Stashed away in most people's collections of apocryphal stories, somewhere between the axe-wielding motorist and the beast of Bodmin, there is usually the tragi-comic figure of a reluctant redundant. Everyone seems to know someone who knows someone whose father/brother/uncle/grandfather spent 20 years sitting on a park bench rather than admit to his nearest and dearest that he had been sacked. (After losing his job in the city, my mother-in-law's brother's wife's father spent 12 years sitting in clandestine contentment, not on a park bench, but, rather sensibly, in the comfort of his London club.)
John Lanchester is clearly as intrigued by this kind of story as the rest of us. His new novel offers us a day in the life of (and, yes, a life in the day of) the tragi-comic figure of Mr Victor Phillips, husband, father of two and ex-accountant as of last Friday. Since Mr Phillips hasn't got round to telling his wife, he has little choice come Monday but to put on his suit and set off as usual. For the rest of his non-working day, Mr Phillips roams from his home somewhere near Clapham Junction to Battersea Park, along the Embankment to the Tate Gallery, past Westminster and on through Soho to Knightsbridge, killing time and determinedly avoiding one kind of reflection by indulging another.
This tour-guide structure leaves Lanchester plenty of scope to do what he does best: digress. He is something of a master of digression, and, in his first novel, The Debt to Pleasure, used this device to brilliant effect, both to veil and to hint at the deeds and motives of his compellingly repulsive narrator, Tarquin Winot. Here, too, we are treated to some enjoyable digressions on topics as diverse as the commuter culture, the chances of dying over winning the lottery, the design of MI6 headquarters, and the odds of having sex in any given week. Sex throbs in the mind of the redundant Mr Phillips. From the moment of waking, it seems that his thoughts are mostly about figures - female and numerical, often in conjunction. It is as if his sexual preoccupations have expanded into the space previously taken up by accountancy.
A confident, unashamedly intellectual writer, Lanchester is keen on semi-concealed jokes, embedded references and literary allusions. The Debt to Pleasure was a delightfully showy display of erudition, replete with quotations and extravagant syntax, and this novel too, though lacking the stylish virtuosity of its predecessor, has about it an air of self-conscious braininess. It opens, for example, with an upfront homage to James Joyce's Ulysses, as Mr Phillips, like Leopold Bloom, wakes in a warm, fart-scented bed beside his still-slumbering wife. And throughout there is a sustained (and surely knowing) sideways glance at Virginia Woolf's Mrs Dalloway.
There is a gentler humour at work here than in Lanchester's last book, and there are some very funny set pieces: for example, the Christian discussion group, tongue-tied with embarrassment and hostility; the blue movie that Mr Phillips somehow ends up watching in a Soho sex shop; or his tour of the Tate, where he casts a bemused eye over the assembled works of art, awarding them each marks out of ten - a Gaudier-Brzeska gets seven; a Millais gets five.
And yet, amusing as all this is, the novel as a whole never really takes off. Freudians, for example, may agree that Mr Phillips's genital fixation is highly plausible in a 50-year-old man who has suddenly lost control of his life, but it does not, after a while, make particularly interesting reading. Plot and character remain curiously unintegrated, as if the material has not been worked over sufficiently. The set pieces, entertaining as they are, still have the ring of, well, set pieces. The overriding tone of the book never rises very far above a detached melancholy. The perplexing banality of existence, a common enough theme in modern fiction, is described, rather than explored.
There are four things we want to know about reluctant redundants: what do they do with themselves while they aren't doing what they're meant to be doing? What are they thinking while they're not doing it? How do they cover their backs when they get home at night? And why the hell don't they just own up? Lanchester addresses the first and second of these questions, but not the arguably more interesting and revealing third and fourth. We eavesdrop on Mr Phillips's thoughts, yet we never really hear him speak. We have little more sense at the end of the novel than at the beginning of who Mr Phillips is, why he's in this situation, or what he might possibly do about it. It's all very well for Mr Phillips not to know these things; unfortunately, it's not entirely clear that the author does, either.
Lanchester's many strengths as a writer are still enjoyably apparent, but the novel as a whole is marred by a lack of depth. The ideas it courts are not developed. The self-obsessed, self- deluded Mr Phillips seems neither wiser nor more foolish on the last page than he was on the first. Certainly that's true to life. But is it art?