On the Run
- Mr Phillips by John Lanchester
Faber, 247 pp, £16.99, January 2000, ISBN 0 571 20161 X
The name is ordinary, so the book announces itself as a book about no one special; though, of course, when men without qualities become the subjects of novels a certain gravity (if not grace) is conferred on them. But even though Mr Phillips is really a book about its title – and about what names entitle people to – the title has to be read in the light of the book’s epigraph. Taken from Simone Weil’s The Need for Roots, it plays off, as epigraphs must, the title of the novel against the title that is the source of the quotation: ‘Mr Phillips and the Need for Roots’. Tarquin Winot, the now infamous narrator of Lanchester’s previous novel, The Debt to Pleasure, would have enjoyed the portentous solemnity of the epigraph itself: ‘A man left alone in the universe would have no rights whatsoever, but he would have obligations.’ Victor Phillips, the eponymous hero of Lanchester’s new novel, doesn’t think of himself as a man of big themes, and so wouldn’t be drawn either to reading about them, or indeed to mocking them. Whether or not Mr Phillips would have been Simone Weil’s cup of tea – the novel that is, the character certainly wouldn’t have been – her line is there as a guide-line, ushering you into the novel once you’ve got past the title. And Mr Phillips is not demanding as titles go; and as novels go it is exceptionally funny and often astoundingly intelligent – but it is quizzical.
To give a book a person’s name inevitably makes you wonder what else the book might be about. Some names, for example, seem to have more roots than others. When Joyce wrote Ulysses – another ambitious novel, like Mr Phillips, about a day in a man’s life: another novel about the way time employs people, whether they are employed or not – he didn’t call it ‘Bloom’ (or ‘The Blooms’). Or ‘Dedalus’. He needed his novel to have certain kinds of roots, and to give his readers some way into it. As a name, ‘Mr Phillips’ isn’t obviously up to much. But the preoccupations so explicitly stated in the epigraph give Lanchester’s novel a genealogy unusual in contemporary British fiction. Solitude and anonymity, the relationship between rights and obligations (i.e. ideas about freedom) were after all the essential issues of the extraordinary, but now unfashionable Existentialist novels of Sartre and Camus. Despite the echoes of Evelyn Waugh, of Beckett, of Larkin and Alan Bennett, these seem to me to be the real precursors of Mr Phillips. Lanchester’s new novel, in other words, is that hitherto unthinkable, almost absurd thing, a great English Existentialist novel. Nostalgic rather than loathing of Englishness, as The Debt to Pleasure was, Mr Phillips is a genuine contemporary philosophical novel, a comedy of manners of thought.
Mr Phillips lives in the strange (and often hilarious) logic of his own thought processes, and most of the novel is an account of a day in his thinking, of how he does it and where it takes him, as he drifts through his first day of unemployment in London, having apparently gone to work as normal. As he is – or was – an accountant, he is wearing a work suit and carrying his briefcase; but he can’t actually go to work because he has no work to go to. What occupies him is accounting for his day, observing what is going on around him and drawing his own conclusions. It is a mixture of anthropology and skiving, because he’s never seen a day like this before. He has chosen not to tell his wife or his two sons that he has been sacked, and is wandering (and wondering) round Central London until it is, or would have been, time to go home. His day is shadowed by the day he would have been having at work. He is redundant, middle-aged and, for quite a lot of the novel, consumed by sexual fantasies. Even by his own reckoning, he is an ordinary man but, the novel keeps wondering, ordinary compared to what? The plot of this novel about a man who has lost the plot is simply a series of incidents, of encounters – with pornographers, tramps, bank robbers – whom he comes across in his new-found quest to fill up the day. The people he meets and the scenes he witnesses in his new-fangled, but now common pilgrimage through a day without a job are every bit as peculiar as the thoughts that pass through his mind. Lanchester writes a kind of magical realism for Little England; the surrealism of the external world Mr Phillips travels through is barely distinguishable from the logical oddities of his internal world. Like Sartre’s Existentialist heroes of which he is a mock-heroic version, Mr Phillips is redundant Cartesian man; he thinks strangely and therefore he is. What are people other than their thinking, the novel also seems to wonder. It is the artfulness of Mr Phillips that such things are intimated – the book is full of quotidian signs and wonders – but not part of a programme. Unlike Tarquin Winot, Mr Phillips doesn’t seem to be suffering from the writer’s ideas.