Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1810
The protagonist and narrator of Therapy, Laurence Passmore or “Tubby,” as he is known to his friends, would seem an unlikely candidate for an attack of late-middle-age angst. In fact, Tubby did not know the meaning of the word (literally; he had to look it up in a dictionary). At age fifty-eight, he is balding and a little overweight, but to all outward appearances he has achieved a successful life. He has been happily married for thirty years to his wife Sally, who stays youthful and trim; he has a lucrative job that he loves as writer of a British television situation comedy; he has an impressive home in Rummidge and an expensive car (the “Richmobile”); he has a flat in London, where he meets Amy, his platonic mistress, for theater and dinner dates. What could possibly be wrong?
Tubby does not know, and this is why he is immersed in therapies: cognitive behavior therapy, physical therapy, aromatherapy, athroscopic surgery on a knee. In fact, Therapy is a journal that Tubby is writing as part of his therapy, thus giving the reader a day-by-day account of his life. When his psychotherapist asks him to make up a list of the good and the bad things in his life, under “Good” he writes,
5.Kids successfully launched in adult life
8.As many holidays as I want
Under the “Bad” column he writes,
1.Feel unhappy most of the time
Later he thinks to add another item:
2.Pain in knee
Gradually it becomes clear to the reader, but not to Tubby, that the pain in the knee is a physical manifestation of another kind of psychic or spiritual pain: his feeling that somehow he has lost “the knack of living.” “How?” he asks himself. “I Don’t Know,” or IDK, also the acronym for Internal Derangement of the Knee, the unsatisfyingly vague diagnosis offered after surgery, has failed to help. Tubby’s depression is intensified by a growing belief that more than his knee is deranged: The entire society seems to be deteriorating. Mournfully reflecting on the “Internal Derangement of the Monarchy,” he feels sorry for “poor old Queen.” He is concerned about “Internal Derangement” of property values, the “negative equity” of those unfortunate people whose mortgages exceed the value of their property. He worries about “Internal Derangement of the National Psyche,” as indicated by Gallup polls that found 80 percent of British citizens dissatisfied with their government, almost 50 percent who would emigrate if they could, and 40 percent of all young people believing that Britain will become worse.
That Tubby is a worrier, a compassionate man who gives generously to a large number of charitable causes, endears him to the reader. Yet he is also an egotist who is so self-absorbed he cannot listen to others, does not communicate with his children, and does not even hear his wife when she says that she wants a separation. Self- centeredness is at the root of Tubby’s problem, but it takes a series of disasters both comic and pathetic to jolt him into awareness.
When Sally wants not only a separation but also a divorce, his studio threatens to give his show to another writer, and his physical problems extend to insomnia and impotence (“Internal Derangement of the Gonads”), Tubby begins to know more than the dictionary definition of angst. Stumbling upon the writings of Danish existentialist philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, Tubby reads in the very titles a description of what he is feeling: Fear and Trembling, The Sickness unto Death, The Concept of Dread, Either/Or, “The Unhappiest Man.” According to Kierkegaard, “The unhappy man is ‘always absent to himself, never present to himself.’ ” Tubby writes,
My first reaction was no, wrong, Søren old son—I never stop thinking about myself, that’s the trouble. But then I thought, thinking about yourself isn’t the same as being present to yourself. Sally is present to herself, because she takes herself for granted, she never doubts herself—or at least not for long. She coincides with herself. Whereas I’m like one of those cartoons in a cheap comic, the kind where the colour doesn’t quite fit the outline of the drawing: there’s a gap or overlap between the two, a kind of blur.
Forsaking his other therapies, Tubby plunges into desperate debauchery as the solution to his problems. Wrongly believing that Sally wants a divorce because she is involved with another man, he regrets his thirty years of marital fidelity and sets out to make up for lost opportunities—“for revenge, for compensation, for reassurance.” The result comes in some of the most comical scenes in the novel. Like many other British writers of comedy, David Lodge has a sure sense of the ludicrous and a gift for deftly conveying it. Tubby and Amy’s holiday in Tenerife, where they go to consummate their erstwhile platonic affair, is a richly comic fiasco. Tubby’s trip to Los Angeles, where he hopes to recoup an opportunity lost four years earlier with Louise, a television executive, becomes a double fiasco: Louise, whose biological clock is ticking, barely remembers Tubby, is intent on conceiving a baby with her current lover, and hands Tubby off to the available, experienced Stella. In fact, Stella is so experienced (talking about latex gloves and dental dams over dinner) that a panicked Tubby is soon on the next flight back to London: “If she was so concerned about safe sex . . . she must have reason to be.” A trip to Copenhagen with his lovely young coworker Samantha, however, similarly degenerates into farce; instead of the hoped-for seduction in a luxury hotel, the highlight of the trip proves to be Tubby’s visit to the grave of Kierkegaard.
After the failure of debauchery therapy, Tubby returns to his aromatherapist, who prescribes lavender. The scene evokes a Proust-like flood of remembrance of things past, particularly of Maureen, his first love. “Maureen: A Memoir” is a turning point in the novel. Laurence’s (he was not Tubby then) adolescent passion for Maureen, her Catholic upbringing, which frustrated his desires for physical intimacy, his vengeful act of bad faith when he humiliated her in front of their peers—all of this adds dimension to the narrator’s character and a nostalgic tone to Therapy. Convinced that he needs Maureen’s forgiveness, he searches for her and finds that she is married to his teenage rival Bede (now a retired civil servant), but she is currently on a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela in Spain as an act of mourning for a son who has died. Tubby finds her and completes the last part of the pilgrimage with her, a kind of therapy for both: The pain in his knee miraculously disappears, they become lovers, and they return to their lives but are no longer the same. Tubby’s wife Sally has by now found another man, thus ending any hope of reconciliation. Maureen is still Catholic, so she cannot think of divorce despite the fact that her marriage has become somewhat loveless; a mastectomy made her sexually repulsive to her husband. The three of them, Tubby, Maureen, and Bede, settle for an amiable relationship as good friends with mutual interests: All of them are “in recovery” from life’s batterings and bruisings. All need therapy of one sort or another. Tubby and Maureen occasionally meet at his London flat (“I don’t ask her how she squares it with her conscience. . . . My own con- science is quite clear”), but the three of them are planning a pilgrimage to Copenhagen. As Tubby observes, Kierkegaard “would make a good patron saint of neurotics.”
Therapy’s mixture of satire and seriousness, comedy and Kierkegaard, gives this novel an experimental quality, a term that has been used to characterize some of Lodge’s other novels, particularly The British Museum Is Falling Down (1965). Unconstrained by the Either/Or of some critical theorists of the novel (a writer must choose either traditional realism or experimentalism), Lodge opts for Both/And, or what he refers to as the “aesthetic supermarket” of styles available to the modern novelist: “traditional as well as innovative styles, minimalism as well as excess, nostalgia as well as prophecy.” Possibly some readers may be put off by his unorthodox mixtures, but Lodge is a fearless literary critic and novelist. He states,
I have always regarded fiction as an essentially rhetorical art—that is to say, the novelist . . . persuades us to share a certain view of the world for the duration of the reading experience, effecting, when successful, [a] rapt immersion in an imagined reality.
Whether Therapy, his tenth novel, does persuade, whether the persona/mask of Tubby occasionally slips, giving a disconcerting glimpse of Professor David Lodge staging the whole show, each reader will decide, but the author must be given high marks for the creation of an engaging character set in what seems an all-too-real world. Lodge amusingly captures the whole dreck of contemporary life: Prozac, ubiquitous cellular phones and irritating Call Waiting, Hollywood, television soaps, conspicuous consumption, recreational sex and drugs, street people, social and cultural decline. By some standards Tubby appears to be innocence in a naughty world, but by others, Tubby in his “Richmobile” is culpable. He has become not only a fat person but also a fat soul. His life resembles the situation comedy that he scripts: “not real,” as Grahame the streetperson says. It takes a brush with Kierkegaardian Dread and a trip into the past to shake Tubby out of his torpor and to decode Kierkegaard’s ominous words: “Learning to know dread is an adventure which every man has to affront if he would not go to perdition either by not having known dread or by sinking under it. He therefore who has learned rightly to be in dread has learned the most important thing.”
Rightly to be in dread yet not sinking under it is the difficult metaphysical balancing act required of those who would live in the real world despite the fact that there is truly much there to dread: not only the deaths of those one loves, but the death of love itself. David Lodge’s ability to combine high seriousness and high comedy, to make us face up to the worst and therefore desire to live, laugh, and love all the more, is bracing, is therapy.
Sources for Further Study
Los Angeles Times Book Review. July 23, 1995, p. 1.
National Review. XLVII, August 14, 1995, p. 54.
New Statesman and Society. VIII, May 12, 1995, p. 41.
The New York Review of Books. XLII, August 10, 1995, p. 24.
The New York Times Book Review. C, July 15, 1995, p. 9.
Publishers Weekly. CCXLII, May 1, 1995, p. 40.
San Francisco Chronicle. July 23, 1995, p. REV5.
Time. CXLVI, August 7, 1995, p. 71.
The Times Literary Supplement. April 28, 1995, p. 23.
The Wall Street Journal. July 14, 1995, p. A10.
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