Elegant, demonic, obsessive, John Lanchester's The Debt to Pleasure
won the Whitbread Award for first novel, was short-listed for many others, and was translated into a dizzying number of foreign languages. Its narrator, Tarquin Winot, displays an encyclopedic knowledge of food and haute cuisine, and must surely be one of the first fictional "foodie-killers." The author's second novel, Mr Phillips
, is in a very different key. The eponymous protagonist, a 50-year-old London accountant, has lost his job but hasn't told his family. He leaves for work as usual on Monday morning, and finds himself wandering aimlessly around the city, taking it all in. So the odyssey begins.
A statistician and inveterate quantifier, Mr Phillips likes to give marks out of ten for things (including sexual dreams), a habit that has especially humorous consequences when he visits the Tate Gallery. A Gaudier-Brzeska head: seven out of ten; The Boyhood of Raleigh: five. His thoughts on Millais's Ophelia are typical: "If she had drowned surely she wouldn't be floating on her back like that? Certainly that wasn't how drowned people looked on TV. Six out of ten." Mr Phillips's judgments may lack sophistication, but they are often hilariously apt, and above all true to his personality. He has a penchant for mental arithmetic, and speculates about how many women in England pose nude for magazines and tabloids (16,744, he deduces). He isn't exactly sex-obsessed, but he illustrates dramatically the notion that men think about sex a great deal of the time.
His thoughts also meander in many directions: How many people on a London bus have never been on the river Thames? What would the financial accounts of the Battersea Park authorities look like? Standing on Chelsea Bridge, he calculates the speed at which a suicide would hit the water. Is this litany of seemingly trivial arithmetical puzzles a response to the trauma of unemployment, or is it a heightened version of the mind games we all privately play? Mr Phillips is extremely observant and insightful--he should have given up accountancy long ago. He is good on old age and especially good on death: "But the thought that you would be aware of what was going on as you died implied that somewhere in his future was a moment of the purest terror, terror at 200 proof, so that you could have a small taste of the fear every time you let your mind touch on the subject, even for a second or two."
Reviewers have already been talking about literary influences--Woolf, Joyce, Wells--but John Lanchester's mesmerizing second novel has a cumulative power and brilliance all its own. --Jonathan Allison
From Publishers Weekly
Second novels--especially those appearing in the wake of bestselling debuts--present a particular challenge to writers. Following up The Debt to Pleasure with a solid purposefully prosaic tale of a middle-class Englishman, Lanchester acquits himself honorably. Victor Phillips is a 50-something everyman with two sons; a long, comfortable marriage; and a stultifying position as an accountant. Suddenly, on a Friday afternoon, Phillips finds himself downsized. He cannot bring himself to tell his wife, and sets off for work on Monday morning as usual. Taking a train into London, he wanders around, invites his adult son to lunch, visits a porno theater, then endlessly ruminates about the plot of the movie. When he is not musing on sex, he sinks into Walter Mittyesque daydreams or ponders the vagaries of fatherhood and his uncomplicated childhood. The only action occurs when his bank is robbed while he is standing in line. As in The Debt to Pleasure, plot is not paramount, but here the all-important detail is more domestic than exotic. In making a relentlessly ordinary man his hero, Lanchester risks losing himself in the banal. But when he hits the mark, he achieves a sharp-edged clarity. Phillips's wry observations--"We wouldn't care so much what people thought of us if we knew how seldom they did," or "When you are young, sex is It, when you are older, death is"--balance his recurring lists and calculations, as when walking in Battersea Park, he "feels the long-suppressed need to draw up a tranquillising double-entry." As soothing as a bill of accounts, and periodically much more stimulating, this stylishly written novel makes it clear that Lanchester is more than a one-hit wonder. BOMC featured alternate; audio rights to Simon & Schuster; author tour. (Apr.)
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