Sunday, 24 February 2013

Lanchester: Mr Phillips



John Lanchester (2013) Mr Phillips Faber & Faber, London; 256 pp.; ISBN 978-0-57129486-2

In the 1933 court case Hall v Brooklands Auto-Racing Club (1 KB 205), the man on the Clapham omnibus is taken as the epitome of reasonableness – he is educated but not a genius, neither poor nor rich, a product of the dull mediocrity of London suburbia. Victor Phillips lives in Clapham and in this novel we spend almost a whole day inside his head. He is a lacklustre accountant who has been working for a nondescript catering company in the city, and we discover that he has been made redundant. He has not plucked up the courage to tell his wife or sons, so this day is a charade where he heads off, apparently going to work, and wanders aimlessly in a city that now seems alien to him.

The day begins with Mr Phillips still in bed, snuggled up against his wife but having most of his erotic fantasies about other women. Home is a place of safety and warmth, his cocoon against the world, and we sense that this is where he feels happiest. One son has left home and the other is in that difficult phase of late teenage, but Mr Phillips is not burdened by angst and feels that he has done as well as expected on the family front. So why is he unable to be honest with them about losing his job?

Like all accountants, he is obsessed with numbers and sex. As he waits for his usual commuter train he cannot help calculating the average number of naked women in London’s newspapers and magazines, and throughout the day he makes numerous calculations of averages and probabilities, often about the most trivial things. When he estimates the average amount of idle time in his days (two hours and thirty-seven minutes) he realises that from now on that average is about to be badly skewed.

He curtails his journey to the city and wanders through Battersea Park before heading into town. During the day he meets various characters, people that he would not have noticed on a working day. Many of them represent the shallow obsession with money and fame that drives London society. A pornographer is wandering about looking for ideas for his magazine, and Mr Phillips’s son Martin has a business putting together themed compilations of old songs and selling them to a gullible public. (Reading this part of the novel I remembered the dread at Christmas and on birthdays in anticipation of some ancient relative trying to be ‘with it’ by giving you one of these compilation discs, inevitably full of songs you could not abide.)

On the streets he meets joggers and cyclists, peddlers and performers, religious nutters, flocks of backpacking tourists, bored ticket sellers and angry young men driving white delivery vans. Mr Phillips observes it all with an impassive gaze, never judging but never really engaging with anyone around him. He wanders into the Tate gallery but there is nothing to inspire him, then later he goes to watch a pornographic film where the so-called lovemaking is mechanical and disappointing – the fantasies in his head are far more creative. He walks more than he has for many years, rides on buses and the Tube, but the city is no longer his home. Now that he is jobless it is unwelcoming and its strangeness more readily apparent.

Late in the afternoon he follows a minor television personality whom he fancies into a bank. Before he is able to think up an excuse for speaking to the woman, four robbers (the working class version of bankers) burst in and Mr Phillips finds himself face down on the floor, thinking about jokes, his childhood and wondering about his affection for the woman who led him here. In an uncharacteristic act of bravery, Mr Phillips challenges the robbers and the denouement makes him face the reality of his unemployment.

On the way home he drops into a pub for a beer – something he has not done for years – and as he nears Clapham you sense that he is looking forward to being back in the comfort of hearth and home. On the way he helps an old woman with her shopping and discovers a link to his childhood, and on arrival at home his younger son is washing the car in a scene of touching domesticity. This ends his day, but will his experiences have given him the courage to finally be honest with his wife?

This is a slow and detailed book and Mr Phillips’s head is filled with the kinds of prosaic fancies and petty obsessions that haunt us all. The London he sees is often an unattractive place driven by Mammon, meanness and mediocrity. If you like a racy plot and the clash of characters, you will probably find this book unsatisfying. But it is an interesting meditation on life and London by a character who is grindingly ordinary on one level, but is also imbued with the individual quirks of the inner mind that make each of us an unknown realm to our family and friends.

The novel is a re-release: it was originally published in 2000. Presumably this is to cash in on John Lanchester’s more recent success with books like the fictional Capital (2012) and the marvellous Whoops! (2010), a lucid account of why the financial crisis of 2008-09 occurred. Mr Phillips is an enjoyable book, tinged with melancholy, but definitely not for the impatient reader.

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