David Lodge will always be a novelist at the crossroads. He has written 10 novels, he has had work adapted for television and film (Small World and Nice Work) and he's also turned out a couple of plays, so why is it that his natty fictions are ultimately as unsatisfying as they are clever? Just why has he never been able to go all the way?
Perhaps it's because of his long and productive career in academe, during which he tried to theorise a space for the creative writer somewhere between the expectations of literary criticism and the thrilling uncertainties of postmodernism. Shrewdly positioning himself on the threshold between theory and fiction, between academia and the outside world, Lodge negotiated himself a niche only to find that he was sharing it with his friend and fellow novelist-academic, Malcolm Bradbury.
Yet, for all his guile and polish, for all his games-playing urbanity, it's precisely Lodge's scheming intelligence that prevents him from writing a novel with which you can fully engage. This slim offering, an adaptation of his own play, is, alas, no exception.
Not surprisingly, it's about writers and writing, Lodge's favourite subject - there's nothing like postmodern self-reflexivity, is there, eh Dave? There's a forgotten novelist, Adrian, a popular screenwriter, Sam, and a muse-mother-go-between, Eleanor, who is married to Adrian though she's also slept with Sam. (No doubt you can already appreciate the convolutions of the plot.) Fanny Tarrant, a Burchill-bitch interviewer, lands in the dead centre of this literary menage a trois to shake up their lives with her fearless inquiries, while also discovering a few, ahem, home truths about herself.
Replete with contemporary references - The Full Monty, Diana's death - and phrases such as "in this day and age" and "it's no way to live", the narrative has all the vitality of an out-of-date newspaper. In other words, you may still find something of interest but you really should have thrown it out by now. Which Lodge would assure us is a joke in itself, because the novella is about the media and the "culture of gossip and envy" that it generates. Or "the fame game", as Adrian puts it.
The dialogue is credible, but the descriptive passages can read as if cut-and-pasted straight from the play script. The characters don't have the time or space to develop; they simply stake their claims and wait to be challenged. The overall effect is a little like watching a video recording of a play performed at your local theatre.
If you're wondering why he bothered, Lodge tells us in the blurb that he adapted his play only because so many people asked him to. (May they hang their heads.) What's more, £8.99 for just over 100 pages constitutes appalling value, and, in the end, that's the plainest truth of all.