John Lanchester made an auspicious debut with his widely praised novel The Debt to Pleasure(1996). This sardonic satire featuring a witty serial killer was translated into twenty-two languages and left Lanchester’s readers looking forward to his second novel. Mr. Phillips has few characteristics in common with its predecessor, however, focusing on a considerably less flamboyant protagonist. Victor Phillips is a fifty-year-old accountant who has just lost his job after twenty-six years with Wilkins and Co. Unable to tell his wife and two sons about this disruption in his placid life, Phillips leaves his suburban home in South London as usual on a Monday morning, taking the train to the city and spending the day wandering about, looking for ways to fill the time. The complete opposite of Lanchester’s previous protagonist, Phillips is an unremarkable man who has never thought much about the quality of his life. Being suddenly unemployed forces him to do so, but he fights the urge to be too reflective, trying to think about anything else but his frightening future, not even acknowledging his new status until one-third of the way into the novel.
Even though his hero is reluctant to reflect on work, Lanchester explores its nature, observing how people’s identities shift when they are at work:
Most men are at their most attractive when at work, their attention directed outside themselves, with chores to perform and decisions to exercise, all unlike the sulking, shifty tyrants of the domestic stage, wanting everything their own way and locked in a battle to the death to get it.
For Phillips, work is an escape from thinking about his passionless marriage, his inability to communicate with his sons, the general meaninglessness of his life.
One of the least subtle ironies in Mr. Phillips is that one of Victor’s duties, as deputy chief of accounts, is determining the costs of making his fellow employees redundant. (The British term is clearer and blunter than the American jargon “downsized.”) Phillips spends an uncomfortable ninety minutes stuck in an elevator with someone about to be fired. Wondering who prepared the report about dismissing him, Phillips realizes that because he is not entitled to any bonuses, unlike Mr. Mill, his immediate boss at the catering-services supply company, dismissing him is relatively straightforward. Lanchester’s hero is never self-pitying or angry, always able to see his redundancy objectively. Phillips’s passivity is not presented as a character flaw but merely as a defining characteristic. Phillips gets some satisfaction out of knowing that Wilkins and Co. will never learn of his plan to save several thousand pounds a year by preventing employees from stealing office supplies such as Post-it Notes, an item he has been stealing for years.
If Phillips tries not to think too much about work, what does he think about? One of his two favorite concerns is sex. Mr. Phillips opens with his dreaming about other women while lying next to his sleeping wife. (One of the many well-known literary characters Victor Phillips resembles is James Thurber’s Walter Mitty, because when he is not dreaming about sex, he dreams about performing heroic deeds such as rescuing a group of women from a runaway train.) He is obsessed by sex because he feels he has discovered sex’s biggest secret, “the truth no one wants to tell you and which even adults don’t discuss or admit, and which, like all important secrets, is surprising and radical and obvious.” This secret is that no one ever actually has sexual relations. Well, not never but rarely, and much less than the culture would have people believe. Phillips’s evidence is the year-by-year dwindling of sexual intimacy in his marriage and what seems self-evident about his neighbors and coworkers. (Phillips has no friends, no one in whom he can confide.) He finds it hard to believe that he and Mrs. Phillips—her first name is never given—are usually too tired for sex.
In Battersea Park, Phillips encounters a stranger who observes him watching some tennis players and recognizes him as the type who, having reached fifty, begins paying more attention to younger women, even girls. The stranger, Fortescue, understands such impulses because he publishes adult magazines. He tries to share with his new friend his hard-earned insight into the opposite sex:
Speaking as a pornographer, I can tell you that the important thing is never to try and work out what a woman is thinking. It only confuses you, and they change their minds so much anyway the main thing is just to steam ahead with your plan intact.
Sex is such a mystery to Phillips because he has, like most men, Lanchester suggests, no understanding of women at all. He...
(The entire section is 1947 words.)