Mr. Phillips

By John Lanchester

It’s simply not fair to compare any book to Ulysses – the epic work by James Joyce that many consider the greatest novel of the twentieth century.

Nevertheless, when another novel comes along that concerns itself with the adventures of a working-class man spending an entire day walking around the streets of his hometown, and when that novel is written by John Lanchester, a highly-regarded new English talent, some comparison is clearly being invited.

Phillipsday is July 31, 1995. Mr. Phillips, a 50-year-old accountant (first name Victor, which may someday be the answer to a trivia question, so write it down), wakens to the sound of a jet landing at nearby Heathrow airport. He immediately thinks of sex and numbers, ranking his dreams on a scale of 1 to 10 on the basis of their sexual content. The first dream he describes has him getting aroused simply by solving algebra equations with a childhood friend. That tells you a lot about the kind of guy Mr. Phillips is. Maybe it tells you everything.

Like any novel involving a wandering hero the story is really a series of episodes. As he walks and rides through the streets of London, he head full of calculations and fantasies, Mr. Phillips has numerous adventures. He meets a pornographer in the park and then goes to look at pictures in the Tate gallery. He has lunch with his eldest son, an aspiring music company executive, and by accident interrupts a debate over the Buddhist doctrine of reincarnation being held in a church. After stalking a favourite TV personality he gets involved in a bank robbery. And still he wanders.

As T. S. Eliot observed, Joyce’s main achievement in Ulysses was to give the chaos of modern life a mythic shape or form. The things that happen to Leopold Bloom might seem random and unrelated, but they are associated with a greater structure that gives, or at least lends them significance. Lanchester would also like to suggest that there is some kind of mysterious fate and connectedness in Mr. Phillips’s pereginations and imaginations, but the results seem more forced and artificial this time out.

Part of the problem lies in the shift in literary conventions that has taken place. Few authors today bother to take the pains Joyce did to make Dublin come alive in every cobblestone detail. And much has been lost with the fall of realism. One couldn’t imagine Joyce writing a scene like the one where Mr. Phillips visits a porn theater without first doing some research. As it stands, Lanchester might as well be describing a trip to the Moon.

In any event, Mr. Phillips’s world is not a realistic one so much as it is a creation of mood. Essentially it is a world that is running down. Middle-age brings with it a sense “that vital reserves of energy and luck had been critically and irreversibly depleted.” Mr. Phillips likes to day-dream about imagined and remembered sex, but he is pretty sure that nobody actually “does it.” Sex, his father has told him, is something that saps the strength. Sleep is like a bank account that “you put capital in when you are young and draw on as you get older; and then you run out of capital and die.” There are a number of human capacities – “courage, strength, will-power, luck, sex-appeal” – that are finite in the same way, “so that when they’ve gone they’re gone forever.”

Most of this gloom is due to Mr. Phillips’s depressed state of mind, brought about by a sudden material change in his condition. But the book evokes a deeper cultural malaise as well. The number of references to Hitler as a coffee-table wisdom figure are typical of the passionless rot that seems to infect everything. If the stream of Mr. Phillips’s consciousness is losing itself in the marshes of its run to the sea, then so is the collective consciousness, just as the clogged traffic in London makes it seem as though the whole city is “gradually and permanently shutting down like a dying brain.”

Review first published June 17, 2000.


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