Nice joke, if you can get it: why David Lodge’s self-indulgence works on so many levels

David Lodge Nice Work cover

Warning: contains spoilers for David Lodge’s Nice Work and (in general terms) for a number of nineteenth century novels…

On Sunday, I mentioned that as part of my general revisiting of the Margaret Thatcher years, I have been re-reading David Lodge’s Nice Work. It’s the final part of his Rummidge University trilogy, and is a pastiche of a ‘condition of England’ or industrial novel, rather like Dickens’ Hard Times or Gaskell’s North and South. During this re-reading, I found an in-joke that has tickled me ever since.

One of the main co-protagonists, Robyn Penrose, is a lecturer in nineteenth century literature. She is, in my imperfect knowledge of the term, a post-modernist. She doesn’t believe in character. But she is used to critique the idea of the industrial novel within what is a fair and affectionate parody of the form. One of these critiques is delivered as though it is a university lecture, with comic asides. But then this:

The writers of the industrial novels were never able to resolve in fictional terms the ideological contradictions inherent in their own situation in society.

Robyn goes on to explain that the novelists couldn’t propose political or general solutions to the problems they described in their books. Therefore they fell back on personal solutions. Robyn lists the endings of Hard Times, Sybil, Shirley, North and South and Felix Holt. She triumphantly but dismissively ends her lecture:

All the Victorian novelist could offer as a solution to the problems of industrial capitalism were: a legacy, a marriage, emigration or death.

When you read Nice Work for the first time you don’t notice this (why would you?) but in fact Lodge has served us a rather delightful spoiler of his own. For perhaps to show that he himself doesn’t have any answers, that’s almost precisely how Lodge ends his novel. On the final day Robyn receives a massive legacy and receives a marriage proposal and a job offer in the USA. Curiously, she also receives an offer for a one-year contract extension at Rummidge University – and it is this that she accepts. I wonder whether Lodge (who taught at Birmingham University – Rummidge’s real-life counterpart) saw this as a terrible option – akin to death?

Self-indulgence in a writer is often awful. But in a novel critiquing other novels, it’s rather delicious to find the criticism taken at the same time as it’s handed out. Nice work.

5 comments

  1. […] With an early exception, I’ve featured book reviews on this site since about 2015 (my first being that for Ragnar Jónasson’s Snow Blind). I am not under the impression that people are hanging around waiting for my comments, but I do kinda hope that the reviews add to the conversation about a particular book. Whether the reviews do this or not, the act of writing them has certainly made me a better reader. Everyone who runs a book blog (even if I am not sure that Cafe thinking is, really, a book blog) has their own reasons for doing so: I love following some book bloggers and I find that the work of others leaves me unmoved. Bloggers and other reviewers are not untouchable: who comments on the commenters? It’s quite reasonable to question the content and quality of blogs. But I don’t get to call into question the legitimacy of those who blog, and neither do you. […]

  2. Nice catch! I certainly missed that the first time through. Hadn’t really gathered that this was part of a trilogy, even. I guess I lost track. I was at Brum as an exchange student long ago. Kind of a Changing Places situation — but unfortunately I didn’t read the book until after I made it back to Berkeley.

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