Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 440
Although Small World , David Lodge’s seventh novel, is ostensibly an academic comedy of manners, Lodge compounds, or comically complicates, his story and its realistic surface by joining to it an underlying plot borrowed from romance literature, the mythic quest. Actually, there are numerous quests, of which the most prominent...
(The entire section contains 440 words.)
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Although Small World, David Lodge’s seventh novel, is ostensibly an academic comedy of manners, Lodge compounds, or comically complicates, his story and its realistic surface by joining to it an underlying plot borrowed from romance literature, the mythic quest. Actually, there are numerous quests, of which the most prominent (if not necessarily the most important) involves Persse McGarrigle’s pursuit of the beautiful, intelligent, and playfully elusive graduate student Angelica Pabst, whose command of romance literature and contemporary literary theory is as formidable as Persse’s naivete is comic. Beginning at the sparsely attended University Teachers of English Language and Literature conference held at Rummidge University (the setting of half of Lodge’s earlier novel, Changing Places: A Tale of Two Campuses, 1975), Persse pursues Angelica over much of Europe to Los Angeles, Asia, and Jerusalem, going from academic conference to academic conference, until he finally ends up, along with many of the novel’s other characters, in New York, at the annual conference of the Modern Language Association (MLA). The reader’s pursuit of the story of Persse’s pursuit of Angelica is further complicated in a number of ways. While pursuing Angelica, for example, Persse runs into his cousin Bernadette, now a fallen woman, and determines to do what he can to save her. More important, and more confusing, Persse is only one of the many characters in this novel who are engaged in a quest of one kind or another: from the pursuit of love or sex to publishers’ acceptances, literary awards, the perfect conference, and academic appointments, especially the coveted UNESCO Chair of Literary Theory, a purely conceptual chair that confers status and wealth but that involves no real work, least of all of the practical kind.
From its leisurely opening section, the novel rapidly quickens the narrative pace as Lodge runs narratives together in a comically bewildering manner, creating a sense of a narrative profusion of stories that overlap, intersect, and on occasion collide. Each is a plot of desire, a romance narrative having its own frustrations, postponements, and delayed climaxes, all leading to the resolution that occurs in the final chapter when Persse inadvertently rescues the academic world from the sterility into which it has fallen. It is, however, a resolution that leaves Persse almost exactly where he was at the beginning of the novel: free to begin his quest anew, no longer for Angelica, who is about to marry a Peter McGarrigle, but for someone who should prove nearly as elusive, Cheryl Summerbee. The specific object of his desire may change, but the desire that motivates each of the quests remains the same.