Analysis

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 328

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.

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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

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2116

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 his way up from a humble working-class background to become, at forty-five, Managing Director of I Pringle & Sons, Casting and General Engineering. (The company name is, like most everything else in this novel, deceptive; Pringle’s is not family owned and operated but is instead part of a conglomerate.) His title, as well as his car, a Jaguar V12 company perk, and his house, a heavily mortgaged four-bathroom, five-bedroom monument to conspicuous consumption, is more than offset by the precariousness of his position, the indifference and ingratitude of his three children, and a loveless marriage to a woman who spends her time shopping, reading Enjoy Your Menopause, and drugging herself to sleep. “A phallic sort of bloke,” Vie is all that Robyn Penrose abhors: materialistic, paternalistic, anti- intellectual, pragmatic, and politically as well as morally conservative. Robyn, on the other hand, is young (thirty-two), attractive, cosmopolitan, intellectual, morally principled, politically aware (Marxist-feminist), and sexually liberated (she is, as her sexually ambiguous names suggests, beyond all simple gender classifications). She is also poor. Despite having published one book, The Industrious Muse: Narrativity and Contradiction in the Industrial Novel, and having begun another, “Domestic Angels and Unfortunate Females:

Woman as Sign and Commodity in Victorian Fiction,” she earns only £12,000 a year as an overworked university lecturer, about one-third what a high school dropout named Debbie gets working as a foreign-exchange dealer in a London bank. Worse still, despite her industriousness as a scholar and her excellence as a teacher, Robyn has little hope of reappointment once her three-year contract expires.

Robyn seems as ripe for sympathy as Vie does for satire. The novel, however, proves far less partisan and far more stylized in its handling of both main characters than one might expect, as Lodge adjusts narrative discourse to narrative subject. In Vie’s case, the narration appears as straightforward and seemingly literal as Vie himself. In Robyn’s, it proves far more circumspect and self-conscious (but no less quoted and questioning) as it reflects, rather than merely comments upon, Robyn’s own mental and verbal processes, most notably in the abundant use of embedded, parenthetical passages that reflect the mise en abyme favored by the deconstructionist critics whom Robyn so admires, but about whom Lodge, or his narrator, seems to have certain reservations. Robyn, the reader learns, is “a character who, rather awkwardly for me, doesn’t herself believe in the concept of character,” which she maintains is nothing more than “a bourgeois myth, an illusion created to reinforce the ideology of capitalism.” Instead of taking sides, the novel brings Vie and Robyn together—first in debate, later in bed—and brings together all they represent as well. To further his ends, Lodge devises a realistic but by no means real “Industry Year Shadow Scheme,” which requires that Robyn give up the one day each week she usually devotes to her research and writing to “shadow” a businessman (Vie, who, at least at first, finds the idea no more appealing than she does), all in order that the academic world may better come to know and appreciate what its other and, by implication, “better half” does. Not least among their differences is the question of what, why, and especially how one is to read words and world, whether naively or semiotically, literally or ideologically and deconstructively. Vie approaches texts the way he approaches sex, in typically phallic fashion, so as to dominate the text as quickly, as productively, and as profitably as possible. Consequently, he cannot understand “the point of sitting around discussing books all day, if you’re no wiser at the end of it.” As Robyn explains, however, and as the novel substantiates, “what you learn is that language is an infinitely more devious and slippery medium than you had supposed.” This includes not only the language of the poems and novels Robyn teaches and the advertisements she discusses with Vic (much to Vie’s dismay, in the case of her feminist-Freudian deconstruction of a certain cigarette ad) but also the language of realism, which, as Lodge uses it, turns out be far more “slippery” and much less transparent than it may first seem. Robyn may be right, but Vie’s approach, as carried out on a national scale by Margaret Thatcher, has made Robyn, her theories, and the university life she represents rather marginal. Her poststructuralist theories have little effect on her students and none whatsoever on her society. Her powerlessness is not so much individual as indicative; it reflects the condition of critical theory in all but a handful of large universities, of British education in general in the age of Thatcher’s cuts, of England’s economically depressed industrial North, of England itself its empire long gone, and of the humanist tradition that Lodge both endorses and (like Robyn) questions.

The novel suggests that, whatever Vie or Thatcher might believe, business cannot serve as an adequate model upon which to restructure the British university system. Yet the novel also makes clear the inequities, indeed the absurdities, existing within a system that has perhaps too successfully managed to insulate itself from economic, social, and even linguistic realities. Although she never abandons her vision of and commitment to the university as a social utopia, Robyn does modify that vision as she comes to understand the reasonableness of certain of Vie’s pragmatic views; much to the dismay of her father, also an academic, she speaks against “the Oxbridge idea of higher education as a version of pastoral, a privileged idyll cut off from ordinary living.” Her decision to turn down a lucrative job offer from a prestigious but highly competitive American university (the aptly and comically named Euphoric State, from Changing Places) in order to stay on at Rummidge, where there is now at least a chance that her contract may be extended, implies much more than Robyn’s commitment to realizing her utopian ideal. It implies as well Lodge’s commitment to the “problematic novel” mentioned earlier.

Lodge concludes Nice Work upon a decidedly happy note: the inheritance that makes Robyn financially free to stay at Rummidge and to become the major investor in a small business which Vie is about to start now that he has been fired as Managing Director. Lodge’s conclusion is, however, curiously and quite self-consciously inconclusive. He presents it not as a way of resolving the various personal and social ills which the novel has raised but instead as a way of evading them. As Robyn explains in one of her lectures, “all the Victorian novelist could offer as a solution to the problems of industrial capitalism were: a legacy, a marriage, emigration or death.” What distinguishes Nice Work from the industrial novels of Benjamin Disraeli, George Eliot, Charlotte Bronte, Elizabeth Gaskell, Charles Dickens, and others is not primarily its lack of their reformist zeal, which Lodge seems to have found quite appealing, but rather his awareness of their literary conventions and ideological subtexts. Nice Work preempts its own (feigned)

ideological naivete’ and bad faith, avoiding nothing, least of all the inadequacy of its own happy ending. It leaves the reader where the problematic novel leaves the novelist, at the crossroads of realism and romance, that literal, literary utopia where the reader can escape only at great risk to himself and to his society, drugged, submissive, dead both to world and to word.

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.

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