by John Lanchester
Reviewed by Kenny Brechner
John Lanchester's first novel, A Debt To Pleasure, was as clever and entertaining as a book might be. Its complex and oblique first person narrator made the reader's frame of reference constantly shift. The book's tone moved from the comic to the menacing, the absurd to the dangerous, in a truly virtuoso fashion.
A Debt to Pleasure was a book the reader either loved or hated. I certainly loved it. The question I am in a position to ask, therefore, is how someone who could write something as much fun as A Debt to Pleasure could produce something as miserable as Lanchester's forthcoming book, Mr. Phillips.
Mr. Phillips is a relentless examination of a banal, almost featureless accountant. Mr. Phillips has been fired Friday last and the book's action all occurs in a single day, the Monday following his firing. Mr. Phillips is basically a corpse with a libido. The book's thesis is that the severance of his routine brings him back to life a tiny bit.
Lanchester has purposely created a kind of grotesque version of Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway. As in Mrs. Dalloway the action takes place in a single day, and the world is seen through the microcosm of a character's thoughts. A steady stream of vulgar images is provided, however, to remind us that Mr. Phillips is more contemporary than Mrs. Dalloway.
Part of what is wrong with Mr. Phillips is that, where Virginia Woolf's narration is intricately linked to myriad channels of cross connecting currents, Lanchester keeps the narrative focus ruthlessly tied to Mr. Phillips. The omniscient third person narration becomes claustrophobic almost immediately because Mr. Phillips is so utterly banal.
There is no escape from Mr. Phillips. Reading Mr. Phillips is like being half way ground up in a sausage grinder and then having the machine shut off, and living. One gets the gist of Mr. Phillips' living death in the first few pages. But the book, even if the reader does not, goes on.
Ultimately, Mr. Phillips explicates not the intricacy of life, as Lanchester seems to have intended, but the integrity of banality. Put banality under a microscope and it's still banal. Stretch banality across two hundred and eighty-nine pages and it's just as banal at the finish as at the start.
In The Voyage Out one of Virginia Woolf's characters interrupts someone who is describing a book. The character asks, "but does it aim at beauty?" In the world of Mr. Phillips there is no such thing as beauty, only a morbid determinism. Mr. Phillips, in fact, makes one of Pavlov's dogs look like Albert Camus.
This brings us back to the question of why Mr. Phillips was written and who it was written for. And one can only hope that Lanchester, capable of so much as a writer, got something permanently out of his system when he penned Mr. Phillips.