Rainbows

Graham Coster

  • 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.’

Sheldrake is one of the bit-part players in Lodge’s satirical tableau of the English on holiday abroad: a soft target for comedy, and hardly a profound one. While Sheldrake is the product of a donnish, mildly facetious wit, some of the other characters are victims of an equally mild, but still obtrusive condescension. You have the tiffing honeymooners, the woman huffily denying her new hubby his nuptial rites after disclosures at the wedding reception of past naughtinesses. There is Brian Everthorpe, a Nice Work refugee, still trying to flog his Riviera sunbeds, and this time equipped with mousy wife and brand-new video camera (the showing of the subsequent holiday home-movie at an end-of-tour reception is, however, the novel’s comic highlight) – and there is the middle-aged couple from Croydon. One day a PhD student utterly at a loss for a thesis topic will light on ‘The Usage of Croydon as a Motif in English Literature’, and log every instance, all the way from D.H. Lawrence and Anna Wickham through John Betjeman to Martin Amis, of one single placename’s use to connote a vast tundra of anodyne, apathetic anonymity. Here, though, Croydon is exactly where you’d expect Lodge to make his couple come from: a prompt for often disappointingly chummy humour at the expense of such characters’ tacky taste, loud manners or bovine ignorance. Like their subjects, the jokes are pretty happy with tawdry dress sense and cheap taste.

At least this stereotyped situation comedy is only a backdrop for the main matter of Paradise News, which turns it into a very different kind of book. If there is a contest, indeed, it’s in the uneasy fluctuation in tone between jocosity and grimness, for this is actually Lodge’s most intentionally serious and sober novel since How far can you go? On the package tour to Waikiki (because it offers the cheapest flight) he brings a middle-aged, uneasily celibate Catholic priest who has lost his faith, accompanying his elderly and curmudgeonly father on a visit to a long-lost aunt who is dying of cancer. Aunt Ursula has been in disgrace and out of favour with the Walsh family ever since following her GI lover to Florida; now Bernard Walsh has received a phone-call out of the blue and a plea to bring his father out to effect a reconciliation before it is too late. Bernard’s sister Tess can see nothing but bad issuing from such a commission, and when, the day after stepping off the plane, their father looks the wrong way as he crosses the street and is knocked down by a car, her prediction already seems justified. The initial ironies, then, are obvious, though not facile: as well as being the ‘earthly paradise’ that Lodge’s harassed package tourists need a holiday to recover from, Hawaii is also a place where someone can be dying a slow, lonely death and an old man suffer a pointless accident.

The momentum of the novel is of things gradually being made good. Bernard’s father’s fractured pelvis slowly mends; Aunt Ursula, whom Bernard discovers languishing in seedy, insanitary digs on the wrong side of the tracks, he manages to transfer to a more comfortable haven for her last weeks; Bernard’s sister even joins them on a whim to escape from her own family, and Bernard is belatedly initiated into love and desire through a deepening relationship with none other than the woman who has run his father over.

In How far can you go?, Lodge’s previous novel with explicitly Catholic concerns, things were not always so good. Marriages settled into unsatisfactory, irremediable co-existences, a child was killed in a hit-and-run road accident, a woman suffered repeated mental disturbance. About such grievous, hapless chance there was nothing to be done, philosophically or, far less, by any slick contrivance of plot. The one uneasy aspect of Lodge’s next novel, the excellent Nice Work, was its incipient susceptibility to the providential solution. Vic Wilcox is rejected by Robyn Penrose after their one-night stand in Germany, loses his job without warning, and is stranded in an empty marriage to someone intellectually his inferior whom he no longer desired even before his encounter with Robyn. Yet not only does Robyn receive a windfall legacy from a long-lost uncle in Australia, which she can then, newly secure in her own job, pass on to Vic to start his own business with, but his wife Marjorie is galvanised by the idea into improbable vitality:

Vic looked at her in astonishment. Her eyes were bright. She was smiling. And there were dimples in her cheeks.

Lodge’s technical defence of such horrendous Dickensian winsomeness is that the conclusion of his 20th-century industrial novel parodies the hectic, loose-end-tying coercion of its 19th-century exemplars. Certainly Lodge does not take from that century’s fiction George Eliot’s stem notion of nemesis. But the entire course of Nice Work has been, movingly and justly, to establish the dignified independence of Vic Wilcox, someone not to be patronised by either the reader or the plot. The dimples, in other words, are in Lodge’s cheeks, and not the lumpish Marjorie’s.

The bright eyes twinkle rather more over Paradise News. Disaster is, at every turn, narrowly averted, with congenial consequences. The middle-aged couple from Croydon are in Waikiki to visit their son, who has invited them out to meet his new partner. His partner turns out to be gay, and constricted Croydon morality is baffled and obscurely disgusted. But by the end of the book Russ, the spurned honeymoon groom, has been saved from drowning in a surfing accident by Terry and Tony, the gay couple, and not only are Sidney and Lilian Brooks from Croydon converted to proud parents of a brave son but Cecily, the hoity bride (who has been able to resuscitate her husband with mouth-to-mouth technique fortunately learned in the Guides), is reconciled to the respiring Russ by the fright of nearly losing him. Paraphrased like that, it all sounds the most frightful schlock. The trouble is simply that nothing becomes critical, everything is of assistance; all things march to an end, and each end is a new beginning. Literally and teleologically, the sun shines on the cast of Paradise News.

Thus with the destinies of Bernard and his aunt Ursula: as she makes her way, with his and his father’s help, towards a good death, he, with the support and counsel of Yolande, the car driver, belatedly blooms out of decades of celibate hibernation into a good life of love and pleasure. Ursula finally confronts the sexual confusion which, it emerges, has dogged her marriage and has its roots back in her childhood; Bernard overcomes the inhibitions that have hitherto cauterised his emotional yearnings. In both cases Lodge navigates their task of making settlement with their lives solemnly and conscientiously. There is one particularly dimple-cheeked deus ex machina Lodge pulls out, with the implacable defiance of a Blue Peter presenter exclaiming, ‘Here’s one I prepared earlier,’ as Ursula is conveniently rewarded with the discovery of a cache of immensely valuable IBM share certificates that pay for her new, improved nursing-home care (and a cool $100,000 left over to bequeath to the penurious Bernard) – but otherwise you don’t grit your teeth too much at their both finding peace and rest.

Nevertheless, two factors prevent Lodge’s story from truly troubling. First, we never see problems themselves, only solutions. Lodge gives us Ursula’s fortnight of laying a lifetime of ghosts, but not the – so we are told – harrowed lifetime. We see Bernard swiftly initiated into sexual pleasure, but not the years of parched solitude. In How Jar can you go? Lodge gave us everything: year by year, the whole chaotic, random, attritional process of coping with how things happen. Here, his narrative priorities in effect show how easy, even inevitable, it is for a bad life to be exorcised by a good fortnight. And secondly, the narrative is never contentious: nothing is ever ultimately at stake because of the equal opposition of its contrary. In Changing Places both Philip Swallow and Morns Zapp’s marriages are put at risk by the philandering of the other; in Nice Work Robyn Penrose’s ivory-tower academicism is challenged by, as it simultaneously challenges, Vic’s philistinc pragmatism. In Paradise News all the characters inch along parallel railway tracks towards the same terminus, and they’ll all get there. There are contrasts, but no contests. The conclusion is a strangely consensual affair: all the protagonists agree with one another. After Aunt Ursula’s ashes have been scattered at sea off Waikiki beach, writes Yolande to Bernard (incidentally and conveniently confirming that she has decided to leave her husband and come to join him in England), a rainbow appears over the hill above the town. ‘Even Waikiki was a thing of beauty,’ reflects Yolande: ‘I suppose that just about sums up Hawaii: the real rainbow cosying up to the artificial one. Nevertheless, it did look rather wonderful ... I felt we had secured repose for Ursula’s soul.’ Well, good.

‘Nevertheless it did look rather wonderful’: it could stand as the novel’s epigraph. If that ‘nevertheless’ betrays a qualified special pleading, it’s because Paradise News is picking up the pieces and making do in the absence of a theological rainbow. Bernard Walsh has lost his Catholic faith before the story opens – a faith assumed by default, it seems, with his family’s expectations that the son should enter the priesthood, but now vanished all the same. ‘The Good News is news of eternal life, Paradise News,’ he reflects. ‘For my parishioners, I was a kind of travel agent, issuing tickets, insurance, brochures, guaranteeing them ultimate happiness.’ He realises he doesn’t believe a word of it. The oddly frenetic problem-solving on display in Paradise News, therefore, seems a kind of homiletic assurance that you don’t need God for things to turn out right. And yet, if it isn’t a benign God bestowing all these providential turns of plot, then someone is. Bernard returns to his theology lecturing at the end of the book, wryly and defiantly sceptical, and quotes to his scholars from Matthew 25, that ‘most explicitly apocalyptic of the synoptic gospels’:

Then the virtuous will say to him in reply, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you; or thirsty and give you drink? When did we see you a stranger and make you welcome; naked and clothe you; sick or in prison and go to see you?’ And the King will answer, ‘I tell you solemnly, insofar as you did this to the least of these brothers of mine, you did it to me.’

‘It’s as if,’ comments Bernard, ‘Jesus left this essentially humanist message knowing that one day all the supernatural mythology in which it was wrapped would have to be discarded.’ Paradise New’s theology, or anti-theology, thus has it the other way as well: you can believe in God if you like, because it needn’t make any difference. What Lodge’s novel does believe in – its enormous, unexamined, bright-eyed act of faith – is the necessary reward of good action, that good will come of good. As to why, or even if, that should be so, the question is loudly begged. Indeed, the paradoxical effect of Lodge’s reliance on excessive good fortune, of his relentlessly providential plotting, his ineffaceable optimism, is to argue its unlikeliness, its incredibility. We are a long way from the instantaneous scrubbing-out deaths of E.M. Forster, and further still from, say, Anita Brookner’s austere fables of how goodness will fail because it is too good to cope with bad, but when, at the close of the novel, Bernard opens a letter from Yolande and announces yet more ‘Very good news’, we might think of these writers.