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Author: David Lodge

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      04.10.2004 16:16
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      This is a review of 'Nice Work', placed in the general David Lodge category for a want of better place in dooyoo database. In my defense I would say that this is one of the best and also fairly typical Lodge novel.

      --- Back to Rummidge---

      For those unfamiliar with the setting, in author's own words "Rummidge is an imaginary city, with imaginary universities and imaginary factories, inhabited by imaginary people which occupies, for the purposes of fiction, the space where Birmingham is to be found on maps of so called real world."

      The book is set around the unlikely relationship between Victor Wilcox, a Managing Director of a struggling engineering plant, and Dr Robyn Penrose, a lecturer of English literature theory at Rummidge University. Robyn and Vic meet through a PR scheme designed to bring the Industry and the University closer at the time when both the Industry and the University are threatened by the emerging monster of financial service industries; at the time when making real things is going out of fashion and ex-English lecturers compete with barrow-boy yuppies at City merchant banks just before the Big Bang. Yes, we are talking Thatcher's 80's here and the historical and social realities are always there, explained clearly enough for those who don't remember or were not told. In fact, be it realities of 80s' Britain, post-structuralism or the plight of manufacturing industry; everything is explained and an ignorant reader like me gets gently educated. A reader familiar with one or all of themes appearing in the novel does not need to worry about being patronised as the explanations offer not only the facts but also commentary ranging from subtly ironic to scathingly hilarious.

      I am a great fan of David Lodge's writing and his books provided me with hours of enjoyment, surprising amount of knowledge of literary theory and many a fascinating insight into the British academia in particular and British society in general. Rummidge novels are my favourite and "Nice Work" is one of the best in that cycle. As all good books it works and can be enjoyed on many levels.

      The first level is the realistic "what meets the eye" level and on this level Robyn and Vic meet and develop their understanding of each other throughout a sequence of events taking place during the two university terms. The story is, of course, the classic, topical — let's call it "Crocodile Dundee" — scheme, where two people from two different social spheres meet and go from virtually despising each other to developing understanding and more. This vehicle of a story is used to present the reader with the main two characters and a host of others. Those characters are superbly drawn, typical without being boring, vivid without becoming caricatures.

      ---Let us meet the main characters---

      Doctor Robyn Penrose, a daughter of a lecturer and a lover of a lecturer; thoroughly liberated and independent; follower of feminism and a passionate devotee of semiotic materialism. Robyn is confident, but not vain, stylish but not coquettish. Refreshingly, she does not fall madly in love with Vic, neither is she swept off her feet (and out of the literary theory ivory tower) by his infatuation. Her intellectual belief that love is a textual construct does not fall apart under the force of real-life passion of a real-life phallic male. Her academic background, her intellectual backbone are not proven to be false and we do not discover that, underneath, she was really an emotional cripple. In fact, she is honestly annoyed by being '...dragged into a classic realist text, full of causality and morality.' What gives Robyn this independence and strength? Undoubtedly her social background but above everything, her real commitment to work and to the idea of University.

      I found it rather satisfying to read a novel in which the main female character is not some kind of victim (or even a survivor) of profound emotional trauma. It is also quite sad that it somehow had to be a book written by a man.

      Vic Wilcox is a thoroughly decent and "by no means stupid" follower of market capitalism, traditional morals and stringent business values, a passionate believer in buying British. For Robyn he is a "...literate, intelligent person who had never read Jane Eyre." His is the old-fashioned Protestant work ethic, the ruthless but fundamentaly honest spirit of Industrial Revolution; but also the conventional morality, the disillusionment of the mid-life crisis. He is, then, straight from a XIXth century realist novel and as such he falls for Robyn - initially angered and annoyed and then attracted and fascinated by her independence, her intellect, her open mind and the fact that she is — simply — interesting. Of course her indisputable good looks, however well hidden under utilitarian though stylish clothes, do help this infatuation.

      Each of the character is a figure standing for a social group, for a world from which he or she comes from: down-to-earth, practical industry and the ivory towers of the academia. Their work habits and dress habits, their values and their mores; their prejudices and annoyances differ and clash; and observing this clash — in conversation first and foremost but also in action (for example when Robyn's idealistically driven behaviour almost causes a wildcat strike potentially threatening the very existence of the factory) — is exceedingly funny.

      We also witness a personal journey of discovery from which both emerge internally changed, but without revolutionary alterations in their way of life.
      Vic acquires a taste for poetry and an understanding — even enjoyment — of a difference between metonymy and metaphor. Eventually his shattered life is going to be rebuild according to the principles of self-sufficiency and entrepreneurship (with a little help from — surprise, surprise - Dr Penrose). Robyn admits that universities don't grow on trees; she develops and then dispels some doubt about the elitist set-up of the academia as opposed to no-frills polytechnics; starts to reflect on how things are made but ultimately the experience reinforces her commitment to collegiate way of life and the values of freedom and knowledge.

      ---Contemporary and timeless issues---

      But of course "Nice Work" is not just a comedy of character and social mores. It is — on the second and perhaps the most important level — an "issue" novel; novel that uses its characters not just for description — however amusing — of the status quo; but also to espouse important issues; issues of the time as well as more universal ones.

      The main issue discussed and debated by and in the book regards the role and the form of university in the world of (disappearing) factories and (seemingly unstoppable) financial services.

      The contrast between a Managing Director's Office and a Lecture Hall is only one of the many explored in the book. In one instance the grim realities of Rummidge as a whole are put against the well-dressed, well-heeled and refreshed by the sea-breeze comfort of the seaside university town where Robyn's parents live. In another we have the opportunity to compare Rummidge to Frankfurt, shiny and clean, modern and efficient.

      "Nice Work" of the title refers mostly to Robyn's work and I have to say that, to my satisfaction, the University seems to come out of this ideological confrontation quite victorious. After piling the critique on the elitist set-up, the irrelevancies of theory, the mores, habits, prejudices and occasional utter stupidity of the academics the last word is given to young Dr Penrose, the human and humane but also competent and commited face of the academia and her shaken but still strong belief in the values represented by the University. I have to say that I passionately share this belief and am greatly saddened by the currently in vogue attempts to re-present and re-formulate academic institutions as some high-level vocational courses. The debate is in some ways more relevant now that it was in the 80s.

      All this serious stuff shouldn't shadow the fact that "Nice Work" is a very funny book indeed, not in a laugh-out-loud funny but rather smirk-with-delight funny kind of way.

      If you are bored by literary theory, however entertainingly it might be explained, skipping the next section and going straight to the "summary" might be a good idea. If, however, you were getting increasingly impatient for the literary games: here they come. Lodge plays with the language, plays with the characters, plays with the social stereotype and (of course!) engages in a very post-modernist play with literary theory. The whole novel is, in fact, such a big game as it is self-referential to the extreme.

      ----Literary Games-----

      'Industrial novels', known in their time as 'conditions of England novels' are mentioned in one of Robyn's University lectures: "They are novels in which the main characters debate typical social and economic issues as well as fall in and out of love, marry and have children, pursue careers (...) and do all the other things that characters do in a more conventional novel." These novels are where Dr Penrose's expertise lies and — here we go — she happens to actually be a character in such a novel. "Nice Work" is quite obviously a 'condition of England novel" for the 80s. However much Lodge likes to take the mickey out of post-structuralism and literary theory, he himself engages in a most delicious, post-modernist, inter-textual game.

      The way that sections describing Robyn's side of the story are presented differs subtly from the way Vic's story is told. His part is traditional, realistic, 'like novels should be'; while Robyn's side is more ironic, full of author's comments, reminding of digressional poem.

      Even introduction of her character invites an authorial, theoretical comment: "...a character, who, rather awkwardly for me [narrator], doesn't herself believe in the concept of character (...) holds that 'character' is a bourgeois myth (...) 'you are what speaks you' is the axiomatic basis of Robyn's philosophy. It might seem a bit bleak (...) but in practice it doesn't seem to affect her behaviour very noticeably. She seems to have ordinary human feelings, anxieties, desires (...) like anybody 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."

      The way that the book concludes is also straight from the "industrial novel". The solution to all the characters' worries comes deux ex machina, in the form of inheritance — the only way the XIXth century writers could find to resolve the conflicts described in their books. This resolution is described in the best realist tradition, moving and satisfying as in a proper realistic novel; so those reading on one of the more literal levels will not be disappointed.


      ---Verdict---


      "Nice Work" is a surprisingly complex novel that can be perfectly well enjoyed on any of its levels — as a comedy of characters, as a social satire, as an "issue novel" and as a literary game.

      It does not have a terribly compelling plot, but the characters are brilliant and actually grow on you, the jokes are funny and the argument is pervasive. If you get bored by references to literature as well as social issues then this book is probably not for you.

      It is currently available on Amazon for # 6.39

      ISBN (paperback): 0140119205

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      • More +
        06.10.2002 20:18
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        "There are far too many writers around who have nothing to say but insist on saying it again and again in book after book..." So says Adrian Ludlow in David Lodge's novella 'Home Truths'. Can the same be said of Lodge himself? He's clearly aware of the risk: his output has been steady - 12 novels as well as several books of criticism in a 43-year career. Most authors start repeating themselves. Many - Philip Roth for instance - resort to writing endlessly about being a famous writer, until they disappear up their own word processors. But David Lodge has managed to keep things fresh, although certain themes do recur. Sex, Catholicism, academia, and the business of writing itself are his big themes. But he adds variety by choosing a well-defined subject or setting for each novel. So you get National Service in 'Ginger You're Barmy'; Honolulu in 'Paradise News'; business and industry in 'Nice Work', and cognitive science in 'Thinks...' These are meticulously researched and made accessible without being overly patronising. Within each milieu, Lodge brings his characters (usually a man and a woman) together. You get the impression that even Lodge does not know quite what turn events will take. We're as fascinated as him by finding out what his characters end up doing. I go back to Lodge for his superb writing skill: few other 'literary' authors are as easy and satisfying to read. Few seem as straight and unaffected. He's a professor; his books have been adapted for TV - 'Small World' was televised in 1988; he adapted 'Nice Work', which won the Royal Television Society's Award for the best drama serial of 1989; he adapted Dickens's 'Martin Chuzzlewit' for the BBC. But he comes across as an ordinary, approachable bloke. I wish he'd taught me. Lodge, now 67, was born in London. He spent most of his working life at the University of
        Birmingham, teaching English from 1960 until 1987. He is Honorary Professor of Modern English Literature at Birmingham. His decision to stay in that unfashionable city, fictionalising it as Rummidge in many of his books, sets him apart from more high-profile metropolitan novelists. You get the impression that Lodge is determinedly untrendy and he doesn't care. You could accuse him of being deliberately provincial, low-key and typically English. But behind that facade lurks great intelligence and insight, equal to any of his more pretentious contemporaries. His books are often set in the world of daily work; his characters generally share some of his attributes - they are often writers, academics, Catholics (usually lapsed), or all three. Lodge follows that most basic piece of writing advice: he writes only about what he knows, and his books are the better for it. Lodge's novels are usually characterised as 'comic'. This is a little misleading. Some of his books, such as 'Changing Places', are based on an overtly comic premise. But even they are not laugh-out-loud funny. At the risk of damning with faint praise, I'd say the humour is gentle. The overall tone is amused, but don't expect big farcical set-pieces. Lodge is a critic, so you'd expect him to use a range of narrative devices and technical tricks. He does, but not flashily. Often you'll read a character's thoughts in a journal as a means of getting away from the omniscient author's voice. And here is my only major niggle. Too often these start as convincing first-person accounts, but before you know it, the character is writing rather too knowingly and comprehensively - they have turned into the author. The character Bernard Walsh in 'Paradise News' does this, as does Ralph Messenger in 'Thinks...' My only other gripe would be that some of his plots rely too much on coincidence, but not obtrusively so. By the end of
        a Lodge novel, you've usually had some tension, some humour, a dash of possible tragedy averted, an enlightening discourse on religion or writing, and ended up with things turning out a bit better than you expected. The world isn't quite as bad as it might be after all. READ HIM if you like: gentle humour; realistic settings and relationships, easy to read, lucid prose. AVOID HIM if you hate: university novels; explanations of obscure subjects; narrative tricks. RECOMMENDED READING Start with 'Nice Work' (Amazon - £6.39) or 'Changing Places' (Amazon - £5.59). His latest, 'Thinks?' (Amazon - £5.59) is accessible and entertaining. 'Paradise News' (Amazon - £6.39) is his least successful, with too much theology for my liking. Those Lodge novels in full: The Picturegoers; Ginger, You?re Barmy; The British Museum is Falling Down; Out of the Shelter; Changing Places; How Far Can You Go?; Small World; Nice Work; Paradise News; Therapy; Home Truths; Thinks...

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