David Lodge's Deaf Sentence.

David Lodge's Deaf Sentence.

David Lodge's Deaf Sentence.

Reading between the lines.
Sept. 17 2008 12:04 PM

Country for Old Men

David Lodge's touch wavers when the topic is aging.

David Lodge.
David Lodge

I have long considered David Lodge's novels a guilty pleasure. They are comedies of manners that, despite Lodge's literary aspirations, succeed mostly as what Graham Greene called entertainments.

Lodge chooses themes that are serious enough. The British Museum Is Falling Down (1965) and Souls and Bodies (1980) explore the difficulties of practicing Catholicism in an age when abortion seems necessary and adultery appealing. Changing Places (1975) and its sequel, Small World (1984), capture the vanities of academic life. Therapy (1995) contrasts medical and religious views of what ails us; Thinks … (2001) extends the discussion to embrace the cognitive sciences. And Lodge, who began his career as a professor of modern literature in Britain, embeds his novels in the canon of great books. The British Museum is pastiche, with chapters that mimic Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, and others. Jane Austen scholarship permeates Changing Places. Therapy becomes a meditation on Søren Kierkegaard's existentialism.

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But Lodge's erudition can feel gossamer-light, more fascinating than edifying. For instance, Therapy contains a half-page riff on how Kierkegaard's name on the page looks to the English eye, and then another half page on how it should be said: "Apparently the o is pronounced like eu in the French deux, the Kierk is pronounced as Kirg with a hard g, the aa sounds like awe in English, and the d is mute. … I think I'll stick with the English pronunciation." It's hard not to love this snippet of knowledge, but we're not exactly wrestling with existential dread. Moreover, the resolution—why stretch ourselves?—has a reassuring, even pandering quality. Often, Lodge's writing is overly comfortable in this way, relying on the complicit assumption that writer and reader share the same middlebrow views. The coziness extends beyond Danish pronunciation to those big issues Lodge raises. We don't really take much stock in psychotherapy (or neuroscience, abortion, literary exegesis, or Modernism); we value traditional faith and common sense.

As a result, the setup of Lodge's novels is the reverse of what one might imagine. The plot complications and sexual high jinks don't seduce readers into confronting uncomfortable questions. The movement is in the opposite direction. The specialized knowledge supplies assurance that we're in the world of intellect and thus not wasting our time—so that the business of plot and character can proceed. On this level, Lodge is a master: In Souls and Bodies, set in the transition from the '50s to the sexual revolution, he manages to braid the fates of 10—yes, 10—main characters and in the process to expose the range of mores of young British Catholics.

In his new novel, Deaf Sentence, Lodge would seem to be on familiar ground. The setting is a redbrick college in the north of England. The protagonist and narrator, Desmond Bates, is a retired professor of linguistics who suffers from hearing loss. When we meet Des, he is looking down the blouse of a comely young graduate student, Alex, as he tries to make out what she is proposing. Inadvertently, Des agrees to a private meeting that, we understand, will not amuse his dauntingly competent wife, Winifred, or "Fred." Beware of women with manly names! Alex, we learn, is American, which is to say ambitious, unstable, and provocative. Des seems about to take the sort of misstep that sets comedy in motion.

The problem is, he doesn't. Lodge never places Des in jeopardy. Instead, our hero is allowed to expatiate on concerns that, as the acknowledgments section indicates, Lodge has shared in his own life: hearing loss and the death of a father. So closely is Lodge identified with his protagonist that the book often devolves into a personal meditation on decline.

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It's not that the elements of a typical Lodge novel are missing. As in Therapy and Thinks ..., Lodge showcases a mind-and-brain discipline—in this case, a branch of linguistics with psychological overtones. In his quest for guidance about mortality, Des turns to the poetry of Thomas Hardy and Philip Larkin. Switching between first person stream-of-consciousness and a diary Des keeps in the third person, Lodge creates variations in narrative voice. But these efforts are desultory, more a reference to the material of academic satire than the thing itself.

Meanwhile, the plotline that is meant to draw readers in surfaces only sporadically. Alex disappears for 50 pages at a time. When she re-emerges, her efforts to stir up some action seem desperate, as, finally, do Lodge's. Des deduces that Alex has defaced a library book, so she writes offering penitence. She invites Des to visit her apartment at a designated hour. A red bulb will light the living room. "You'll see me bent over the table, with my head on a cushion. I'll be naked from the waist down. Come up behind me and position yourself to spank my butt." Des is to hit hard and not stop if Alex cries out. And so on, in an enactment of a Viagra-induced fantasy.

Lodge the entertainer wants to hold our interest through titillation. But Lodge the realist knows that a young woman who makes this proposal might be mentally unstable. Alex is undertaking a stylistic analysis of suicide notes; the self-destructive thoughts include her own. And it seems she's conducted an affair with the university English chair whom she's now shaking down for a fellowship. How convenient—Alex is naughty, but not with Des. The plotline climaxes with a self-diagnosis and a threat, which I won't be a spoiler and spell out—though, given her dissertation topic, it's probably obvious. Both Des and the department head are relieved, although, to be fair, they assume that the siren has merely popped off to the States.

What is meant to get everyone off the hook—us as voyeurs, Des as a dirty old man—is the revelation that Alex is not so much depressed as manipulative. Alex's shortcomings allow for a tidy resolution: The chair may yet face his comeuppance, Des can put himself in Fred's good graces—and because Alex was crafty, no real harm's been done to her. But this plotline never sits right. I don't think it's merely my training as a psychiatrist that leads me to imagine that Alex could have used some help from her elders. Altogether, it never seems comfortable that a suicidal young woman should bear the comedic burden in a novel that is so sympathetic with old men's ruminations on death and disability.

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Des's thoughts are crammed with the homey specifics that, in other Lodge novels, serve to provide verisimilitude: "I got my first hearing aid from the National Health Service, a rather clumsy device in two pieces, one about the size of a tangerine segment that fitted behind the ear, containing the microphone, amplifier, battery and controls, with a little transparent plastic tube attached which conveyed the sound to the other bit, a custom-made transparent mould seated in the ear." Des goes on to describe problems with batteries, volume controls, and earpieces that act like earplugs. But here, Lodge is not amassing details so that we'll enter the fictional trance and buy the outlandish sexual intrigue. He merely wants to talk about aging—seemingly, his own.

This tendency is familiar in the novels of fine writers' later years. In Ravelstein, Saul Bellow included an unnecessary account of his recovery from food poisoning. In Exit Ghost, Philip Roth conveys his response to George Plimpton's memorial service. Fiction becomes a portmanteau for discursive memoir about mortality.

Like Bellow, like Roth, if never at their level, Lodge is a raconteur. Devoted fans won't mind spending time with him, even when the subject is hearing aids. And certain set pieces work well: a cafeteria meal shared by elderly father and son and, later, a failed family Christmas dinner. But the warm-hearted incontinence and impotence humor, the dry comments about women and plastic surgery, the children saying the darndest things ("Mummy bought it at Marks and Spensive")—it could all come from an opinion column in a small-town newspaper.

Lodge might have moved in the opposite direction—dropped the memoirish passages and stepped back from Des, letting him fall prey to an old man's delusions and desires, endangering his marriage and his integrity as an academic. It's not that Lodge is ever terribly deep—as I say, his novels are a guilty pleasure. But when he's at the top of his game, Lodge avoids lecturing readers on particular social issues like contraception, artificial intelligence, or, as here, the aging of the pre-Boomer middle class. Instead, he puts the local material to work in a greater cause. Using the structure of farce, Lodge elaborates absurd entanglements that expose our foibles as humans and then, once the price of humiliation has been paid, allow a modest opening for forgiveness and, perhaps, wisdom.