Friday, July 14, 2006

Off on the Wrong Foot

I’m not doing well with David Lodge’s fiction. His novella Home Truths didn’t work for me, but I’ve been told that his novels are much stronger and I resolved to give them a try. I’ve begun with Nice Work since it was the first of the three that I put on hold to arrive at the library. It came recommended by some very discerning readers, so I’m sure that it will pick up. But I’m only twenty pages in, and already Lodge has employed three scenarios/devices of which I am very weary.

First, there is the obligatory peeing scene. What is it about male characters of a certain age that we must, within pages of meeting them, accompany them to the toilet for a pee? In Nice Work, we get two paragraphs of peeing a mere page after we first encounter middle-aged executive Victor Wilcox. To be fair, it’s not Lodge’s fault that I’m weary of this. It’s the first time I’ve witnessed it in one of his books, and the other examples that come to mind are from novels that were published later (Mordecai Richler’s Barney’s Version and Ian McEwan’s Saturday). Nevertheless, I would prefer to have the protagonist’s humanity/vulnerability signalled to me in a more novel way.

Shortly after the peeing ceases, Vic shaves, and he is described to us as he appears to himself in the mirror. Is this not unforgivably cliché? The sort of thing that creative writing students are told to avoid at all costs?

Finally, at the close of the first chapter, there is the ridiculous breast simile. Vic has a colleague who is a bit of a stage mother and she is forever pressing the portfolio of her would-be model daughter upon him. On the morning that the novel opens, Vic is startled by recent, um, developments in the latest set of photographs:

The pouting weak-chinned face under the blonde curls is familiar enough, but the two huge naked breasts, thrust towards the camera like pink blancmanges tipped with cherries, are a new departure.”

Pink blancmanges tipped with cherries? I admit that I have very little experience with blancmange and it may well be customarily served in a distinctive breast-like shape. But a wobbly pudding doesn’t strike me as a particularly apt comparison for seventeen-year-old breasts. And I could have done without the cherries. I have yet to see nipples that approximate the shape or the colour of cherries.

Here too though it’s not so much this particular passage that gets to me as it is the ubiquity of such ridiculous breast similes in contemporary fiction. I won’t offer up further examples as I’m sure the above-quoted passage will bring me more than enough misdirected google traffic on its own—visitors who will no doubt be as dissatisfied with what they find here as I am with the first chapter of Nice Work.


bloglily said...

Dear Kate, I don't think you're off on the wrong foot in the least -- I don't remember the first chapter of this book, but everything you say strikes me as accurate and the examples you cite are indeed of objectionable writing habits. Your review reminds me of one reason I so love hearing about and re-reading things I enjoyed in the past: it allows you to chart the way you've changed as a reader, to see what you've lost patience with, what you crave, what you don't find funny anymore. I remember enjoying Nice Work very much. I read it when I was a graduate student in English twenty years ago (or possibly shortly after I gave that up) and I think I'd just finished reading a lot of Gaskell. I felt like Lodge had welcomed me to a club of some kind, where membership required a passing acquintance with academia. I had at least that price of admission and was amused to be allowed inside. Now, this sort of thing doesn't interest me as much, but I'm easily amused, so maybe I could still be lured inside. All this is to say, Kate, that your early impressions are thought provoking and, as always, so interesting! Looking forward to more, BL

litlove said...

Oh dear! I was reading your post and struggling to remember Nice Work which I read many years ago now. I did enjoy it, but I'm sure he is guilty of all kinds of truisms of realism. Don't give up on Lodge - you may well find a way to appreciate him yet.

Dan Green said...

If you haven't already read Small World, you should put down Nice Work and go to it instead. It's a much better introduction to his more compelling satirical work.

Ella said...

"First, there is the obligatory peeing scene. What is it about male characters of a certain age that we must, within pages of meeting them, accompany them to the toilet for a pee?"

Oh, Kate. SO TRUE!

j-love said...

Wow, the "this is what I look like" mirror device is brutal! That's like a first year creative writing workshop rookie mistake! And the cherries... breast/fruit similes should be offences punishable by hefty fines. Yikes. The piss scene bothers me less, though I think your implication rings true... I can't readily think of a female character having a pee scene... except the one I recently wrote, but it was pertinent to my plot, which involved a pregnancy test. So there! Thanks for the fun lit-crit.

Jenny D said...

I've never been crazy about David Lodge, I think it's the kind of fiction that dates awfully quickly--I remember as a teenager reading that one that's called (something like--hmmm, can't really remember...) "How Far Can You Go?" because it was on Anthony Burgess's 99 Novels list, and finding it not really transcending the limitations of its time and circumstances of composition. And of course I read the academic satires as I was heading to grad school (& Nice Work when it came out later--is that the one with the incredibly annoying Silk Cut/Marlboro conversation in the opening? how irritating...). I think that they're fairly unabashed light reading but that I prefer my light reading more obviously enjoyable! (I thought James Hynes' "The Lecturer's Tale" was the funniest academic satire I've read for a long time, but in general I avoid academic satire, unless it is the wizard universities of Terry Pratchett and Diana Wynne Jones....)

guile said...

saturday.. i love that book :)..

exileonninthstreet said...

The peeing and the breast fixation may just be a middle-age male fixation. Peeing seems to be a middle-age male issue.

Lodge, being that he's an academic and novelist, may be fall into the category of being a better critic than novelist. I've yet to read his fiction, but his critical work is excellent.

Monique said...

Definitely try The British Museum Is Falling Down. I thought it was hilarious and is one of my ultimate favourite reads. There's a library card scene that I'm sure I've experienced myself. The rest ... I tried and couldn't get into it.