"Nice Work", given the acclaim David Lodge's books have received, starts rather slowly. The first chapter lugs along without inspiration, tepidly cataloging the unremarkable events of an unremarkable man's morning routine. Vic Wilcox is a middle-class, managing director at a floundering casting and general engineering firm. He works hard, and has no time for the self-serving attitudes of university people, unwilling to get their hands dirty and help revive his England's precious economy. Vic has horrible musical tastes, favouring 1980s female yuppie soul singers (Sade, Jennifer Rush) in the privacy of his Jaguar. Rush's song 'The Power of Love' even provides a laughable soundtrack to a cringe-worthy love scene. This introduction is not very stimulating, and the prose and narrative techniques Lodge uses are rather amateurish. It turns out, though, that this was Lodge's intention, for he has other tricks up his sleeve.
The second chapter makes it clear that Lodge, the author, is well aware of the rhetorical devices he's using, and of the expectations we have for the character(s) he's created. It begins with a nifty bit of self-referentiality, and regular readers of this space will know of my fondness for that device. Hopefully meta-fiction will save the day again. The chapter introduces Robyn Penrose, a feminist literary theorist, specializing in the industrial novel of the 19th century, who, and here's a great irony, has no practical knowledge of industry whatsoever. This is Lodge spitting in the face of his theory-minded colleagues (he spent 27 years teaching English at the University of Birmingham), stuck in their ivory towers, turning their noses up at the real world.
Robyn, as opposed to Vic, is a beguiling creation. I thought she'd sustain her status as a humourless member of the intelligentsia throughout the novel, but she redeems herself about halfway through, with this startling realization: "You know, there are millions of people out there who haven't the slightest interest in what we do." She neatly articulates my longtime criticism of advanced academia: that it is incestual, masturbatory, and ill advised of the actual problems of the real world. Robyn manages to break through its outer veneer (thanks to her participation in the Shadow Scheme, a kind of exchange program between the university and the industrial community, in which she must follow Vic around while he does his job). Unfortunately, Lodge seems to be saying, you can't teach an old dog new tricks. Witness a later exchange between Robyn and her brother Basil. When told that she's writing a book, he asks, "Does the world really need another book on nineteenth-century fiction?" To which she pompously replies, "I don't know, but it's going to get one." The more things change, the more they stay the same, I suppose.
So how does the relationship between the seemingly disparate Robyn and Vic manifest itself? Well, it allows the novel to make a point of education's need to become more like industry in a Thatcherized England, but with comic results: One memo requests that all official university correspondences use acronyms when possible, in order to save paper. This leads to someone reacting to a line about the proposed Shadow Scheme ("The SS will advertise our willingness to inform ourselves about the needs of industry") by saying "Got his own stormtroopers, now, has he?" Lodge periodically shows a neat knack for bon mots like this. When they came up, I'd always wish he'd use them more. It might help to bring out the hidden satirical elements of the book, and in general they would entertain the reader. The characters' relationship also tries to make the point that maybe industry needs to become more like education, by accounting for its workers needs to be intellectually stimulated instead of giving them jobs that necessitate standing on a dirty, dark assembly line 8 hour a day. Although, the sight of Vic trying to digest the Brontes or Tennyson puts a pin in this utopic balloon rather quickly.
Lodge's greatest success here is that he is able to write a kind of modern Industrial Novel, such as the ones Robyn Penrose is studying. The concerns of the post-post Industrial Age are delineated nicely, and he manages to throw in some entertaining hanky-panky for good measure. However, Lodge stumbles greatly with a howl-worthy ending that appears to have been written by another author entirely. It features scenes of amateurish exposition (one character neatly ties up his own loose ends with a timely letter), and deux es machina after deux es machina. I felt cheated, and a little frustrated, that an author of such skill and self-awareness as Lodge would so lazily end an otherwise fine novel. Am I missing something here? Are the final chapters meant to be ironic, poking fun at the shoddy plotting and melodrama of other books in the same vein? I'm willing to give Lodge some benefit of the doubt on that point, but not a lot. It's truly a pity, because he was on his way to a fine, if unspectacular book. As it stands, it only barely deserves its passing grade.