- Paradise News by David Lodge
Secker, 294 pp, £14.99, September 1991, ISBN 0 436 25668 1
Had the Pentagon, back in the late Sixties, accepted Boeing’s tender for a massive new cargo aircraft for the United States Air Force, David Lodge would not have been able to write Paradise News. Instead, however, Lockheed got the contract, and Boeing were left with a redundant set of blueprints for the biggest furniture van never built. To save all that development money going to waste, they came up with a blindingly simple solution: fill it with seats, and call it an airliner. Thus was the Boeing 747 born, and now David Lodge has written what may, in socio-historical terms, be the first post-Jumbo Jet novel. Just as Wordsworth and Ruskin in the last century predicted and fulminated against the social implications of the new railways’ capacity for moving hordes of people into somewhere like the Lake District, so a newer mass translation of the populace is behind Paradise News: nowadays the wide-bodied jet enables hundreds, thousands, hundreds of thousands of us all of a sudden to be the other side of the world, and Lodge to beam a whole plane-load of people to Hawaii for a fortnight.
Lodge novels have begun with journeys before: previously, though, they have tended to introduce the binary contests on which his fictions often turn – Vic Wilcox in Nice Work cruising to work in his Jag as Robyn Penrose tootles to college in her Renault 5, or Philip Swallow and Morris Zapp of Changing Places crossing somewhere above the North Pole as their planes take them in opposite directions for the start of their academic job-swap. Two ideas setting off for each other’s point of origin: Paradise News lacks this beautifully simple dynamic, because everyone jumps on the same plane. Still, in Medieval times Chaucer put a disparate band of travellers together on the road to Canterbury and called it a pilgrimage; now we call it a package tour. Unsurprisingly, amongst Lodge’s sun-seekers is a researcher called Sheldrake who is investigating the phenomenon of tourism as modern religious ritual – the survival, as it were, of the ‘holy-day’ in the holiday. ‘One day,’ he earnestly explains, ‘sitting on a lump of rock beside the Parthenon, watching the tourists milling about, clicking their cameras, talking to each other in umpteen different languages, it suddenly struck me: tourism is the new world religion. Catholics, Protestants, Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists, atheists – the one thing they all have in common is they all believe in the importance of seeing the Parthenon. Or the Sistine Chapel. Or the Eiffel Tower.’ He proceeds to Hawaii, of course, to find that what we think of as a hotel swimming-pool is actually a baptismal font, and so on. A truly terrible essay in Lodge’s collection Write on, in which he attends a Shakin’ Stevens teenybop gig ‘struck by the Christian symbolism permeating the whole event’, suggests he was right not to push his luck with Sheldrake’s musings, even for comic purposes. An American art critic featured on a recent TV documentary about Madonna and her eclectic borrowings puts this sort of stuff in context: ‘We are invited to call it post-modernism,’ was his deadpan verdict, ‘but I prefer to call it shopping.’