lost out to Anita Brookner's Hotel du Lac; in 1988 Oscar and Lucinda, by Peter Carey, beat Nice Work). Has he been runner-up for the award because he's good but, in the end, not that good? Or is it because, as a comic novelist, he's not accorded the same respect as "serious" novelists? Woody Allen has said that comics don't get to eat at the grown-ups' table and that this has affected the reception of his films. Might a similar syndrome have affected Lodge's critical reception? Or is it accurate to say, as the British newspaper The Guardian has, that "ultimately, Lodge's comic view of life is sustainable only because it doesn't dig very deep"? Some of Lodge's novels end, certainly, like Shakespearean comedies, with couples improbably reuniting. But Lodge also uses the comic to gesture meaningfully at the weighty and profound.

Take Paradise News. At the end of the first chapter the novel's hero, the skeptical theologian Bernard Walsh, muses that "there was, after all, something incongruous, even indecent, about using a package holiday to visit a dying relative"--the package holiday being a trip to Hawaii. A priest who has lost his faith, Bernard has been living a drab, Spartan life, teaching theology at a small college. As he helps and comforts his ailing aunt, Ursula, and enters a relationship with Yolande Miller (whose discordant name, in "yoking together the exotic and the banal," typifies the novel's incongruities), who has hit and injured his father with her car, he begins to discover how resourceful he is, and to become aware of life's manifold possibilities.

Lodge explores the meaning of Bernard's progress in a theology lecture that Bernard delivers at the end of the novel. What can be salvaged from the "eschatological wreckage" of traditional religious faith? Bernard asks. In many ways this is what Paradise News is about. Religious awe at earthly things and at earthly pleasures, and the wonder that attends the "uncertainty" of the existence of God, fill the void left by the discrediting of traditional Christian dogma. (Paradise News is also, of course, about interpretation, and about the impossibility, after post-structuralism, of a literary text's having an absolute meaning.) Bernard finds a kind of modest paradise in these wonders, and he prefers them to the guarantee of heaven. Whereas Milton undertook in Paradise Lost to justify the ways of God to man, Paradise News, though it winks slyly at Milton, shows how our helping and caring for one another will be rewarded in a world where we cannot even be sure that God has ways. One hopes this view of life can be sustained outside the comic novel.


STILL, if happy endings belong fundamentally to the comic genre, then Paradise News falls into that category. But in Lodge's latest novel, Therapy, which is soon to be published in paperback, the comic view of life is tempered considerably.

Therapy's hero, Laurence Passmore, known to most as Tubby, is somewhat fat, more than somewhat balding, and fifty-eight. He is married to Sally, a linguist, and he has two grown children. He is the writer of a successful sitcom called The People Next Door, which has been running for five years and is watched by 13 million people each week. This show has yielded Tubby a small amount of fame and a large amount of money. Tubby also has a mistress--albeit a platonic one--named Amy.

Tubby believes he should be happy: "So really you would say that I've got it made, wouldn't you? I've solved the monogamy problem, which is to say the monotony problem, without the guilt of infidelity. I have a sexy wife at home and a platonic mistress in London. What have I got to complain about? I don't know." He doesn't know. That's just the problem. In addition to a real and nagging physical ailment, a recurrent sharp pain in his knee, Tubby is plagued by a malaise of uncertain origins. He doesn't suffer from nightmares, but

nightmares are about the only thing I don't have, in that line. I have depression, anxiety, panic attacks, night sweats, insomnia, but not nightmares. . . . [If I did have nightmares] maybe I would get a clue then to what's the matter with me. I don't mean my knee. I mean my head. My mind. My soul.

Nearly all Lodge's heroes have some sort of obvious weakness or shortcoming that becomes almost a defining characteristic: they are short (Victor Wilcox in Nice Work), fat (Tubby), lapsed priests (Bernard in Paradise News), sexually bumbling (Persse in Small World and the entire cast of characters in How Far Can You Go?), or just plain benignly ineffectual (Philip Swallow in Changing Places, Adam Applebly in The British Museum Is Falling Down). It is as though Lodge, who in his earlier novels was somewhat angrily trying to address the frustrating proscriptions of the Catholic Church through comedy, has abandoned the specific tenets of Catholicism while retaining at least one of its basic moral principles for his artistic vision: The meek shall inherit the earth. These short, fat, bumbling characters usually end up okay, often even better off than they were at the beginning.

Much of Lodge's comedy stems from the amplification in his characters of our deepest insecurities: about sex, about our appearance, about our place in the world. Woody Allen similarly zeroes in on basic human insecurities. But Lodge's touch is lighter than Allen's, even in Therapy, which has Allenesque existential preoccupations. Here, in a scene told from the point of view of Amy, Tubby makes his first attempt at compensating for "lost philandering" after his wife has left him.

Well, it was lucky I was [drunk], otherwise it would have been just too embarrassing for words. . . . I got the giggles as soon as I saw Laurence putting on his knee-support when we were preparing for our siesta. It's made from some spongy stretch fabric, like they use to make wet-suits, and it's bright red, with a hole in it for his kneecap to poke through. It looked particularly funny when he had nothing else on. . . . Apparently he always wears it when he and Sally have sex. When he put on an elasticated elbow bandage as well I nearly had hysterics. He explained that he'd had a recurrence of tennis elbow lately and didn't want to take any chances. I wondered if he was going to put on anything else, a pair of shin-pads perhaps, or a cycling helmet. Actually, that wouldn't have been a bad idea, because the bed was so narrow he was in some danger of falling on the floor during foreplay . . . I felt like a cross between a hooker and an orthopaedic nurse.

Lodge mines the endless array of sexual foibles to extract laughter and sanity. The humor in this passage bears one of Lodge's trademarks: it is funny at his characters' expense without sacrificing the warmth and empathy the reader feels for them.

Therapy doesn't scale the heights of comedy the way some of Lodge's earlier novels did. This may be because Lodge is most in his element in comic writing about being an academic and being a Catholic. Indeed, Lodge's first comic novel, The British Museum Is Falling Down, was about a Catholic academic. Thinking about how easy sexual life must be for non-Catholics, Adam Appleby, who is a poor graduate student with three children already, marvels,

How different from his own married state, which Adam symbolised as a small, over-populated, low-lying island ringed by a crumbling dyke which he and his wife struggled hopelessly to repair as they kept anxious watch on the surging sea of fertility that surrounded them.

His wife keeps getting pregnant, despite the couple's best efforts at Catholicism's version of birth control.

They had embarked on marriage with vague notions about the Safe Period and a hopeful trust in Providence that Adam now found difficult to credit. Clare had been born nine months after the wedding. Barbara had then consulted a Catholic doctor who gave her a simple mathematical formula for calculating the Safe Period--so simple that Dominic was born one year after Clare.

When a fellow graduate student accuses Adam of suffering from a special form of scholarly neurosis, the inability to distinguish between life and literature, Adam retorts, "Oh yes I can. Literature is mostly about having sex and not much about having children. Life is the other way round." The British Museum Is Falling Down lacks the weight and formal neatness of Lodge's later novels, but it demonstrates his droll humor and his ability to make us simultaneously laugh at and feel for his characters.


THERE'S no question that in Therapy, superficially a conventional entertainment, Lodge is up to his old playful gamesmanship, at the same time baring and concealing the devices that make his fiction work. Consider even his choice of title. Who exactly is this therapy for? That is, what is the title referring to? All the therapy that Tubby ("On Mondays I see Roland for Physiotherapy, on Tuesdays I see Alexandra for Cognitive Behavior Therapy, and on Fridays I have either aromatherapy or acupuncture. Wednesdays and Thursdays I'm usually in London, but then I see Amy, which is a sort of therapy too, I suppose") and the other characters in the novel receive? No doubt. But is Lodge also offering therapy to us? Probably that, too. After all, the novel's somewhat sad ending is clearly intended to make us feel better about what Tubby, in talking about the therapeutic social effect he presumes his sitcom to have on viewers, calls our "negative equity." Finally, maybe, just maybe, is this novel therapy for Lodge? Though it is extremely unfashionable, now that authors are not supposed even to exist, to look in novels for autobiographical clues, I find it distinctly possible that the novel represents a kind of extemporized writing therapy or journal writing, meant to assuage his own midlife angst. (Lodge recently told an interviewer, "In middle age, I've found myself prone to more depression and anxiety than I can give a rational explanation for.") Consider the novel's epigram, from Graham Greene: "Writing is a form of therapy." Consider also the extract from the journal of Søren Kierkegaard that Tubby quotes approvingly: "Only when I write do I feel well." Still more suggestive, however, is the first line of the novel. It comes before Tubby's entry dated February 15, 1993, and it reads "Right, here goes." Is this Tubby getting ready to write his diary? Or is it Lodge getting ready to improvise Tubby's diary? Now combine all this with the way that Tubby describes the pigeons outside his window in his first diary entry: "Pure play--no question. They were just larking about, exercising their agility for the sheer fun of it." Right away, on page one, Lodge has us wondering, Is this what he is going to do? Is this novel just writing for the sake of writing, writing for the sake of therapy? How else would you begin such an exercise but by saying to yourself, "Right, here goes"?

One final piece of evidence: at the beginning of the novel's concluding section Tubby muses about the distinctions among writing a novel, writing a script, and writing a journal. The essential difference, he explains, in a passage that recalls the end of Changing Places, is "a question of tense." Whereas a script is all in the present tense, happening now, when you write something in a book it appears to be all in the past.

Even if you write, "I am writing, I am writing," over and over again, the act of writing is finished with, out of sight, by the time somebody reads the result. . . . The special thing about a journal is that the writer doesn't know where his story is going, he doesn't know how it ends; so it seems to exist in a kind of continuous present, even though the individual incidents may be described in the past tense. Novels are written after the fact, or they pretend to be. The novelist may not have known how his story would end when he began it, but it always looks as if he did to the reader.

This is an obvious point, really, but by highlighting its own mechanism, it casts the novel in a new light. Is Therapy, then, just Lodge's fancy way of saying "I am writing, I am writing"? His way of diverting himself from whatever demons plague him? Who is the author of this diary entry, Tubby or Lodge? Obviously, both are. Tubby in this passage points out that this is his journal; he couldn't possibly have known where his life was going next as he wrote it. Lodge, however, is the novelist. He knew where Tubby's life was going all along. Or did he?

Reading Lodge's critical writing on fiction produces the disconcerting feeling of being allowed a peek at the bricks and mortar, the sweat and craftsmanship, that go into the creation of a literary work. Perhaps you would rather not know how it came to be; you would prefer to entertain the illusion that it appeared on the earthly plane fully formed. In that case, when Lodge the novelist pulls back the curtain to reveal the scaffolding and lighting devices in his fiction as you're reading it, you would probably just as soon close your eyes and pretend that you haven't noticed. But you would be missing out: Lodge is simultaneously a playfully postmodern and a plainly conventional comic novelist, and that, along with his intermingling of form and content, is what makes him such an interesting writer. Besides, it is reassuring to read the novels of an academic who still believes in character, in storytelling, and in meaning. And seeing a novel broken down into its component parts should not be alarming, because in the end, as Lodge has written, "a novel is a Gestalt . . . a perceptual pattern or structure possessing qualities as a whole that cannot be described merely as the sum of its parts." Literature is far more than an aggregation of technical devices. Even if that's just what it is.


Copyright © (1996) by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; April, 1996; Right, Here Goes; Volume 277, No. 4; pages 119-124.

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