Relatively early Lodge (1965 – his third book), and more driven by form than insight. While he’s still working within a persona he’s familiar with – a young Catholic academic – the book is less honest and quasi-autobiographical than usual (although he clearly understands the procrastinating nature of the student too well). Rather it’s a deliberate, often quite broad, comic piece, and while he’s better at it than many others I don’t think humour is his strongest asset. Perhaps the book was something of a way of working on his skills, and as such a lot of the situations felt contrived (of course all the situations in novels are contrived, but the best ones don’t feel that way). Indeed, as he notes in his interesting afterword (it’s nice when a later editions includes some ‘DVD’ type extras), there are no less than ten passages of deliberate and at times extended parody of the styles of famous novelists such as Conrad, James and Hemmingway, and half the trick is making the story work while playing with these forms. Alas, with only the Gnostic secrets of a dimly remembered B.A. in Lit. at Macquarie Uni, these in-jokes went right by me; a more literate reader could enjoy the book a lot more I dare say.
Thematically much is made of the issue of birth control and Catholicism, an issue he explored more effectively in How Far Can You Go? Lodge tragic-comically presents the picture of couples torturing themselves with the absurd (and ineffective) complexities of things like the ‘safe’ and ‘rhythm’ methods, when, as implied in the text and stated in the afterword, the only possible alleviation of this awful state is contraception: the Catholic church is simply cruel and wrong to deny this. Admittedly he does give a good alternative line to a Catholic priest: “Practise some self control: I do,” but even this paints the picture of the devout catholic couple having to undergo great sacrifice and suffering … as if there are no other means (perhaps even preferable ones for the woman) of achieving sexual pleasure than intercourse. The naivety surprises me, but I suppose sex was so little talked about in the fifties that a lot of ‘nice’ people did assume that sex meant merely the ‘act’ (part of me feels sure, however, that a lot of people in pre-pill times would have been better at finding ways of ‘safe-sex’ than today’s condom-culture knows). Conversational mores have changed - previously the bible was something social pressure pushed you to make time to know about, discuss and pursue, but sex was something embarrassing to talk about, something of a faux pas, and characterised by much ignorance: now the roles are reversed. Whatever, I can’t feel the degree of sympathy Lodge wants to evoke given the knowledge that it’s not an either/or of celibacy or conception, of contraception or rare and fearfully anxious sex.