How Far Can You Go? by David Lodge (1980)

Ten characters is a lot to take in all at once, and soon there will be more, because we are going to follow their fortunes, in a manner of speaking, up to the present, and obviously they are not going to pair off with each other, that would be too neat, too implausible, so there will be other characters not yet invented, husbands and wives and lovers, not to mention parents and children, so it is important to get these ten straight now… (p.14)

This is a strangely unattractive and unenjoyable book. It has most of Lodge’s virtues (plain prose, social history, well-observed humour, plausible characters) but a fair few of his vices as well. Overall it fails. Why? Because it is more like a report or an essay in social history than a novel. It contains lots of historical generalisations, along with lengthy disquisitions on Catholic theology or literary theory – but relatively few actual scenes featuring specific characters. As a result it doesn’t engage the imagination. It is a bit boring and a bit earnest, as Lodge himself is aware.

This book is not a comic novel, exactly, but I have tried to make it smile as much as possible. (p.74)

Tricks

Anyone familiar with Lodge’s previous novels will be asking themselves what literary tricks or structural novelties will he be deploying this time? The most obvious ones are:

  1. this is a group biography – we follow, in a very programmatic way, the lives of ten characters, young students when we meet them in 1952, through to the early 1970s ie some 20 years
  2. it is told by a highly intrusive narrator

Themes

The novel is swamped by two themes which dominate and overshadow everything else:

  1. Roman Catholicism It is about the revolutionary changes in Catholic belief and practice between 1952 and 1973.
  2. Sex And it is about how sex – the fear of sex, the ban on using contraceptives for sex, the ignorance of sex, the slow discovery of the joys of sex – dominated the lives of Catholics from the 1950s to the 1970s. This involves numerous descriptions of all the characters’ sexual activities told in graphic but strangely clinical detail. More than enough.

Group biography

The simple polarity of Changing Places made it easy to process: bumbling Brit goes to California; high-powered Yank is dumped in the Midlands. Compare and contrast their parallel adventures. Their wives were the moons of these two planets, easy enough to remember and get to know, with a number of lesser characters dangling from them in states of greater or lesser vividness. Easy to visualise, assimilate and follow.

By contrast this, its successor novel, sets out to depict no fewer than ten main characters and, since they marry others, an extra ten or so secondary ones. Despite reading the opening chapter twice, I still found it difficult to remember all their names and characteristics and was forced to make a list to refer to:

  1. Dennis, burly youth in a duffel coat, Chemistry student, in love with…
  2. Angela, attractive blonde, French student, Head Girl at her Merseyside convent school
  3. Adrian, wears glasses
  4. Michael, a dark slab of greasy hair falling forward over a snub-nosed white face, thinks continually of women’s breasts and masturbates compulsively
  5. Polly, posh convent boarding school, touches herself as she falls asleep but would be horrified if you suggested it was ‘masturbation’
  6. Ruth, thickset, bespectacled, flat-chested, plain, converted to Catholicism in adolescence thus horrifying her agnostic parents
  7. Edward, first-year medical student with a rubbery comic countenance
  8. Miles, ex-public schoolboy, a convert, posh, repressed homosexual
  9. Violet, small, dark-haired, pale, eczema, bitten-down fingernails, melodramatic, marries her tutor
  10. Father Austin Brierly, devout priest who is destined to have his eyes opened by the theological revolutions of the 1960s and 70s, leading him eventually to leave the priesthood

We meet them all together in 1952, in a gloomy Catholic church where they habitually assemble for pre-lecture Masses. The narrative then progresses programmatically through the next 20 years or so, observing the characters’ various pairings-off, marriages, children, divorces etc. And their sex lives.

The chapter headings give a clear indication of how schematic the approach is going to be:

  1. How It Was
  2. How they Lost Their Virginities
  3. How Things Began To Change
  4. How They Lost The Fear Of Hell
  5. How They Broke Out, Away, Down, Up, Through, etc.
  6. How They Dealt With Love and Death
  7. How It Is

The Intrusive Narrator

It is well known that one of the central challenges of telling a story is deciding what kind of narrator you’re going to have.

You can have a story narrated by one of the characters – a first-person narrator, very immediate, very powerful, particularly where the narrator is finding something out. A variation on this is the Unreliable Narrator, who, in telling their story, reveals that they don’t know about or understand everything that’s going on. A clever author can make the reader aware of things the unreliable narrator hasn’t spotted or grasped, making for Dramatic Irony between what we know and they don’t know.

Or a story can be recounted by a third person narrator, of which there are several flavours.

The Omniscient Narrator knows everything that is going on and recounts it authoritatively, keeping their own character and opinions rigorously hidden. They recount it as it happens. Most of the thrillers I’ve been reading recently are like this; for example, The Day of The Jackal, with its scrupulously factual, dry, emotionless presentation by an omniscient narrator.

The polar opposite is the Intrusive Narrator, a teller with a character and opinions. Historically, most narrators have in fact been quite intrusive: the narrator of Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones, an early classic of the novel genre (1748), starts each chapter with a little essay about fiction or the story or characters. Similarly inclined to buttonhole the reader with their opinions and interpretations are the narrators in novels by William Thackeray, Dickens, George Eliot and Tolstoy. In fact, the non-intrusive ‘clinical’ narrator is a relatively modern invention, a creature of the end of the 19th century, and becoming dominant in so-called genre fiction – spy novels, thrillers – where the illusion of scientific accuracy is important.

Lodge the Intrusive Narrator

Continuing his habit of experimenting with narrative forms, Lodge makes the narrator of this novel very intrusive. From the start he is dropping in little explanations of Catholic theology like an overhelpful teacher.

As they murmur their responses (it is a dialogue mass, a recent innovation designed to increase lay participation in the liturgy) … (1981 Penguin paperback edition, p.1)

The priest on the altar turns, with a swish of his red vestments (it is a martyr’s feast day, St Valentine’s) … (p.2)

Attendance at mass on ordinary weekdays is supererogatory (a useful word in theology, meaning more than is necessary for salvation) … (p.3)

But he also wants to give us a similar helping hand to understand the characters he’s created and the world they live in.

Before we go any further it would probably be a good idea to explain the metaphysic or world-picture these young people had acquired from their Catholic upbringing and education. (p.6)

Note the ‘we’. It is like the academic ‘we’. ‘In this paper we will explore the ways Shakespeare demonstrates blah blah blah.’ Sometimes the intrusive narrator uses this ‘we’, but more often – and more intrusively – Lodge intervenes as himself, ‘I’.

Initially, I thought, this could be any ‘I’, a fictional ‘I’ – the ‘I’ telling a story, obviously doesn’t need to be the same as the author. Except that Lodge goes out of his way to identify the ‘I’ of this novel with himself, the real historical David Lodge.

Thus, when one of the characters in the book goes off to do his National Service, the narrator mentions that he has already written a novel about National Service. He is referring, of course, to Lodge’s second novel, Ginger, You’re Barmy (‘I have described it in detail elsewhere’ p.37). And when he describes the young married Catholic couples’ attempts to implement the Church’s Rhythm Method of birth control, he mentions (at length) the fact that he’s also written a novel on this subject (The British Museum Is Falling Down):

They relied upon periodic abstinence as a way of planning their families, a system known as Rhythm or Safe Method, which was in practice neither rhythmical nor safe. I have written about this before, a novel about a penurious young Catholic couple whose attempts to apply the Safe Method have produced three children in as many years, and whose hopes of avoiding a fourth depend precariously on their plotting a day-to-day graph of the wife’s body-temperature to determine the time of her ovulation, and confining their enjoyment of conjugal love to the few days between this putative event and the anxiously awaited onset of her period. It was intended to be a comic novel and most Catholic readers seemed to find it funny, especially priests, who were perhaps pleased to learn that the sex life they had renounced for a higher good wasn’t so marvellous after all. Some of these priests have told me that they lent the book to people dying of terminal diseases and how it cheered them up, which is fine by me – I can’t think of a better reason for writing novels – but possibly these readers, too, found it easier to bid farewell to the pleasures of the flesh when they were depicted as so hemmed about with anxiety. Healthy agnostics and atheists among my acquaintance, however, found the novel rather sad. All that self-denial and sacrifice of libido depressed them. I think it would depress me, too, now, if I didn’t know that my principal characters would have made a sensible decision long ago to avail themselves of contraceptives. (p.74)

The Boring Narrator In, say Tom Jones or Tristram Shandy, the intrusive narrator emerges as the most entertaining and amusing character in the text. What’s striking about the long sections in this novel written in Lodge’s own voice is how flat and dull they are: they strike just the same lucid, sober, informative tone he uses in the afterwords to the 1980s reprints of his early novels, where he lucidly and plainly explains what inspired them and the biographical details behind them.

It is engaging enough, in those contexts, as memoir or autobiography. But it is not fiction, it is factual explication. Only in the last sentence in the passage quoted above does the narrator ‘remember’ that he’s writing a novel not an essay. ‘Oh yes. My characters…’ Lots of this book feels like that and is deliberately meant to. He will launch on a five-page explanation of Catholic theology, thinking he can redeem these dry and tendentious passages with a larky phrase or two, but he can’t. I am bored and alienated.

Academic mind-set and style Although the passage quoted above is all about the ‘I’ narrator, in fact the most important word in it is ‘they’. Numerous sections convey the passage of time and the fate of his characters en masse, all grouped together – ‘they this’, ‘they that’. The approach, the mind-set, the tone of voice, is of a magazine essay, an article in History Now, discussing ‘a generation’.

For Dorothy and Adrian, Tessa and Edward, Miriam and Michael, Angela and Dennis, then in the early sixties, it was babies, babies, all the way. Nappies, bottles, colic, broken nights, smells of faeces and ammonia, clothes and furniture stained with dribble and sick. Well, that was all right. They were prepared to put up with all that… (p.74)

Of the four couples, Edward and Tessa probably suffered least under the regime of the Safe Period, for several reasons. They were comparatively well-off, they wanted a large family anyway, and they managed to space their first three children at two-year intervals without much difficulty. (p.77)

If you add the words ‘in this study’ after ‘Of the four couples’ to make ‘Of the four couples in this study…’ it brings out how this flat academic language – and the rational enumeration of reasons which follows – could easily come from some social history or sociology report or paper. It doesn’t live. It’s sort of interesting, in the way a good academic paper is, or his afterwords and essays are. But it’s not dramatised, it’s barely ‘fiction’.

They [the couples in our study] had been indoctrinated since adolescence with the idea, underlined by several Papal pronouncements, that contraception was a grave sin, and a sin that occupied a unique place in the spiritual game of Snakes and Ladders. For unlike other sins of the flesh, it had to be committed continuously and with premeditation if it was to have any point at all. It was not, therefore, something that could be confessed and absolved again and again in good faith, like losing one’s temper, or getting drunk, or, for that matter, fornicating. (A nice question for casuists: was fornication more or less culpable if committed using contraceptives?) It excluded you from the sacraments, therefore; and according to Catholic teaching of the same vintage, if you failed to make your Easter Duty (confession and communion at least once a year, at Easter or thereabouts) you effectively excommunicated yourself. So, either you struggled on as best you could without reliable contraception, or you got out of the Church; these seemed to be the only logical alternatives. Some people, of course, had left precisely because they could no longer believe in the authority of a Church that taught such mischievous nonsense. (p.79)

Historical references The narrator peppers the text with references to contemporary history. Many paragraphs start with a potted summary of a specific year and its key events before going on to tell us what happened to the couples in our study during that year. This is quite an easy-going way to revise your post-war 20th century history…. but not really fiction. They remind me of the school-level background notes, or even the voiceover in some ‘100 Greatest Hits of the 60s’-type, cheap TV show.

England was less boring in 1956 than it had seemed to Polly in the coffee bar with Michael the year before. At Easter there was the first CND march. The Outsider and Look Back In Anger made a great stir and the newspapers were full of articles about Britain’s Angry Young Men. In the autumn there was the Suez crisis and the Hungarian uprising. (p.48)

In the same year that Masters and Johnson published the results of their sex research, England won the World Cup at football, which millions saw as the bestowal of a special grace on the nation; John Lennon boasted that the Beatles were more popular than Jesus Christ and, to the disappointment of many, was not struck dead by a thunderbolt. (p.102)

They’re chatty enough, but add to the sense that the text is more full of notes and lectures and historical reminders, than it is of fully-imagined fiction.

All this helps explain why the book feels less like a novel and more like a sequence of episodes calculated to bring out pre-determined themes. But it’s in the many long sections explaining Catholic theology that the narrator crosses a line from being mildly entertaining popular historian into a determined and oppressive lecturer.

Catholicism

All the fancy structuring and self-referential narrator and occasional comic moments can’t really conceal the thumping obviousness of the subject of the novel. Young Catholic students were innocent and miserable back in the 1950s. They married and had children and were poor and slaved away, especially the women, as was expected of them. But then, during the 1960s, they slowly learned to drop their silly life-hampering beliefs and experienced various forms of liberation and freedom.

I don’t know why I didn’t warm to this story, except that I feel I’ve read it so many times before, from so many of the novelists a generation older me, who all experienced the same thing and are all at great pains to tell me all about it.

Since the novel’s dominating theme is the radical changes to Catholic teaching during this period and the impact this had on ‘the couples in our study’, Catholic teaching has to appear in the text and, probably, has to be fairly thoroughly explained in order for us to understand the revolutionary changes it underwent.

But dropping 3-, 4- or 5-page passages of unleavened factual explanation into the text damages any sense that this is fiction, a novel, rather than a series of articles or papers. Along with the Brody’s Notes-level historical references and the programmatic approach to the characters, the long passages of Catholic exposition teach you to read the text in encyclopedia mode, with the factual part of the mind. The net result is that you almost resent the return to the rather silly sections with fictional characters in. Why not go whole hog, and turn it into a personal essay on the subject?

The Lecturing Narrator A good example is his treatment of Humanae Vitae, the long-awaited proclamation on birth control which was finally promulgated in 1968. After all the liberalising tendencies unleashed by the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), Humanae Vitaie cruelly disappointed reformers by not conceding an inch to the new ‘permissive society’, instead robustly affirming the Church’s traditional, stifling and wildly impractical teachings about sexual relations and birth control. Lodge spends three pages (pp.113-115) explaining its contents and the events around its publication, but this turns out to be just the prologue:

Let me explain. (Patience, the story will resume shortly.) (p.115)

There follow another five-and-a-half pages (pp.116-121) of closely-written, completely factual exposition, which could be extracted from a highbrow magazine article or part of an academic textbook, explaining why the Church’s teachings on birth control have central importance to faith, because they imply an entire worldview about the human body and its purpose.

The text – the ‘story’, such as it is – once again simply grinds to a halt. And it seems to me that Lodge using his intrusive narrator to make a joke of it – ‘(Patience, the story will resume shortly)’ – can’t hide or patch over the fact.


Compassion

In Lodge’s fiction, and that of his hero, Graham Greene, Roman Catholicism is the cause of an enormous amount of pain and suffering, psychological self-torture leading more often than not to suicide (in Greene).

In Lodge’s novels Catholicism is seen as a practice, a set of rules about how to live your life, rules designed to mark you out as special, separate and superior to the non-believing ruck of humanity (there are occasional jokey references to slackening this or that rule ‘will make us no better than Protestants’; but I don’t think these are jokes; half the value of Catholicism is the strictness of its beliefs make you heroic in obeying them; a high level of masochistic smugness is always present).

The result – judging from Greene and Lodge’s novels – is a quite staggeringly narcissistic, navel-gazing obsession with your own obedience of the rules down to the tiniest degree and, here as elsewhere in Lodge, the sharpest, most private and personal conflict occurs where Catholic teaching impacts on the characters’ sex lives. So all the rhetoric about love and charity and what-have-you, again and again – and very dispiritingly – boils down to a terribly narrow obsessiveness about sex, sex, sex, contraception, sex, the rhythm method, sex, the pill, sex and more sex.

As a lapsed Anglican I rather thought Christianity, occasionally, had something to do with love for others, compassion for others, loving your neighbour. Agape. Charity. What makes Lodge’s Catholicism (or the Catholicism dramatised in his fiction) just like the Catholicism in Greene’s fiction, so repellent is its relentless self-obsessed, self-examining selfishness.

It comes as a wonderful relief, then, when the narrator talks about something which isn’t sex and isn’t about navel-gazing self-scrutiny going in permanent fear of the Catholic Church’s myriad punishing rules. When Lodge demonstrates the kind of decent, compassionate, liberal-minded humanism that in fact, despite the Catholic straitjacket, underlies all of his fiction.

It’s a couple of weeks since I read it, but several moments stand out in memory as exemplifying what good fiction can do:

  • Ruth, the plain, chunky girl who didn’t marry or need men, who became a nun, but then went to the States in the late 1960s and experienced the standard Lodgesque mind-opening, visiting various hyper-modern, liberal Catholic convents and prayer groups. There is one very vivid scene when she spends a weekend at a tacky prayer meeting at – of all places – Disneyland, populated with talkative Yanks, where she is initially repelled by the almost Protestant (yuk) sense of gushy open-ness. But in the key moment, she is invited by her small group to say something about herself and, as sometimes happens in these situations, finds herself opening right up about her life and in particular the way she’s been a dutiful nun all her adult life but never experienced real, divine love. And starts crying from the bottom of her heart. And one of the tacky talkative American women says, ‘Would you like us to pray over you, honey?’ And Ruth kneels and the half dozen others link hands over her and pray their banal prayers and suddenly Ruth feels an enormous sense of liberation and bliss, the most intense feeling of her life, thrill through her body (p.179). After all the long, lecturing passages detailing Catholic teaching in such numbing detail, Lodge here has the novelist’s tact not to pass comment, leaving it entirely to the reader to decide whether this was a religious, or a purely personal, psychological, moment, making it all the more mysterious and impactful.
  • At the party to celebrate the birth of Dennis and Angela’s third child, their friend the doctor, Edward, realises the little baby is mute and passive for a reason. It is a Down’s Syndrome baby. He discusses it in a panicky aside from the party with his wife and says he will have to tell the happy parents, then cooks up a pretext to get Dennis off to one side. Shall we go into the garage, you can show me all those new power tools you’re so proud of. Sure, come this way, says Dennis, and Edward follows him ‘feeling like an assassin with a loaded gun in his pocket’ (p.112). Now, we know from Wikipedia that Lodge himself had a Down’s Syndrome child (in fact it was his third, exactly as in this fiction). And in later scenes we learn of the devastating impact on Michael and on Angela and their marriage, less scenes than disquisitions or essays in psychology by the author. What fiction does uniquely – and what Lodge rises to here – as author and as person – is to feel sorry for the doctor – for the person who has the fateful life-changing knowledge and has to decide how and when to utter it. I thought that was a genuinely selfless perception.
  • There is another, relatively minor strand, about the diagnosis with fatal cancer of one of the characters’ fathers. Here again, we see the grown-up children and relatives debating whether to let him know or not (amazing that they were in that position; surely hospitals have to let people know, nowadays), and learn the subtle reasons different characters have for a) revealing b) concealing the diagnosis from the patient. For once a prolonged scene that wasn’t about sex and only peripherally touched on Catholic teaching, but dealt with an all-too-common event in people’s lives and dealt with it imaginatively, showing us the impact on various characters, showing us life.

The book in fact contains quite a few scenes like this, scenes which, if allowed to breathe and connect organically, would have been the core of a much stronger novel.

JRR Tolkien was a devout Roman Catholic. One of the most interesting things about his epic fantasy The Lord of The Rings is that, when he had finished it, he went back through it, reviewing it carefully (no doubt for the usual authorly reasons) but also to expressly remove every element which could be interpreted as referring to his religion. I was struck by what a wise and tactful thing that was to do.

Lodge’s strategy in How Far Can You Go?, as in The British Museum Is Falling Down, is the precise opposite. To stuff the books to overflowing with expositions of Catholic doctrine and practice which, as you will have gathered, I find hectoring and off-putting.

However, Lodge is a great novelist and so – despite the religious lecturing and the doctrinal pedagogy in this book – there are also moments when a truly humane sympathy for his characters and, by extension, a compassionate attitude towards suffering humanity, manages to emerge.


Sex

I’m no prude but I found the obsession with sex in this novel distinctly queasy.

Their sexuality may be a dominating part of people’s lives but there’s a reason most people hide it most of the time. There may be more or less levels of shame or embarrassment involved, but the fundamental reason is that it has a reducing, lowering effect on human dignity to be continually reduced to a sexual cipher.

In the first chapter Lodge tells us that Michael masturbates compulsively and is obsessed with breasts. I found this mildly comic but when he went on to discuss the masturbatory habits of the other characters, and when he began to describe how Polly likes to slip her finger between her pink lips and onto her love bud every night before she goes to sleep, I began to feel a little queasy. A middle-aged, male narrator enjoying describing a very young woman masturbating. Hmm. As this first chapter progresses all the other characters are reviewed on a scale of their masturbation habits. Hmm. Is that the most interesting thing about them? And Michael’s breast fixation gives the narrator license to comment on the breasts of all the female characters for the whole of the rest of the book. Hmm.

Hmm means I’m inclined to give the author the benefit of the doubt, it’s fine to make comedy out of people’s sexual habits, it’s possibly alright to dwell on your characters’ masturbatory habits… But the hmm begins to turn negative in the next chapter – How they Lost Their Virginities – which describes just that, describes the engagements and weddings of the various couples and then dwells in great detail on the ghastly wedding nights in scene after scene of brutal sexual explicitness.

It turns out that strictly-brought up Roman Catholic young adults in the 1950s were ignorant and clumsy about sex. a) This is a tiresomely familiar theme. b) The subject could have been handled with, let’s say, some delicacy. Instead of which Lodge adopts what I considered to be a clinical and heartless approach.

By the second week, Polly and Rex had reached the stage of petting to climax. (p.36)

The head of the family was a count, a handsome, charming man who deflowered Polly quite quickly and skilfully on what was meant to be her afternoon off. (p.38)

They made love four times that weekend, and on each occasion Violet had an orgasm under digital stimulation, but not during the act itself, when Robin had his. (p.47)

‘Digital stimulation’. It is the same science paper tone as ‘the four couples in our study’. ‘Four times, eh? And 100% orgasm by digital stimulation but not from penetrative sex. Add that to the spreadsheet of results.’

She was a virgin of, course – so much so that when, prior to retiring to bed on their wedding night, he kissed her attired only in a dressing-gown, she inquired what hard object he was concealing in his pocket. Under the bedclothes she snuggled up to him happily enough, but when he tried to enter her she went rigid with fear and then grew hysterical. (p.51)

Adrian lay on top of his bride and butted at her dry crotch while she winced and gasped faintly beneath him. When at last he succeeded in penetrating her, he ejaculated immediately. (p.52)

Desperately he rolled on top of Tessa and, with a fluke thrust at the right place and angle, entered her in a single movement. Tessa uttered a loud cry that, if it was heard in the house, was probably not recognised; and Edward, groaning into the pillow, pumped rivers of semen into her willing womb. (p.57)

There seemed to be no way that Michael could get his penis to go in and stay in… They struggled and heaved and muttered ‘Sorry’ and ‘It’s all right’, but after a while the atmosphere became slightly desperate. Had Miriam grasped Michael’s penis and guided it to its target, there would have been no problem, but it never occurred to her to do so or to him to suggest it. None of our young brides even touched their husbands’ genitals until weeks, months, sometimes years after marriage. (p.63)

‘None of our young brides even touched their husbands’ genitals until weeks, months, sometimes years after marriage.’ ‘Very interesting results. I think we should add this to the spreadsheet and include in the main presentation.’

The book Dennis had lent her had not prepared her for the physical messiness of the act of love, and the orgasms she had read about in its pages eluded her. On the honeymoon Dennis was ravenous for her, begged her to make love twice, three times a night, he groaned and swore in his rapture, said over and over again, I love you, I love you, but always reached his climax as soon as he entered her, and she felt little except the unpleasant aftertrickle between her legs, staining her new nighties and the hotel sheets. (p.72)

There’s more, much more. Continually, throughout the book, we hear about the characters’ changing attitudes to, and practices of, sex to the exclusion of much else that makes up human life. A few have jobs, briefly referred to. They have children, they move town. But none of them seem to have pets or favourite cars or hobbies or go visit art galleries or make anything. No. Instead Lodge informs us that Michael developed an addiction to German porn movies and the TV producer (there’s always one in these novels about the 1960s), Jeremy, spent a lot of energy trying to persuade his wife to attend swinger parties.

Edward and Tessa… found that the most satisfactory arrangement was for Edward to lie supine and for Tessa to squat on top of him, jigging up and down until she brought them both to climax. (p.153)

If [Robin] was honest, what he enjoyed most was a slow hand-job performed by Violet while he lay back with his eyes closed and listened to Baroque music on a headset. Violet herself was most readily satisfied by lingual stimulation, and gradually this arrangement became customary, both taking it in turns to service the other. (p.155)

Over the years they had composed an almost unvarying ritual of arousal and release which both knew by heart. Their foreplay was a condensed version of their courtship: first Dennis kissed Angela, then he pushed his tongue between her teeth, then he stroked her breasts, then he slid his hand up between her thighs. They usually reached a reasonably satisfying climax, and afterwards fell into a deep sleep. (p.151)

Well, I’m glad it was ‘reasonably satisfying’. The funny thing about all this sex talk is that none of it is arousing. Just as none of the lengthy explanations of Catholic teaching have the slightest shred of spirituality. Both lack that sense of magic or inspiration, of lift and strangeneness. Lodge is never strange. He is always sober and straight-talking and factual and reliable.

That’s why none of the ‘experimentalism’ which he so cannily deploys in his novels actually feels experimental. Not only is he ripping off (copying, pastiching, paying hommage to) experimental techniques pioneered much better 50 years earlier (in Ulysses), but it’s all put to the service of a mind which is relentlessly mundane, earth-bound and practical. It is all reported as if in a clinical paper.

The permutations of sex are as finite as those of narrative. You can (a) do one thing with one partner or (b) do n things with one partner or (c) do one thing with n partners or (d) do n things with n partners. (p.152)

I know in this snippet he’s parodying a scientific paper, or the scientistic approach of contemporary structuralist literary theory. But it also accurately sums up the blank, unemotional, observational style used throughout this novel and which a few chatty interventions by a supposedly intrusive narrator can do nothing to lighten.


The end

The final section embodies these issues, bringing together a number of elements which the Whitbread prize judges evidently liked, but I didn’t. Since the novel amounts to a chronicle of events, without any single ‘plot’, the storyline can’t come to a head and be resolved. The text could, in fact, have continued on indefinitely, to the election of Mrs Thatcher and right up to the present day, chattily telling us what the key events were of each year and then informing us how the couples in our study were doing.

Having to end somehow, Lodge arbitrarily concludes the text by having Jeremy, the smug TV producer (such an easy figure of fun from that era, the epitome of the jumped-up, superficial arriviste) make an observational documentary about his friends and their new, liberated, Catholic beliefs at a trendy ‘Paschal Festival’. And, being Lodge, this final section takes the form of a typescript of the programme (cut to.. zoom in on… wide shot of…). The form is, if not experimental, then confident pastiche, although I found it very boring, very passé. More importantly, it conceals the fact that the characters’ stories are not really resolved. The narrative doesn’t end so much as stop.

In an epilogue, the intrusive if rather boring narrator tells us that while he was writing the final section, Pope Paul died and was replaced by Pope John Paul I – who himself died unexpectedly – to be replaced by Pope John Paul II (in October 1978), the first non-Italian pope in 500 years, an actor and writer – but a theological conservative.

A changing Church acclaims a Pope who evidently thinks that change has gone far enough. What will happen? All bets are void, the future is uncertain, but it will be interesting to watch. (p.242)

The passage captures Lodge’s fundamental niceness along with his enthusiasm and his banality. The end-with-a-TV-transcript felt lame. But in these last paragraphs, it is as if this ‘novel’ has reached the rock bottom of just telling us what the author read in the newspaper this morning. The very last words are a flourish of narratorial intrusiveness, no doubt intended as a light-hearted reference to the end of Jane Eyre.

Reader, farewell!

But it’s too late to redeem this heavy, pedagogic text with a parting gag.


Conclusion

Storytelling, for the most part, relies on some kind of warmth or empathy between the teller and audience. Establishing that basic rapport is vital, for once they ‘have’ the audience, the teller can play with it, tease and please and provoke and entertain. But if the audience isn’t won over in the first few minutes, if that rapport isn’t established, chances are the audience will sit in stony silence for the entire performance and you will ‘die’, as the stand-ups say. This novel’s core components are:

  • an obvious, yet rather minority, theme (young Catholics from the 1950s grow up and come of age)
  • long expositions of theology or history which swamp character and incident
  • a prurient and eventually repellent obsession with sex

For me, the rapport fails. I watch Lodge go about his business with mild interest (the theology and social history), occasional amusement (there are some mildly comic moments), occasional disgust (sex, sex and more sex), occasional compassion (like the Ruth and Downs Syndrome moments I highlighted) – but without ever entering into the spirit of the book. For me, in this text, Lodge ‘dies’.

Related links

David Lodge’s novels

1960 – The Picturegoers
1962 – Ginger, You’re Barmy – Jonathan Browne is fresh from gaining a First in English when he is plunged into National Service among brutal proles and cruel NCOs in a windswept barracks in Yorkshire. Onto this amiable backdrop is nailed a melodramatic story about his friend at university, Mike the ginger-haired renegade of the title, attacking a cruel NCO, being imprisoned, being spring by the IRA, and then forced to return to make a raid on the barracks which Jonathan, by freakish coincidence, ends up foiling.
1965 – The British Museum Is Falling Down – a day in the life of young academic Adam Appleby, unhappy Catholic father of three, who spends a day at the BM failing to do any research and finds himself embroiled in more and more comic complexities, all the time panic-stricken that his wife might be pregnant for an unbearable fourth time.
1970 – Out of the Shelter – the boyhood and teenage years of Timothy Young, child of very ordinary suburban London parents, who is a toddler during the Blitz, a boy at the end of the war, and a teenager when he goes to stay with his older sister in post-war Germany, where he makes all kinds of discoveries about war and peace and life and love.
1975 – Changing Places: A Tale of Two Campuses – It is January 1969 and two English Literature professors are swapping jobs for a term: down-trodden Englishman Philip Swallow is heading for the Californian delights of Euphoria State University, and lit crit superstar Morris Zapp is heading towards rundown rainy Rummidge University. How will they cope with the resulting culture shocks? A hilariously knowing romp, a sophisticated comedy classic.
1980 – How Far Can You Go? – The stories of 10 young Catholics in the 1950s and their adventures as they mature during the 1960s and 70s, larded with lots of commentary about the sweeping changes to Catholic dogma during this period, and lots and lots of clinical descriptions of sex, in a surprisingly flat and unentertaining novel.
1984 – Small World: An Academic Romance
1988 – Nice Work
1991 – Paradise News
1995 – Therapy
2001 – Thinks …
2004 – Author, Author
2008 – Deaf Sentence
2011 – A Man of Parts

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