Nice Work – David Lodge
This is the third book in what can loosely be described as Lodge’s Campus Trilogy. Loosely because the book, published in 1988, is set around the University of Rummidge and a few of the old faithful characters, Phillip Swallow, Morris Zapp and their two wives, make appearances and there are fleeting references to incidents in the earlier books. But that is all and the book probably stands on its own. Having given us his take on mediaeval romances in Small World, Lodge takes on the Victorian industrial novel. In a nutshell, it is what happens when Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South meets Thatcherism.
Left wing, feminist, English literature lecturer at the University of Rummidge, Robyn Penrose is Lodge’s Margaret Hale to his John Thornton, Victor Wilcox, an older, conservative, senior manager who lives a humdrum suburban existence with a wife, family and a house with four bathrooms. You get an insight into the mocking humour in the first couple of pages where Victor’s wife, Marjorie, is described as sitting in bed reading her favourite book, Enjoy your Menopause, and takes great pride in her en suite, in avocado, naturally.
This unlikely pair are brought together courtesy of a government initiative in which someone in academia, Robyn, gets to shadow someone in industry, Victor, an arrangement neither of them look forward to with any degree of relish. Through this construct Lodge is able to view their respective worlds through each other’s eyes. Initially, Robyn is disgusted by capitalism red in tooth and claw and through her well-meaning but misguided interference leads to an industrial dispute. Victor, on the other hand, has a poor view of academics, questioning what they contribute.
During the course of the book they grow to begin to understand each other and see that what seemed initially to be two distinct and unconnected worlds are really both trapped in their particular little bubbles. Victor becomes infatuated with Robyn and they have a fling. Robyn tries to distance herself from Victor but the industrialist’s clever ruse is to become Robyn’s shadow.
Lodge doesn’t seem to miss an opportunity to puncture the pretensions of academics. In a seminar Robyn takes on Tennyson’s Locksley Hall, she uses the line “Let the great world spin for ever down the ringing grooves of change”. Written in 1835, just six years after Stephenson’s Rocket was built, Robyn sees it as Tennyson using the imagery presented by the new-fangled invention to great effect. The pragmatist, Victor, points out that trains do not run on grooves and that Tennyson was, if anything, describing a tram. The image is fatally flawed. It is a delightfully comic moment.
I will not spoil the book save to say that at the end all the characters find some form of inner peace and their financial fortunes are turned upside down. It seemed a little too tidy and the ending appeared a tad rushed, as though Lodge had exhausted the potential of the plot. That said, I found it to be a witty and clever book, a light enough read but with sufficient interest and occasional thought provocation to mark it as a work of some quality.