The meandering nature of this book makes me wonder if Lodge had half a dozen pieces lying around and decided to tie them up together in a book (experiments in the effects of changing between first and third person; musings on deafness; style in suicide notes; retirement; health spas; aged parents; and the particularly inserted meditation on Auschwitz). There’s no central narrative driving this to nearly the same degree as his other novels (except, perhaps, the more chronological than plot driven How Far Can You Go), but I suspect this was actually a good thing.
A decade before he may have centred the story around the prurience of an affair between a Professor and an attractive Doctoral student (i.e. typically Lodge turning a sexual fantasy into a story), but, deep sigh of relief, he finally seems to have reached an age where adultery isn’t the happy focus of his daydreams. Perhaps it was heading in this direction but Lodge himself, much as the semi-autobiographical narrator, may have found his direction suddenly changed by the decreasing health of his father. Whatever, thank goodness the sexually twisted Alex becomes a minor (and, ironically as a result, more layered and sympathetic) character, and Desmond’s actions more mature and feasible.
So instead of the juvenile titillation souring much of the otherwise rich journey Lodge can offer (as in Thinks), most of this novel is spent with a deft narrator sensitively detailing events we can relate to, and insightfully opening us up to others that we may not. Lodge is beautifully readable, and well able to convey his insightful responses to experience. You feel that Lodge is more able to be honest with himself than some of us. While this is a very loose structure, Lodge does successfully weave his elements into some sort of coherence (except, perhaps, the Polish excursion, which could just as easily have been a column. Then again, there is some added value in seeing how a character we’ve come to know incorporates a visit to Birkenau into his everyday life).
There is less of a story here than a narration of a certain life period. Some books, perhaps, more successfully combine the two – this is far more about the latter than the former – but it is assured, deft, and dignified, even in the midst of the acknowledged comic potential of deafness.