18 November 2010
How much of a clue is there to the tone of this novel in the weary pun of the title? Quite a lot, in fact. Our narrator is a retired university linguist, fond (in his day, which hasn’t been for some years now) of setting his students exercises in style. We start with a continuous present third-person narrative in which we witness a typical incident: a middle-aged man struggles, not to hear what a young woman is saying to him, but to hide the fact that he can’t actually hear a thing in the noise of the concrete gallery they are standing in. As the same man makes his way home with his long-suffering wife the style switches to the first person: the first section was just one of his exercises.
That’s David Lodge for you. Most of these early chapters are patently based on the author’s experiences of increasing deafness, but with layers of alienation devices he’s giving us little reminders – as light as the self-conscious narrator’s in-jokes to himself – that this is a fiction: the 60-year-old Desmond Bates should not be confused with the far more successful 73-year-old David Lodge. The first two or three chapters are full of detailed descriptions – mainly in the form of grumbles – about the indignities of being deaf as compared to, say, being blind and the everyday annoyances of the condition. But, underlying them, lies the truth that the terrible thing about deafness is the way it separates the sufferer from absolutely everybody else.
The complaints, ranging from how fiddly the hearing-aid batteries are to the limitations of theatre audio loops, are all familiar to a reader – this reader – who is living with someone losing their hearing, and I wonder how entertaining it might be for a reader who doesn’t know any sufferers. But, fairly soon, we’re on to different territory anyway and we have the beginnings of a plot.
Bates has taken early retirement and is bored. The research he had planned to do seems like too much trouble now he no longer needs to do it – and, meanwhile, his (slightly younger) second wife’s interior design business is suddenly taking off. She’s started to take more care of herself, has lost weight and had a new haircut… but, a few minutes after we’ve decided she must be having an affair the narrator – or, in this case, the author – plays one of his tricks. If this were a novel, he says, the reader would have guessed that she must be… etc. His reason for disbelieving such an idea is that she’s rediscovered her Catholic faith. Bates, unlike Lodge, doesn’t believe in any of that – but he’s pleased his wife does. Of course, just because she’s a Catholic doesn’t prove anything. And anyway, we know what Bates doesn’t: he really is in a novel.
What else? There’s an old dad, stuck in a seedy semi in a seedy London suburb. More familiar territory for this reader: on the audio-book version I’m listening to, as Bates reaches the paternal front door for the monthly duty visit, and complains about how hard it is to make his father hear his knock… I arrived at my own father’s place. I’ve never got him to hear me as long as he’s lived there. I began to wonder whether this novel might be written entirely with a middle-aged male readership in mind. Surely not.
There are grown-up sons and daughters that both Bates and ‘Fred’, his wife have brought to the marriage. They’ve all unproblematically moved away – surely not, again – leaving her free and, as I’ve said, him bored. And there’s a woman, the one he was having a virtual conversation with at the beginning. Apparently, he agreed to discuss her research with her – saying yes at random isn’t always a good idea, ho ho – and now he’s agreed to meet her somewhere quiet. Her flat, to be precise. Not that she could have any designs on him, being young enough to be his daughter… but didn’t someone just remind us we are – sorry aren’t – in a novel? And why hasn’t he told Fred about the meeting? He’s a card, that David Lodge.
I was trying to remember which novel that I’d read recently contains the literary trope of the information that remains accidentally undisclosed, It’s the one where X, in all honesty, is just about to tell Y about the meeting or whatever, but something crops up that makes it awkward to say anything at that moment – and the reader surmises that there’s a hidden reason why X, whilst believing he or she will get round to mentioning it soon, somehow doesn’t. Does Jacob De Zoet do it in David Mitchell’s novel? Does the appalling Anthony in Rose Tremain’s Trespass? Maybe. But it’s so blatant in this novel that it makes me wonder if David Lodge wants us to recognise it to be a trope. This would make sense, because it involves the increasingly dangerous Alex Loom, the Canadian/American student Bates is helping, blatantly – there’s that word again – against the rules of academic etiquette. He’s just been looking up meanings of her surname, within the same chapter that his wife is talking about sending back a roll of expensive material to her Italian weavers. Oh, what a tangled web, he doesn’t say, because he doesn’t need to – but he has found out that ‘loom’ can refer both to the spider and the product of her weaving activities….
Alongside the knowing literary games are more of the word-games to do with deafness. If you can think of a ‘death’ quotation, Bates has probably done a similar sort of thing with it as he’s done in the title. And if there had been any stones unturned in his descriptions of the petty miseries of deafness, he’s had a look under most of them by now as well. Fine.
And that thing I mentioned after five chapters’ worth, the bit about a plot: it’s the Alex Loom story. Her thesis is to be about the language and form of suicide notes, as though David Lodge wants to do in bleakly comic terms what, say, Saul Bellow and Philip Roth went for with greater solemnity when they were his age: the ever-closer proximity of the Reaper. Poor old Bates, having done to death (ho ho) the punning possibilities of his disability, is brought up against an even more uncomfortable truth about his – and everybody else’s – condition. He doesn’t like it when Alex sends him a link to a website purporting to be about how to improve the style of one’s suicide notes (avoiding cliché, repetition, inelegances etc.). Actually, he doesn’t mind – until he finds out that Alex is responsible for the content. She wrote it.
But that’s not the only aspect of her weirdness, as we’re discovering as we approach the half-way point of the novel. The first time he went to her flat, she told him a story about ‘a friend’ who sends unwashed underwear to a secret address for money. What Bates doesn’t realise is that this is a set-up. Never mind that he assumes she’s the one who does this, and is embarrassed when she denies it. When he next puts on his coat a couple of days later, guess what he finds in one of the pockets. Ok, they’re freshly laundered, but he brings their meetings to an end. And, within a page or two, she’s got him to change his mind.
I’m beginning to realise how carefully David Lodge has structured this… because not many chapters later, she does something else he doesn’t like – she’s the one responsible for using a highlighter pen on a library book he’s recently borrowed, one of his many Grumpy Old Men pet hates – and he ends it all, again. By now, we’re beginning to recognise a pattern, because this time she sends a pervy email about how he needs to come to the flat at a designated time, push open the door (that will not be locked), and, well, punish her. Not only does he find this incredibly arousing – how, he wonders, does she know exactly what would turn him on? – but it leads to the best sex he’s had with Fred for years. Reader, Alex (the other character with a man’s name) has taught him to enjoy S&M. What on earth is he going to do?
I’m not going to guess, I’m going to read on. But, just one thing: what Bates really likes – and I’ve only just recognised his surname as the one that is the subject of endless jokes as soon as boys discover the polite name for that private activity – is to tell stories. He’s always got one ready, rehearses how he’s going to explain to Fred why he didn’t mention the first meeting, how he’s going to explain the next bit of vaguely illicit behaviour…. What we’re always confronted with, of course, is the gap between the reality of the situation and the innocent spin he later puts on it. The trouble is, the one he’s really lying to is himself. Who knows where, innocently, innocently, he’s going to let himself be led?
That’s not the last thing after all. We know all about the metaphorical meanings of blindness, because Bates has taken us through them. What he’s turning out to have is the metaphorical equivalent of deafness: he can’t hear the warnings, however loudly they come at him. (And to think that before I wrote this diary entry I thought I was finding it all a bit obvious.)
Lodge eases up on the Alex Loom strand during this third quarter of the novel. I wondered whether he’s decided that it sits rather uncomfortably in a world bound up in the realistically tedious details of everyday middle-class, middle-aged England. In fact, the main strand in these chapters is the one that brings these details to the forefront: Bates’s father, who has only occasionally been mentioned since the set piece of the dutiful filial visit early on, becomes almost the elephant in the room over the Christmas period.
He’s not the only elephant, come to think of it. Being the curmudgeon that Lodge has made his narrator, almost every member of the extended family is an intrusion. It’s not as though he enjoys the usual run of his life, as he’s keen to let us know at every opportunity, but visitors. Ghastly. (I’m also reading Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom this month, and the differences in the ways these two authors describe family life strikes me as entirely representative of one English strand of fiction and one American. Lodge gives us petty irritations, the background noise (no pun intended) of the little tensions that make life vaguely tiresome. With Franzen it’s all at such a pitch of intensity that any changes in family dynamics are nothing short of tectonic shifts. I know which version I recognise – but I would, wouldn’t I?)
Do I need to tell you the plot? For a start, Alex Loom’s supervisor – the one Bates thinks, inevitably, is a pretentious shit – tells him what a nightmare she is. He doesn‘t suspect how involved Bates is, but knows he has been talking to her and appears simply to be doing the decent thing…. Lodge gives her a back seat after that: Bates sees her only a couple of times, once at a meeting in a café – she plays ‘spies’ games, playing on the idea of it being terribly hush-hush – and once at the Bateses’ Boxing Day party. The second of these comes in Chapter 15, and appears to be Lodge’s way of reintroducing her into the main plot following a gap. She appears unexpectedly after having cried off, and to Bates her late arrival and even later departure feel like a set-up. After being dragooned into driving her home, he gets the inevitable invitation up for coffee. At this stage he’s able to refuse, but we wonder what might come later….
The main thread in this, the most real-seeming section of the novel so far, is to do with the problem of the ageing parent. (As I’ve already suggested, Lodge covers a lot of bases with respect to his middle-aged readers: it’s what makes the world of the novel so recognisable. I wonder if that’s what makes the Alex thread seem so implausible by comparison. Did I mention that?) The Christmas visit allows Lodge to add more details to the indignities of growing old, from embarrassing accidents when the next toilet break is too long in arriving to, now I think about it, a lot more references to incontinence and constipation. After Christmas, Bates takes him to see a care home. You can imagine how that goes down with the old man.
There’s some slightly laboured comedy to be got out of the different social strata occupied by Bates’s father and Fred’s mother. Along with all the predictable complaints Bates comes up with about Christmas – supermarkets with aisles of Christmas goods from October onwards, the buying of pointless presents, too much eating, too much family – it makes for a tired episode of a 1970s sitcom. Its only function seems to be to consolidate Bates’s grumpy old man status.
Perhaps even Lodge is bored with it. At the Boxing Day party he manoeuvres the situation so that, despite his best efforts, Bates is left without batteries for his hearing aids. Bates, the first-person narrator of all this, goes into one of his third-person ‘style’ riffs, describing the efforts of the now almost deaf middle-aged man to do something about the difficulty of the situation he’s in. The whole episode is only a few pages long, but Lodge brings in some big literary guns to make it, well, rather clever. Here, ostensibly, is Bates describing in very favourable terms the witty conversations the man has with three different guests on three different subjects. He has to keep talking, y’see, because he won’t be able to hear any replies, and we get more-or-less verbatim reports of how clever his monologues are.
We know, and Bates knows – because he’s supposedly writing this after the disastrous consequences of his behaviour – that he isn’t being witty at all. But it’s a welcome, light-hearted literary parlour-game. Good old David Lodge, giving us what we need after a tedious Christmas Day. It’s after this that Alex arrives. On the drive to her flat later I’ve just remembered that Bates gives her ideas she’s keen to use for her thesis. Her supervisor has told him how she is always on the look-out for other people’s ideas to claim as her own. I’ve also just remembered that she’s sent an email to ask him to try his hand at writing a suicide – or ‘pseudicide’ – note, and he refuses. Then he writes one, but doesn’t send it. He’s interested, see?
So, the Alex Loom thread is definitely not over. And nor, now I think of it, is the wealth of unlooked-for experience concerning deafness that Lodge has brought to this novel. I haven’t even mentioned the lip-reading classes which make Bates feel like a schoolboy again and which, against the odds, become a welcome haven in a hostile world.
Chapters 16-20: to the end
Did I know where this novel was going, that a bit of light fiction about a curmudgeon’s response to his own deafness would turn into a rather serious meditation on death? No – and, to be honest, I can’t imagine that David Lodge did, either. Chapter 16 is Bates’s own attempt at a comic interlude, a third-person account of a disastrous long weekend at ‘Gladeworld’, a CenterParcs-style holiday compound. Near the end of it he discovers that a freezing shower, taken as a kind of dare – don’t ask – has made him completely deaf. It turns out that the comic denouement – not really comic in Bates’s telling – is that the freezing water has instantly solidified the wax in his ear, previously softened by a makeshift sauna with the thermostat set too high. There isn’t much comedy in his description of marital relations, already cooled over Christmas, now frozen as solid as his ear-wax following hours at A&E.
The Alex Loom thread, firmly anchored in the territory of the comic campus novel, has to be polished off, and Lodge does it by shifting the crisis away from Bates almost entirely. Butterworth, her supervisor – the one Bates, inevitably, doesn’t like – arranges to meet him. He looks worn out, and it turns out that the previous summer he was letting her give him blow jobs, and now she’s prepared to shop him if he doesn’t make sure she gets a job doing some teaching in the department. During their conversation one of them does that thing again about referring to what would probably happen if this were a novel (specifically, a campus novel), but after that little squib Lodge lets the threat come to nothing. There are a few more emails, but the thread ends in the final chapter following a last bit of literary games-playing: a suicide-note, sent to both Bates and Butterworth, written by this student of the style of such things. In fact, she’s simply done a runner leaving months of debts behind. The end.
The main action is all elsewhere, and there’s a kind of redemption reached as Bates comes to understand something rather profound about death and the suffering of others. I bet you didn’t see that one coming – and, as I’ve said, I’m not sure the author did either: it’s hard to believe the veneer of comic writing was only ever there in order for it to be peeled back to reveal something important and serious about the human condition. Sure, there has been a serious edge to a lot of Bates’s pessimistic outlook but, well, blimey.
What do you need to know? Bates’s lessons in how to be a bit less crap come in four chapters. Everything seems to take place at such an accelerated pace that I couldn’t help feeling that Lodge is daring us to doubt its plausibility just so that he can remind us, again, that he never pretended this was real. Between mid-January and early March his father shows increasing signs of dementia, Bates gets a highly unexpected chance to go on a lecture tour to Poland which makes him, against his inclination, feel pressured into visiting Auschwitz, his daughter gives birth, his father has a bad stroke so they really must sort out a care home, then gets worse, to the extent that Bates has to decide whether to keep him alive or not – leading to his confession that (gulp) he helped his first wife to die – but his father dies anyway without him having to decide. By the time he’s scattering the ashes even Bates can’t help feeling that he’s learned something.
It’s strange for a novel to go through what feels like a complete genre-shift like this. In the Auschwitz chapter David Lodge does his best to persuade us that even a cynic like Bates can’t help but be affected by the horrors of the Holocaust. The point is, this journey and the other events of these chapters make us realise he isn’t a cynic at all. He begins to recognise the value of what he has. So, on his return to his hotel after his visit to Auschwitz and Berchenau, he is told that his first grandson has been born at the very hour when he was so engrossed in the contemplation of death. You couldn’t make it up. He doesn’t pretend that one birth can make up for the millions lost in the camps, but, you know, where there’s life….
(I’ve just remembered that in an entry in his diary two or three months before this, Bates describes in retrospect the inconvenience of the suicide bombings of ‘7/7’ in London. He appears to have no real feelings about the atrocities, describes how he was able to spend a rather relaxed day in the capital. At the time I took this to be a kind of wry comment by David Lodge on how the British respond to such events – in real life and in fictions like this one – in contrast to the Americans, for whom 9/11 has become something that the culture simply must deal with. Now, I think his real motive is to show us how totally self-absorbed his main character is.)
David Lodge gets rid of Bates’s father almost as quickly as Alex Loom, but a lot more messily. It’s all horrible, and reminds us that the author is in his 70s, the sort of age when the contemplation of mortality is bound to become a bit more urgent. Dementia, illness, incapacity, confusion, death. That’s enough of that. But it has the useful effect of making both Bates and his wife realise the value of what they have – and, consequently, the pointlessness of their disagreements. Nobody actually reminds them that you’re a long time dead: they’ve realised it anyway.
Bates even comes to understand that while those deaf/death puns might have been all very clever, they miss the point. Deafness isn’t comic in comparison with blindness, as he’s constantly been saying, it’s comic compared to death. Beneath the comedy, Bates has been treating his affliction with great seriousness, and now he realises that in the great scheme of things – the message really is as loud and clear as this – it’s not that bad. The novel ends in one of his lip-reading classes, which he started off being rather patronising about. Now, not entirely tongue-in-cheek, he tells us how much he learns from them. Well.