Nice Work by David Lodge24 September 2007
A change from the usual nonfiction selection — one of David Lodge’s ‘campus’ novels.
Nice Work by David Lodge
It’s the mid-1980s, and the staff of Rummidge University (located in the city of Rummidge, a spot in the industrial Midlands that might, if you squint at it, look remarkably like Birmingham) are feeling the pressure of Margaret Thatcher’s cuts to education funding. The industrial and technical businesses that make up the mainstay of Rummidge’s economy are also suffering under the weight of the general economic downturn. So when the government decides that outside intervention is needed to foster a sense of mutual understanding between academia and industry, a ‘shadow scheme’ is set up to allow an academic to follow an industrial manager around and learn a bit more about the world outside the ivory tower. Rummidge University sends fledgling (and all-too temporary) English literature professor Robyn Penrose to shadow Vic Wilcox, the managing director of a local manufacturing company — and at the outset, it seems that two more incompatible people could not have been chosen. Robyn is an ardent feminist, born and bred in academia and devoted to her studies of repressed women in the Victorian industrial novel. Vic is an industrial middle manager who has no time for books and no patience for the woolly thinking of people who (he believes) wouldn’t know an honest day’s work if it crept up and bit them. As the Shadow Scheme lurches along, Robyn and Vic constantly challenge each other’s perspectives on life and work and personal values. Every squabble only seems to confirm the fact that they come from completely different worlds — but at the same time, every squabble pushes Robyn and Vic closer to some kind of understanding and a re-valuation of the jobs and lifestyles they had all but taken for granted.
I should say a word about the characters first before I talk about the book itself. Robyn and Vic are not likeable characters at first or even at second glance. I think I spent at least the first quarter of the book actively disliking both of them. It isn’t until they’ve interacted more and Robyn and Vic have started to influence one another that they become even marginally tolerable. Most of the supporting cast are not much more enjoyable, though since Nice Work is meant to be a comic novel I suppose it’s only fitting that the characters tend towards the stereotypical: Vic’s Valium-addled wife, crudely chauvinist co-workers, and airheaded secretaries stack up fairly well against Robyn’s bland on-again-off-again boyfriend, wet fellow professors, and Thatcherite younger brother. Having read Kingsley Amis’ Lucky Jim, perhaps the first well-known campus novel, I have to wonder if there isn’t some requirement that comic campus novels must be peopled with only the most unpleasant caricatures available for each character ‘type’. The reader clearly isn’t supposed to like them, at least not at the outset.
That said, moving swiftly on. Nice Work, according to various other reviews I’ve read, is somewhat based on Elizabeth Gaskell’s industrial novel North and South (written in 1854); it’s the story of a man and a woman from two vastly different social backgrounds who are thrown together and spend most of the book attempting to bash out their personal differences. And in the standard tradition of the industrial novel, the ending is more than a little contrived to produce the best possible solution for the two main characters: there’s a windfall inheritance involved and a well-timed visit by an American deus ex machina (who is actually a character from Changing Places, one of Lodge’s earlier novels). The pastiche is fairly effective, though, perhaps because of the contrived ending. Nice Work provides an interesting snapshot of the Thatcher years as seen through the eyes of two vastly different individuals, and the plot’s resolution is satisfactory enough to make the story on the whole worthwhile.