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Mr. Phillips

by John Lanchester
247 pages,
ISBN: 0771045905


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The Anal and Retentive Mr. Phillips
by Gerald Lynch

The eponymous Mr. Phillips is an accountant at loose ends for a day in London, England. Mr. Phillips is also something of a trick narrative in that key information is withheld till a quarter of the way in (on reviewer's principle I won't give it away). It's as if John Lanchester set himself a writer's exercise for his second novel (his debut having been the acclaimed The Debt to Pleasure) in taking a stereotypical accountant and (to borrow Mordecai Richler's borrowing from a how-to-write manual) "shovelling trouble" at him through the course of one day. These variously credible urban experiences have always been there waiting for the withheld and somewhat compulsive Mr. Phillips, but he's been able to bypass them in thirty-five years of dutiful commuting between home and work.

On the back cover, the publishers, in full blooming publisher's hubris, quote a review from something called the CondT Nast Traveller describing Mr. Phillips as "a postmodern Ulysses [sic] for the work-slave world." That was a mistake, not only because it begs the question of how a postmodern Ulysses would differ from Joyce's Ulysses (think of the Night Town episode), but also because it invites the invidious comparison. To borrow again, this time from that famous Vice-Presidential debate involving the overreaching Dan Quayle: Sirs, I have read Ulysses, and Mr. Phillips is no Ulysses. The only defensible similarity is that Mr. Phillips is structured on the stock day-in-a-life framework. Lanchester's novel is, much more modestly, a good, if easy, satire of its wayward hero as he schleps his way through the first day of the rest of his life.

In The Art of Fiction, John Gardner cautions the work-world-inexperienced writer against giving a character a profession and then having him/her always think in terms of that profession. Gardner is nothing if not dogmatic, and I can see no strain on verisimilitude in having, say, an architect occasionally translate experience in terms of architectural metaphors. But Mr. Phillips sins blatantly and repeatedly against the Gardner commandment: he thinks only in terms of accounting. He is always figuring percentages, of everything from winning the lottery to the chances of dying before receiving the winnings (a neat piece of work). After a tedious process, he figures that "33.6 people on the bus have never been on London's river, seen a corpse nor experienced anal intercourse." Go figure. At another point his thinking occurs in double-entry bookkeeping format, though the content is uninspired and irrelevant. Admirers of this novel would probably argue that the ennui-laden irrelevancy of this Everyman is the very point of Mr. Phillips. If so, in this regard Lanchester succeeds all too well, and not too well at all.

When he's not 'accounting' generally, Mr. Phillips is thinking about sex. Although he convincingly calculates that not as many people can be "doing it" as pollsters claim, his own ruminations argue that such middle-aged men as he are often thinking about it. Most vital functions weaken with age, the imagination doesn't, and Mr. Phillips' coolly calculating mind is as lively and salacious as yours and mine. That is hardly fictional news, and, finally, John Lanchester does little that is new in exploring the interior life, sexual and otherwise, of his hero, which is my main criticism of Mr. Phillips.

What we are given of Mr. Phillips' psychological-emotional history are memories revealing the shopworn frigid childhood home ruled by an exacting daddy. Of course, such a mind as Mr. Phillips' is ultimately death-wishing, and so the ironically named Victor Phillips' victory involves a confrontation with the imminence of actual death, which results in, if not a greater openness to life, at least some self-assertion and less compulsiveness to know everything. This is well done dramatically. But Lanchester's main ambition with Mr. Phillips seems to have been to take an ordinary man and show that his interior life belies the stereotypical appearance (the fiction writer's noblest role) while simultaneously satirizing an accountant and his world (poking dead fish in a barrel), and far too much about this novel is conceptually clichTd and stereotypical. Even many of the jokes are old.

Another writer's rule of thumb is that you do not convey boring conversationalists with pages of boring conversation, and Mr. Phillips' drab world is frequently not entertainingly conveyed in this novel's fairly flat prose describing a grey world. It's not the quantity of satiric observations and colourful characters that is lacking, it's the qualities of inventiveness and style. For fair example: some people alone in their cars pick their noses and eat the pickings; I can accept that (if squeamishly, and wondering why I'm being made to think about it), but do I need to be shown the same thing some fifty pages later? The initial observation is not fresh, the second is crusty. Lanchester has a taste for the scatological. Sometimes he's puerile, or crude as bad TV sitcom, trying too hard; other times he can be funny, depending on the reader's taste and opinion of the fictional justification.

When a satiric novelist steps up to such targets¨the extraordinary ordinary life, London, modern mores¨his eye had better be peeled, his guns well oiled and capable of firing both buckshot and bullets. Too often Mr. Phillips is lobbing the fictional equivalent of comically feathered suction darts. John Lanchester has nodded here with a sophomoric sophomore novel, but he still displays enough talent, wit and acuity to maintain his reputation as a promising novelist who can write sharply indeed. ˛

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