David Lodge's "Deaf Sentence" is a seriocomic novel about a man whose quality of life is steadily declining. Desmond Bates, a former professor of linguistics, takes early retirement, mostly because of a hearing loss that began twenty years earlier. He suffers from "high-frequency deafness...caused by accelerated loss of the hair cells in the inner ear...." Since there is no treatment for this condition, Desmond resorts to hearing aids, which prove to be inconvenient and, in some circumstances, useless. As he dourly observes, "deafness is a kind of pre-death, a drawn-out introduction to the long silence into which we will all eventually lapse."
Now in his sixties, Desmond's existence settles into a boring routine. His wife, Winifred (whom he calls Fred), on the other hand, is rejuvenated, partly as a result of the flourishing new interior design business that takes up most of her time. Adding to his gloomy disposition is Desmond's concern for his eighty-nine year old father, Harry, who lives alone in London. Not only is Desmond's father also going deaf, but there are alarming signs that he is no longer able to care for himself adequately. Unfortunately, Harry refuses when Desmond offers to hire someone to look in on him and lend a hand with household chores.
"Deaf Sentence" is a deeply affecting novel that springs from the author's personal experience with high-frequency deafness. The book succeeds on many levels and is enhanced by Lodge's clever use of language, entertaining literary and cultural references, and vivid descriptive passages. One day, when Desmond is strolling across the campus where he used to teach, he encounters a horde of students pouring out of their classes. "I floated on their tide like a piece of academic wreckage," he muses with a hint of self-mockery. The author elevates the mundane by poignantly exploring the ebb and flow of marital relationships, the physical and mental decline that accompanies aging, and the toll that illness and disability take on both the victim and his family. Lodge conveys his knowledge of all these themes subtly, sensitively, and with a healthy dose of bracing humor.
Desmond is an engaging first-person narrator, who sometimes lapses into the third person, presumably to give himself a breather. Fred is a devoted and sympathetic spouse, but as the years go by, she is becoming more and more exasperated by her husband's habits, especially his increasing reliance on alcohol as an anesthetic. Desmond is beginning to feel like "a redundant appendage to the family, an unfortunate liability" who no longer commands the respect that he once took for granted. To complicate matters further, an attractive but unstable young student named Alex Loom threatens to upend Desmond's already shaky existence when she asks him to supervise her dissertation on "the stylistic analysis of suicide notes." Should he risk getting involved with this possibly predatory female?
The novel draws us in more and more as the suspense builds. We wonder how Desmond and Fred will adjust to the shift in their respective roles; what Desmond will do when his father can no longer live alone; and whether or not Desmond will give in to the lovely Alex in order to salve his battered ego. Lodge's vivid characters soon become familiar acquaintances whom we get to know so well that it is difficult to part with them. In this touching, funny, and wise book, David Lodge deftly and unsentimentally illuminates the challenges and frustrations that, sooner or later, everyone must face.