(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

NICE WORK spans the winter term at Rummidge University, playfully modeled after Lodge’s own Birmingham, in the English Midlands. In observance of officially proclaimed Industrial Year, Robyn Penrose, a temporary lecturer specializing in feminist theory and the nineteenth century English industrial novel, is assigned to spend one day a week observing a senior manager at a manufacturing plant. She spends her Wednesdays at the low-tech factory of an engineering firm run by forty-five-year-old Vic Wilcox. Robyn, a feminist intellectual more comfortable with irony than iron works, and Vic, a proletarian who has worked himself into affluence, could hardly be more different in background and attitude. Yet, inevitably, despite Vic’s wife and Robyn’s boyfriend, the two become romantically involved and learn to see the world through each other’s eyes.

Lodge provides an informative excursion into the daily activities of workers at an industrial plant and department of English. His two main characters provide an entertaining dialectic between abstract and concrete, female and male, theory and praxis, and he offers the sentimental optimism that the two can be reconciled. Lodge’s characteristic technique is to crosscut between the parallel and contrasting lives of an academic and a businessman, and his recurring plot, here as elsewhere, is that of changing places. The main characters of CHANGING PLACES resurface in NICE WORK in cameo roles. It is a novel that merits its title.

Sources for Further Study

The Christian Science Monitor. March 8, 1989, p.11.

Contemporary Review. CCLIV, January, 1989, p.45.

Illustrated London News. CCLXXVI, November, 1988, p.81.

Library Journal. CXIV, June 1, 1989, p.146.

Listener. CXX, September 29, 1988, p.41.

London Review of Books. X, September 29, 1988, p.11.

The New Republic. CCI, September 18, 1989, p.46.

The New York Review of Books. XXXVI, November 23, 1989, p.18.

The New York Times Book Review. XCIV, July 23, 1989, p.1.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXXV, June 2, 1989, p.67.

Punch. CCXCV, September 30, 1988, p.50.

The Spectator. CCLXI, September 24, 1988, p.37.

The Times Educational Supplement. December 23, 1988, p.9.

The Times Literary Supplement. September 23, 1988, p.1040.

The Washington Post Book World. XIX, August 13, 1989, p.3.

Nice Work

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 34)

David Lodge’s career has been marked by a number of telling doublings and divisions. He is a novelist who is also a noted literary critic, and as a critic he is something of an anomaly, being as interested in current theory as in its practical application. His novels appear similarly divided: four more or less serious works published in more or less alternating rhythm with four decidedly comic ones. These latter reveal an even further division within Lodge’s work insofar as they situate themselves rather strangely in two very different traditions of academic fiction: the British, written chiefly about the academy, and the American, written largely for it. He is, in other words, a writer at once realist and postmodernist, a writer as interested in maintaining the possibilities for realist writing in a postmodern age as he is in testing and undermining them, exposing realism’s limitations and conventions.

Although his first four novels—The Picturegoers (1960), Ginger; You’re Barmy (1962), The British Museum Is Falling Down (1965), and Out of the Shelter (1970)—went largely unnoticed (the latter’s publisher, Macmillan, forgot to send out review copies), Lodge’s next three—Changing Places: A Tale of Two Campuses (1975), How Far Can You Go? (1980; published in the United States as Souls and Bodies, 1982), and Small World (1984)-have been much more widely and warmly received-generally, however, as highly but nevertheless merely entertaining fictions, delightful but hardly deep. Joel Conarroe’s front-page piece on Nice Work in The New York Times Book Review suggests that a similar fate may be in store for Lodge’s most timely, most thematically important, and most technically interesting novel. More even than the earlier novels, Nice Work deserves and repays the kind of close attention that its quasi-comic, pseudorealistic surface hardly seems to invite or encourage. Its popular appeal aside (Lodge has already begun adapting it for British television), Nice Work provocatively foregrounds its own intertextual range of reference and not only raises a host of contemporary social questions but also deepens and dialogizes them, fusing the simple and the semiotic, the realistic and the postmodern into one splendidly irreconcilable, self-regarding, self-interrogating whole.

Nice Work is the third of Lodge’s novels to explore the fictional landscape of Rummidge, a city of words modeled on the author’s native Birmingham, in the English Midlands. Half of Changing Places takes place in Rummidge (“a great dark smudge sounds like Rummidge,” says one character, seeing the city from the air and for the first time). Changing Places is a novel of two cities (Rummidge and Berkeley, California) of two cultures (English and American), of two languages, each nominally “English”; it is a “problematic novel,” to adopt one of Lodge 5 eminently sensible literary coinages, written by a “novelist at the crossroads,” facing the possibilities and limitations of fiction writing in a postrealist age. With only its first pages set in the academic backwater of the University of Rummidge, Small World proves a vastly more expansive work, an “academic romance,” a decidedly carnivalesque novel, having as many parallel and often intersecting plots as the world has air routes in the era of the “global campus.”

Nice Work, set entirely in Rummidge in England’s rust belt, seems a far more circumscribed novel. The narrowness is, however, somewhat deceptive, for in Lodge’s fiction place is never as important as pace—which is to say, not merely the speed of the action but especially the simultaneously diachronic and synchronic sequence of the narration. In Nice Work the focus may be tighter, the geographical and narrative range narrower, but the dialogic relations run deeper and appear (the humor notwithstanding) more troubling. In retrospect, the geographical expansiveness of Changing Places and more especially of Small World betrays a certain narrowness of scope, a degree of inbreeding, insulated as these novels are from the pressures of the nonacademic world. In Nice Work, Lodge narrows the narrative range in a way that allows him to explore more fully the increasing separation and monologic insularity of discourse and ideology not only within the academy but also—perhaps more important—between the academy and the business world, between intellect and industry, male and female, feminists and phallocentrists, theorists and humanists, mainstream and margin, Anglo and alien, old and new, North and South, the bleakness of David Lodge’s Birmingham and the prosperity of Margaret Thatcher’s London.

The novel begins by all too neatly dividing the small world of Rummidge into two separate, symmetrical parts, each embodied in a character. First comes Victor Wilcox, whose very name provides an ironic measure of his apparent power and importance. A lifelong resident of Rummidge and a graduate of the city’s College of Advanced Technology, he has worked...

(The entire section is 2116 words.)