Seriously funny

<strong>Deaf Sentence</strong>

David Lodge

<em>Harvill Secker, 304pp, £17.99</em>

"I'm not bored because I'm deaf," Evelyn Waugh told an interviewer he found more than usually tiresome: "I'm deaf because I'm bored." Desmond Bates, the retired linguistics professor at the centre of David Lodge's characteristically dense new novel, is deaf, too - yet although he thinks his post-working life a bore, relieved only by "the troubled introspection for which retirement gives so much scope", the reader can't help but find it fascinating.

For one thing, it gives us the chance to bone up on our phonetics. When, for instance, the Cheshire Cat asks Alice whether she said "pig or fig" he is in effect asking her whether the noun he misheard began with a bilabial plosive or a labiodental fricative. Lodge the writer still being Lodge the teacher, of course, such lessons come with a mnemonic joke attached: "'F' is called a labiodental fricative because you produce it by bringing your top teeth into contact with your bottom lip and allowing some air to escape between them. It's also called a continuant because you can continue making the sound as long as you have breath: fffffffffffffffff . . . though I can't imagine why you'd want to, unless perhaps you started to say "Fuck" and thought better of it."

Talking of thinking better of things, Professor Bates has just discovered that a leggy blonde postgraduate student he met at a party has contrived to stuff a pair of knickers in his coat pocket. As Bates half suspects his wife of playing around (the reader is convinced on the matter), you might assume he would be cheered by the find. But Alex Loom, the blonde in question, is as alarming as she is alluring, and her research into the stylistic tropes of suicide notes bodes ill in the happy-go-lucky-fling stakes. Anyway, the good prof is too worried by his elderly and cantankerous father's habit of starting chip-pan fires to have his head turned. Or is he?

I couldn't possibly say, though I will remark that, for all its incidental pleasures and felicities, the big surprise about Deaf Sentence is that it's short on big surprises. Even though Lodge delivers two powerful emotional punches in his closing pages, neither of them connects with the book's most vital theme and the knockout blow never comes. Lodge aficionados fond of the switchback plotting and the cunning, cross-braided didacticism of his masterpieces (Nice Work, Small World, Thinks . . .) may find themselves feeling short-changed as they finish this latest novel.

Yet finish it they will, because while Deaf Sentence is short on ideas, it is full to bursting with comic riffs, aperçus and insights. Anyone who has ever even for a moment wondered whether a lot of contemporary art might not be up to much will be comforted by Bates's description of his visit to a (fictional) exhibition called "Mis-takes". Looking at this collection of badly exposed photographs, jerky faxes and smeary stats while reading the text-heavy accompanying catalogue, Bates suggests to his wife that "much contemporary art is supported by an immense scaffolding of discourse without which it would simply collapse and be indistinguishable from rubbish”.

Elsewhere, Lodge – via Bates – treats us to a fascinating piece of practical criticism on why the famous line from Coward’s Private Lives “Very flat, Norfolk” is quite so funny. The passage ought to be on every freshman literature student’s basic reading list. Lodge himself is at his most ridiculously funny – for which read most serious – in his repeated punning on the word deaf: “Deaf, where is thy sting?” “the Deaf Instinct”, deaf sentence. Reminding us that even though it was not until they lost their own hearing that Beethoven and Goya began to turn out really great work, Lodge gently coaxes us into the realisation that we tend to regard deafness as a bit of a joke: “What would be the equivalent of a guide dog for the deaf? A parrot on your shoulder squawking into your ear?”

For all the laughs, however, this is a markedly doleful book. At several points, Lodge shows off his knowledge of the canon by quoting from practically any poet who refers to the loss of hearing – finding room to wonder whether that most downcast of poets, Philip Larkin, chose not to write about his own deafness because, as a jazz lover, he found it too much of a facer. Certainly Lodge, whose own hearing is on the way out, plumbs new depths of misery here. If he had ditched its metonymic but misguided subplot and concentrated his energies on its entropic, elegiac, still centre, Deaf Sentence might have heralded his own late great period. As it is, deaf doesn’t quite become him.

This article first appeared in the 02 June 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Bobby and Barack