on July 21, 2000
MR. PHILLIPS is a recent inductee into my personal Pantheon of great modern literature. This is a terrific - indeed, incandescent - little book about a single day in the life of a very ordinary middle-class Englishman who has just lost his job and hasn't yet broken the news to his family. There's nothing, and yet everything to this seemingly inconsequential work. It reminds us, again, that even at its bleakest, life is more comedy than tragedy. As a writer, Lanchester is, in the English way, a precisionist. Most of his conceits are so economic, sharp, original and outrageous that you read the entire book (it can be done in a few hours) shivering with pleasure and wishing that you yourself were half as talented.
on April 16, 2000
"Mr. Phillips" has achieved the impossible: one-upping the most intelligent/hilarious book ever written: Joe Heller's "Catch 22". The "Minutes of the Wellesley Crescent Watch Comittee meeting" almost put me in the hospital. I was in laugh pain on every subsequent page. I was attracted to the book principally because of the title (being a Mr. Phillips myself, I thought it would look spiffy on my coffee table). Knew nothing about the writer. Never heard of the book. This was blind luck at its best. I now read excerpts aloud (to everone's delight) at work and dinner parties. I've become a John Lanchester evangalist. I hope he writes a lot more stuff. Makes me proud to be a "Mr. Phillips." Bravo.
on April 13, 2000
Mr. Phillips chronicles the first day of unemployment for aredundant accountant in London. No one knows he is out of work; hegets up and goes into town, as he normally would. The fortunate reader gets to occupy the imagination of this middle aged ex-accountant as he ponders on sex, family, city life, and death. John Lanchester 's writing is droll and at times will make you laugh out loud. But there is a deeper story in this novel which will move the reader to a feeling of satisfaction and delight at the end of Mr. Phillip's day. Mr. Phillips remains with the reader long after the last page is read. A well written and entertaining novel.
on July 5, 2000
Lanchester's A Debt to pleasure was one of the best first novels by an English writer in recent years. The central character was beguiling, witty, snobbish, urbane, and seemed to have fallen from the pages of a Nabokov novel.
Mr Phillips is not as satisfying, but it is still enjoyable. It is a day in the life of a man that has lost his job, but cannot face telling his family. He gets the train, he walks about, he stares at pretty girls, he thinks about sex, he stalks, (the humdrum normality of suburban English lives. Anyway, you get the idea)...
The prose is understated, and consciously mundane. In its own way the novel is as stylised as A Debt to pleasure.
From the mundanity Lanchester works (Sometimes too hard) at deriving humour. Sometimes, the humour is heavy handed, at other times - when it stems from the character's foibles - it works wonderfully. As the eponymous anti-hero has an accountancy background much of the humour stems from his obsession with numbers. For example, his consideration of sex is based around numbers, statistics, and percentages.
The mundanity does not work as well as in books such as The Diary of a nobody. However, Lanchester does make tedium fun. Despite the humour the central character is well drawn, with a human side (although Lanchester occasionally totters on the brink of mawkish senitmentality in relation to him).
Mr Phillips is an enjoyable book, and is easily read. It feels, though, as if this is an exercise by Lanchester in ventriloquism (reminding me in parts of the short stories of Candia McWilliam). Now that he has tried on a couple of voices, could the real John Lanchester step forward please. Because when he does, the signs are that he will produce something great.
People who like Martin Amis (his pre-dental work stage) should enjoy this.
on June 1, 2002
Whew. It's good to be back in my own consciousness. John Lanchester's "Mr Phillips" is the literary equivalent of that wonderfully quirky film "Being John Malkovich" a few years ago. From the first sentence, we are dropped in medias res into the curiously cool mindset of just fired ("made redundant" in his accountant's patois) Mr Phillips. It is Monday morning as we lie in bed with slumbering Mrs Phillips and drift into our various fantasies of other women, each meticulously "rated" in a manner befitting an ob-com CPA. Thus are the two central motifs ignited: women (and sex generally) and descriptive numeracy of all sorts.
From here, fiftyish Mr Phillips, who has decided not to reveal his employment situation to his wife (or two grown sons,) goes through the typical work-a-day motions and finds himself wandering aimlessly for the first time in over thirty years. His observations and analyses place us squarely in London, which, as usual, becomes an outsized character per se, one which shapes and effects its teeming international amalgam. Throughout, we are treated to"number/probability/odds" rants about any and all things. Regarding the lottery frenzy, for example, we find that "proper" actuarial tables show that "in order for the probability of winning the jackpot to be greater than the odds of being dead by the time of the draw, one would have to bet no earlier than three and a half minutes before the draw." Put another way, death has a greater chance of finding us than does the lotto fairy. This is but one of hundreds of revelations, all put forth with a completely straight-face.
The tics, eccentricities, inner symbols, fears, joys, memories, and fantasies - both light and dark -crowd the currents of this odd stream of consciousness. But, honestly, I now need to go shower to get the Underground's grimy Tube air off myself. Good to have been there, but also good to be home. A wonderful artistic accomplishment with the added treat of enabling one to take a holiday in London for a mere pence an hour (depending, of course, on your reading rate, the current rate of inflation, the cost of your book, the....)
on May 23, 2002
"Mr. Phillips" is a book in which almost nothing at all happens; it's one of those "he goes there and does this, then goes there and does that," stories, yet it succeeds and it succeeds quite well, not because of John Lanchester's experience (this is only his second novel) but because of his enormous talent (this is, after all, the man who wrote the wickedly creative "The Debt to Pleasure").
Mr. Phillips is a man approaching middle age who suddenly finds himself out of a job. Sure, it was a boring job, but Mr. Phillips counted on it...and so did his wife. Unable to tell her what has happened, and perhaps unable to admit it even to himself, Mr. Phillips dresses for work each day, leaves the house at the appointed hour and then fritters away his time until he can safely return home again. If this doesn't sound like much of a plot, you can be assured it isn't. If it sounds boring, you can also be assured it isn't.
"Mr. Phillips" is a book that concerns itself with a single summer day in the life of the newly unemployed Mr. Phillips. Although there isn't much plot to speak of, we do get a very good look into the thought processes of Mr. Phillips, himself. By the time we finish the book we feel we know him better than we might know ourselves.
Mr. Phillips seems to be a man to whom strange things simply "happen." While he sets out to do nothing more exciting than roam around London, he become a witness to a bizarre display of sexual exhibitionism (on the bus, no less); he is almost "picked up" by a strange woman in the Tate Gallery; he visits a porn shop; he foils a bank robbery; and he has an encounter with an elderly woman with whom he discovers a connection. Not bad for an unemployed, middle-aged man who, on the surface, appears more than a little colorless.
These events are no more or no less than...events. But Lanchester is such a gifted writer and his insight into the psyche of Mr. Phillips is so witty and dead-on that we can't help but turn the pages eagerly, wanting to know more and more and more about this silly little man and why on earth he does what he does when he does it.
I know some people have been put off by the extremely arch tone Lanchester affected in "Mr. Phillips." I've read that some people find it distancing and felt it kept us from really getting to know Mr. Phillips. I felt just the opposite. I loved it and I thought it was brilliant of Lanchester to write the book in that manner. Mr. Phillips is, of course, a man who would speak, and even think, in very arch tones, so Lanchester's choice made me feel I was getting to know Mr. Phillips even more intimately, not less.
I have also heard complaints that the real "issues" in Mr. Phillips' life, e.g., his physical decline, the loss of his job, his emotional distance from his family and friends, are not addressed completely enough and intimately enough in this book. It's true, they are not addressed intimately, but once again, I have to applaud Lanchester's choice. Mr. Phillips is a man who is distanced from himself. His thought processes, which are what we're following in this book, simply would not, and could not, embrace his problems intimately. Here is a man who leaves the house and roams London day after weary day simply because he can't face the fact that he's been sacked. He certainly is not going to sit down and analyze the reasons why. The further Mr. Phillips can get from his problems, the better he likes it. In fact, he even entertains the notion of running away to Paris to eat "horsemeat and chips."
I think Lanchester's decision not to address Mr. Phillips by his given name is also a wonderful one, although he does let us know he has one and what it is (it is Victor, by the way).
While "Mr. Phillips" isn't quite the masterpiece "The Debt to Pleasure" is (that is a once-in-a-lifetime book), it is a book filled with writing and characterization that most authors can only dream of achieving. Lanchester is a man of enormous talent and creativity. I can't wait to see what he comes up with next.
on September 28, 2001
John Lanchester makes it look so deceptively easy, it's tempting to dismiss "Mr Phillips" as a rather slight follow up to the celebrated "Debt To Pleasure". Writing in a different vein, Lanchester's sophomore effort is an astounding work of pure craft and genius. A day in the life of an accountant who has been told he's fired but his wife doesn't yet know. He leaves home at the
usual time the next day but instead of heading for the office, spends the day wandering about town observing the movement of normal human traffic and figuring out the statistical probability of conventionally held beliefs about normal human activity including how often people have sex, meet with accidents, etc. Before the day is through, he would have had a few strange
encounters with unlikely social specimens, watched a pornographic movie in Soho, London, stalked a favourite TV personality he spotted in Chelsea and been caught in a bank hold up. All this may sound quite inane and absurd but it isn't remotely. In losing his job, Mr Phillips also loses his bearings. As his defence mechanism goes into frantic overdrive, he starts playing mind games with himself. He tries desperately to recreate a new reality to define and validate his own existence. An equilibrium of sorts restores him to the world by the time he makes it back home. Maybe now he can tell his wife. I loved "Mr Phillips" because Lanchester has chosen for his subject an area of our subconscious we're all secretly familiar with but never
thought somebody would unrevel on paper with such incredible lucidity, poise, humour and finesse. He has released the dream of the everyday man into the public domain. It may seem like an overstatement but "Mr Phillips" is so emotionally accurate and satisfying I reckon it's a minor masterpiece. Don't have any preconceptions. Just read and enjoy it !
on May 30, 2000
This book is not going to jump out at you, or bowl you over, and probably won't leave a lasting imression on you. But that is not really Mr. Lanchester's style, is it? Like his characters, he highlights the fine details in the otherwise mundane. Another reveiwer stated that Lanchester had set out to write a serious book. I don't agree with that at all. I got the sense that he mearly wrote about what took his fancy at that time, be it statistics, pubilc transportation, or bodily functions. It's a unique style, and that's the most important thing. And one more thing, if you do get this book (and you should), do yourself a favor and read it through in one sitting.
on May 15, 2000
The concept of Mr Phillips is not really a new idea. As another reviewer pointed out, its very similar to Nicholson Baker's early work (i.e,the description of daily minutia that spirals into bigger themes). What makes Mr Phillips a winner is the humor - british and otherwise- that others of this genre didn't have. He's actually a grown up Holden Caufield hiding out in a big city without telling his family of recent events. What brings it all together is the author's easy writing style.
This is a light read that I would recommend to anyone who enjoys good prose with a subtle bite.
on July 20, 2000
I enjoyed this book immensely--but I have to admit a prejudice. In 1998, my family and I lived in south London for six months, in Wandsworth where much of the story takes place, in one of those south London neighborhoods that according to one guide book (I think it was the TIME OUT GUIDE TO LONDON) "are so obscure they don't even exist." We loved our six months there and Lanchester's book brought back so many memories. Some how he just has the feel and sense of London--not so much the London of the rich or the tourist but the "every day" London that we were so fortunate to live for six (and I think happily only six) months. I mean, for example, Lanchester's description of trains stopping is uncanny in its accuracy, humor, and insight. But if you haven't spent a lot of time riding the tube around London you might miss the whole point. Besides the quotidian, MR PHILLIPS contains a great deal of fantasy, which I also enjoyed. Perhaps the most telling aspect for me (also a fifty-something male--fortunately not yet quite redundant) was the mix of the mundane and the fantastic in the book. Are we to take the bank robbery, etc. as genuine events in the life of Mr Phillips or only his fantasy? This book is rich in questions, ideas, and insights without being difficult or overbearing. I recommend it.