Nice Work is a very funny book.
I love it that author David Lodge allows me, as reader, to relax and have fun. Having just finished writing a comic novel, I have a new appreciation for just how hard comedy is. Lodge does a convincing job laying out the two people who will come into conflict, the managing director of a factory and a feminist English Lit professor. Their worlds are very different and she initially enters his world. Lodge writes in detail on the work lives of each character, something that is often left out of novels. Even though it takes place in England of the late 1980’s, it feels contemporary because these kinds of conflicts are still around: budget cuts in education, industrialization, globalization… sigh
Lodge is great at presenting academic arguments in a simple but not simplistic manner in a way that also advances the plot. He fits together many elements into a satisfying whole, full of intertextuality. He also does a very nice job of incorporating details from the Thatcher 80’s in the text without condescension or taking the reader out of the story. Instead, Lodge uses them to illustrate the effect on the universities: “But there were no jobs…. Mrs. Thatcher, elected with a mandate to cut public spending, had set about decimating the national system of higher education…. Required to reduce their academic staff by anything up to 20%…” These elements were the most valuable to my own writing as examples of how to incorporate ideas and details in an organic way that doesn’t bore the reader or take a heavy toll on the story.
He also offers a sound example of setting up inevitable and strong conflict with two characters from different worlds. The author does not draw back from skewering both, especially academia. He is relentless, whether it is on critical theory, the foolishness of some of the professors, or the politics of the university. While it is unlikely that these two people would end up in bed together, Lodge has enough skill to override the contrivance. In section V, chapter 1, “It was, perhaps, inevitable that Victor Wilcox and Robyn Penrose would end up in bed together…” He takes a potential problem for the narrative and flings it in front of the reader in order to diffuse it as a problem. It is also refreshing that the author is not heavy handed about pushing an agenda. He gives both industry and academia strengths and flaws, skewering both in an even-handed way, allowing me to form my own opinions and enjoy the story.
The other thing I loved about the novel was that the characters were adults rather than old adolescents. Robyn maintains her views and her values, incorporating some of Vic’s ideas at the university and Vic remains essentially who he is, coming back to himself after a brief infatuation with Robyn and, likewise, includes some of her ideas at the factory. They both have the opportunity to see the familiar and mundane through fresh eyes and each grows to appreciate the other.
So many books only work on one level. Not this one. He presents Vic’s scenes in a straightforward manner, the same way Vic prefers his reading, his work, and his life. The portions of the novel devoted to Robyn are full of author commentary, asides, and irony that are in accord with her literary tastes. Nice Work is also an updated version of the industrial novel that Robyn studies. It’s a nice fitting together of many elements that doesn’t bludgeon the reader with its cleverness.
The novel concludes the way Robyn Penrose teaches. She offers a solution to the problems of industrial capitalism with how conflict in industrial novels is solved: “a legacy, a marriage, emigration, or death.” Lodge fulfills this at the end: her uncle dies and Robyn inherits money, Charles proposes marriage (she refuses), she has the chance to go to America, but doesn’t take that opportunity either. As noted above, the narrative itself is a parody of the industrial novel with a happy ending after an ideological battle; the industrial world as seen by an outsider as in Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South, quoted throughout the novel. It has a successful and satisfying comic structure that respects both its characters and the reader.