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.
Lanchester is interested in what would once have been called Mr Phillips’s imagination: those insistent preoccupations that Mr Phillips wouldn’t have the courage or even the wish to tell other people about; all those unofficial things and people that absorb his attention. But it is the way Lanchester represents Mr Phillips’s thoughts – the way the stream of consciousness becomes a stream of punctuated words on the page – and the uncanny ease with which we slip into Mr Phillips’s mind, that make the novel so remarkable. It is, after all, an effect of style to make this living in someone else’s mind seem so natural, given that it is something we never, in actuality, do. As the novel progresses – that is, tracks Mr Phillips from his leaving home in the morning to his return in the evening – ‘Mr Phillips’ seems less and less the name of a character, in the traditional sense, and more a name for certain ways of thinking, as though the novel is saying: these are the things that pass through us that our names are meant to cover. And Mr Phillips himself shares with the novel’s narrator – the transitions between the narrator and Mr Phillips have a subtle and seamless fluency – an obsession with what might be going on in other people’s minds:
Mr Phillips had always been impressed by the way conductors used to know exactly who had got on and off and who hadn’t paid their fare, as if they had a constantly updated map of the bus in their heads. On the occasions he tried to sit still and not admit to not having paid he always found a conductor hovering at his shoulder demanding the fare. Perhaps they were trained to detect guilty body language. If a bus conductor’s wife cheated on him he would know within seconds of getting home.
Like every guilty person Mr Phillips veers between believing that he is opaque and that he is transparent. What he has got to hide – his unemployment, his sexual fantasies, his small meannesses and delinquencies – is most of what he has got to think about. He is the anonymous double of his fantasies. In his little experiment on the bus he is trying to find out whether it’s possible to have a secret life. And yet what his alter ago, the narrator, keeps intimating is that he only has a secret life, a life that is secret to him – the life of his own mind.
There are certain things we have to lose our place (our job) to see. So when Mr Phillips remembers going to see a play with his son about another recently unemployed man, King Lear, his response is predictable (the kind of thing you find in Larkin’s letters), but (also like the man in Larkin’s letters) subtle in refusing the available subtleties, and distrustful of them.
In retrospect he sees it as one of the longest four hours in his life, uncannily similar, in the sensation of discomfort, anxiety and pure duration, to that of waiting in Casualty.
‘What did you think?’ he risked asking Martin afterwards, on the way back to the car-park ...
‘It was long,’ said Martin. ‘It’s always long.’
‘I felt sorry for the man who had to take all his clothes off,’ said Mr Phillips.
‘Edgar,’ said Martin. ‘Small cock, too.’
‘Casualty’, with a capital letter, is as good a name as any for King Lear; and one can’t help feeling sorry for the man who has to take his clothes off. Mr Phillips’s questions, in this book that is full of questions and questioning, is the usual one, which is always a bit risky, but that we keep asking. And Martin’s answer – ‘it’s always long’ – in its own irrefutable logic, seems, unsurprisingly perhaps, to have picked up what his father was thinking.
Questions come thick and fast to Mr Phillips because, as a modern man, he is nearly always in a need-to-know situation; but his curiosity has become a substitute for his courage, so the only person he can usually ask is himself, who by definition doesn’t have the answers. When he’s bursting with curiosity he has to keep it to himself:
Take Aids, for one thing ... The porn stars don’t look or act as if they have given it a thought, but then they wouldn’t, would they? And then having to get erections on demand: is there a knack to it or is it a skill you are born with? And if you got an erection on demand did it feel like a normal erection – did you want to do the same things with it – or was it more somehow impersonal, an indifferent appendage for tool-using purposes, like mankind’s famous opposable thumb? And then what would you do about normal sex, would that be distinguishable from work?
In this exhausting and exhaustive double-act for one that is Mr Phillips’s internal drama, every point is a good one, and every question is to the point. Mr Phillips is as scrupulously thoughtful about the issue as he can be. You can imagine him as a child wanting to be able to work everything out for himself with that agitated attention to detail that makes one problem lead to another. ‘Mr Phillips knows that he will never know,’ the narrator comments ruefully; and it is poignant (and apt) that we have to be told this by someone else, as though Mr Phillips is trapped in his perplexity, and trapped by the knowledge that he is trapped. The chatty enthusiasm of his conversation with himself, its eager earnestness and its popular science, give us a glimpse of the way he keeps himself company. Because of the way he has befriended himself you can’t imagine Mr Phillips having a best friend. He is like a man who has left himself alone in the universe.
One way of not feeling quite so alone in the universe is to be superstitious. The feeling that there are other powers, whether malign or in some way on our side, makes life seem more like something going on inside a novel than the random, intractable thing that we have to go through unassisted. Whenever logic breaks down in Mr Phillips’s endless enquiry into how things work superstition turns up; however rational the enquiry, reason is liable to create the madness it is trying to avert. Getting into a lift Mr Phillips is thrown into what he would never call the phenomenology of mind:
Covertly inspecting the overhead display Mr Phillips can see that the 14th floor is actually the 13th, and that the number has been changed as a concession to superstition. This is something that he has never been able to work out. If you thought there was something dangerous about the number 13, surely the 13th floor would be dangerous whatever you called it, since it is the fact of 13 and not the word that is the problem. It was treating the gods or the fates or God himself – not that this was the sort of thing you would expect Him to bother about – as if He was very stupid to think that they or He wouldn’t notice.
As Mr Phillips notes with slight embarrassment (‘covertly’), no one is fooled, not even the authorities, if you just change the names. But proving the madness of this doublethink sounds as mad as the thing itself. What kind of world is it that gives us questions and answers like this, and what are we like if this is how we find ourselves thinking? And the answer in Mr Phillips is that the world is frightening and we are embarrassed.
Mr Phillips is an acute observer of the way people guarantee failure by the manner in which they pursue success. The trains, for example, must run on time if everything, especially work, is going to work. ‘The platform will close thirty seconds before departure because that way more people miss the train.’ The departure time should not be called the departure time, any more than the 14th floor should be so misnamed. But our solutions embroil us in our problems. ‘In Mr Phillips’s experience so many people avoid the nearest carriage on the assumption that it will be the most full, and instead get into the next carriage along, or even the next but one, that it is often those carriages which are the fullest whereas the nearest carriage is in fact, relatively speaking, reasonably empty.’ Whatever Mr Phillips does, he always makes good sense. But his plain, well qualified reasonableness (‘relatively speaking, reasonably empty’), his persuasive practical intelligence, is of a piece with the world he describes. If everybody follows Mr Phillips’s suggestion about how to find a reasonably empty carriage, the same problem will reproduce itself. The great failing is to fear failure, and once it starts it never stops. Mr Phillips’s quest for truth – and Mr Phillips is such a moving book because Mr Phillips is never patronised by his author – is complicated by his quest for ‘relative’ comfort and convenience. What is so disturbing about the world for Mr Phillips is that it is so difficult to outwit it, yet that is what he believes he needs to do. The way to solve the problems he sees in life is to think them through, but then the thinking in its turn becomes the problem.
If his ‘diseased intellect’ makes Mr Phillips the kind of modern man D. H. Lawrence wanted to abolish – and makes D. H. Lawrence one of the phantom reviewers of the book – it is his very real shyness, his taken-for-granted embarrassments that make him so winning. He assumes, without boasting, an ordinary vulnerability for himself; and that means that his small-scale heroism (going into a porn shop in Soho), and his more ambitious feats (confronting bank robbers), are moments when he defies something powerful in himself. Shyness has rather a bad press among the more glibly suspicious – among, that is, the psychologically-minded – because the ways in which shyness seeks and controls attention are always more vivid than whatever else the shy are so privately struggling with. Lanchester is a great writer about shyness – and indeed about many of the other awkwardnesses of everyday life – because he is so alert to the fact that the drama in people’s lives often consists precisely of all those ways they have of minimising the drama. And the spectacle of a certain kind of Englishness is the spectacle of people avoiding making a spectacle of themselves. Mr Phillips does this – and, in this, is not unlike a novelist – by describing what he does in a very particular way. Like the accountant that he is (or was), he lists and counts and clarifies. He turns the hot, frantic opera of his fantasy life into a prosaic documentary. The knowingness of the narrator – the fact that Mr Phillips is somehow close to his heart, but that he can be wittier, more deadpan than Mr Phillips knows himself to be – exposes Mr Phillips as an absurd hero, but not a ridiculous man:
Mr Phillips takes his courage in his hands and crosses the street, pushes through the curtain and goes into the sex shop. It is a square box of a room with magazines on two walls, a display cabinet on the third and a counter on the fourth. There are two other customers, both men, and a bored, grumpy fat man at the till. Both of the men are leafing through the magazines with a flushed listlessness.
As the scene develops he becomes more paralysed and self-absorbed, an observer of the voyeurs, attending to the signs, but unable to go the whole way. ‘A large sign over the magazine rack says “Try Before You Buy is NOT Our Policy”. Mr Phillips feels too shy to actually pick up any of the magazines so he merely stands and looks at the covers.’ Lanchester writes with such canny, unobtrusive accuracy – ‘merely’ and ‘actually’ are so close to the bone here – that every scene in the book seems to be wholly ordinary and unexceptional, and yet emblematic of what we imagine to be Mr Phillips’s entire life. As the narrator’s voice blends into the ‘voice’ of Mr Phillips’s thoughts, we see Mr Phillips bringing the scene under control. If he was less shy, we are led to believe, he might have picked up one of the magazines, but not necessarily looked at it. For Mr Phillips description is an attempt at slow-motion; excess is the disorder of the day.
When Mr Phillips is not estimating probabilities – when and how he might die, say, or remembering the troubling relationship between the odds of winning the lottery and the odds of dying on any given day – he is making lists. He has so much material to organise, and even more now that he is out and about during the day. Once he is out, for example, he realises how many places in London he’s never been to: ‘Kew Gardens or Hampton Court or Teddington Lock or the Royal Opera House or the Barbican ...’ (This is one of the shorter lists in the novel: there are only 12 places.) But in his wish for accurate records there is always a muted yet mounting hysteria, as though once this sensible rage for order is unleashed it could turn into pure rage:
Mr Phillips must have witnessed many thousands of violent incidents, shootings and explosions and stabbings and abductions and rapes and fist-fights and drive-by machine-gunnings, and assassination-style head shots and Saturday Night Special shootings, and cars blown up by shoulder-fired rocket-launchers, and rooms systematically cleared by grenades followed by machine-gun fire, and petrol stations blown up by deliberately dropped cigarette lighters, but all of these were on television (or occasionally at the movies).
This could not be more straightforward as an account. Though what it is an account of, this singular sentence with its reassuring clarification tacked onto the end like a moral, is not clear. It is Mr Phillips’s art, and the artfulness of Mr Phillips, to make many strange things sound self-evidently true and unself-evidently mad. The God that is in these details is too careful about something.
Rather like his questions, Mr Phillips’s lists – of which there are many hilarious and horrifying examples – always threaten to get out of hand and go on for ever (one thing always leads to another). And it is his sense of an endlessness, of something in him that he cannot put a stop to, that is the informing terror of the book. But his rationalising of things keeps being interrupted by unexpected memories. In Mr Phillips’s accounts of himself as a father to his sons, and as a son to his father, the novel is very moving. It is not merely that Mr Phillips comes to life when he can’t account for things, but that he comes to a different kind of life (Lanchester doesn’t pit the rational against the irrational, but the irrational against itself). Indeed, when it comes to memory, the vices of Mr Phillips’s plain style – his aversion to melodrama, to stylishness – become a remarkable virtue. When he happens to remember something, the narrator takes him on his own terms, and the effect is the haunting that can only be created by the haunted:
In childhood, as far as he can remember, crying had inside it the idea that this feeling would go on for ever – that the pain, whatever it was, that was causing you to cry was infinite and would possess you for ever. Or you would live inside it for ever. Now he sees it as the first vague intimation of what death would be like – to be in the same state without end.
Only Mr Phillips would be able to see (and say) that crying had inside it an idea.
When Mr Phillips finds himself, surprisingly, caught up in a bank robbery on his fateful day, he speculates, as he lies face down on the floor, about the conscientiousness of bank robbers; how they need to think of everything. ‘There must be a lot of detail to have to think about, being a bank robber,’ he muses in his Alice in Wonderland way. ‘It would seem like a job for the headstrong and reckless but there must be a great deal of planning in it too.’ But then, out of nowhere, Mr Phillips has what a policeman calls, after the robbers have been successfully disarmed, ‘your bright idea, sir, if you don’t mind my putting it like that’. He suddenly stands up, in the middle of the drama, and says: ‘I’m not doing that any more.’ It is a moment of startling and consummate bravery; by refusing to comply – and it is the being told to lie down that Mr Phillips is objecting to, not just (or necessarily) the robbery – Mr Phillips makes his existential stand. And in the several pages that describe what is going through his mind during the robbery, nothing prepares either the reader or Mr Phillips himself for what he is about to do. It is what would once have been called a pure act of freedom; a risk taken in reckless disregard for the consequences. And of course, as it would in Mr Phillips’s world, his break for freedom has its downside because the press who interview him after the robbery threaten to blow his cover. He, too, having had his job stolen, is on the run.
When Eliot wrote of Henry James that ‘he had a mind so fine that no idea could violate it,’ it was not altogether clear what James’s mind would have had to be like for this to be true. Eliot’s strange, virginal James seems rather to have had a style – like Lanchester’s, in Mr Phillips – that no idea could violate. But the idea of minds, or indeed styles of writing, being violated by ideas is an interesting one. That people can suffer from ideas, and that writers can be ruined by them, is as much a story about what ideas are supposed to be like, as it is a story about what people are supposed to be like. Novels have always explored the relationship between characters and their beliefs, and the ways in which a character might be something other than his ideas. But there are also, clearly, novels of ideas – like Sartre’s or Iris Murdoch’s or Coetzee’s – in which the novelist more or less knows what he thinks about things (knows what the issues are), and in which discernible ideas, or theories, or positions are deliberately dramatised; in which ideas are used to make the characters vivid, and not the other way around. In the novel of ideas – or its contemporary equivalent, the psychological novel – everything inside a character, everything about a character, has to become an idea, and then to be spoken, and then to be contested. At their worst these novels, like Platonic dialogues, can be dramas of the archest kind of knowingness. They want us to be able to paraphrase them, so that we can go on with the debate; and to know that that is what we are involved in.
In Mr Phillips Lanchester has written not a novel of ideas, but a novel about how a person’s ideas work inside him, and can seem to be the limits of his world; and not a psychological novel because neither Lanchester nor his narrator affects to have a superior knowledge of their hero. With its virtuosity of style, its lack of casual sentimentality, and its easy way with the comic problems of philosophy, Mr Phillips is a contemporary Tristram Shandy. A new name as a sign of the times.