Top critical review
Clever and witty, but .....
on 29 May 2016
In 1978 Lodge had attended a huge academic conference, with an attendance of 10,000, in Manhattan, and in the following year he attended two smaller ones, one in Switzerland and one in Israel. The participants indulged themselves, away from the academic sessions, in all sorts of extra-curricular activities, and many of them were competing for some Holy Grail like a well-endowed Chair. He has drawn on his experiences for this novel.
We find some of the same characters we met, ten years earlier, in “Changing Places”: chief among them Philip Swallow, now head of the English Department at Rummidge University (in which Part One is set), and Morris Zapp has come over from the United States to give a lecture at a dreary academic conference, wittily described, held in Rummidge. In “Changing Places”, te first volume in the Campus Trilogy, literary theory was given some extensive treatment in the last section: in “Small World” it comes quite early on, with long discussions on Structuralism, and there are quite a few references to other theorists and to literary texts which may not be all that well known to some readers: there is a danger that will give up on the book at this point. If, however, they persevere, they will come to passages concerning sex, contraceptives and Catholic guilt, themes which surface every now and again in Lodge’s work; and it’s all rather farcical and, in my opinion, rather forced and crudely plotted.
At the beginning of Part Two we are introduced (or re-introduced) to about a dozen academics from different parts of the world. It’s really too many: some disappear for many pages at a time, and when they reappear, it is hard to remember under what circumstances we have last met them. Lodge tells us, in alternating snippets, what they are all doing at the same time in their different time zones. It seems to me that he plays with these people like a juggler showing his skill by keeping several balls in the air at the same time. Several of his characters are shown in sexual activities or phantasies. There is also quite a bit about airports and air-travel, as there was in “Changing Places”. It’s becoming quite formulaic and therefore a little tedious. In Part Two there is no clue as to how all these episodes hang together, other than that, far apart, they happen simultaneously.
In Part Three there is more of the same, though the episodes are more prolonged and less kaleidoscopic. The author is obsessed with sleazy sex joints. (But I have to say that one affaire in this part is quite touching.) There are some literary conferences: one in Bellagio, one in Amsterdam, one in Ankara (and Lodge obviously knows these places well), but the attention given to them is rather perfunctory. There is quite a funny passage about how a computer analysis of one writer’s favourite words makes it impossible for him write any more: he feels he has to avoid those words, but all synonyms seem wrong to him.
And - oh, no! - Part Four starts with yet another longish description of travel by air; followed by yet another general description of the academic conference circus; then there is a brief reference to a conference in Zurich in which, of course, its red-light district is commented on; a brief passage follows of a conference in Heidelberg, most of which is taken up with two of its participants going to bed with each other; followed by another passage about a conference in Athens where two other participants do likewise. After having moved fairly rapidly from one of these stories to the next, there is then another change of pace, and we get a prolonged but zany story about the young virginal Irish poet whom we have met several times before trying to track down the ever-elusive woman with whom he has fallen desperately and pathetically in love. Now a helter-skelter quest takes him within a very few days from Western Ireland to London, to Switzerland, back to London and then to Los Angeles, Honolulu, Tokyo, Seoul and eventually in Jerusalem - all giving Lodge the excuse to show his familiarity with all these locations. She has flitted from conference to conference, each ending just before our poet arrives. It’s meant to allude to the search for the Holy Grail, and the most extreme example in the book that, with all the air travel it involves, this is indeed a Small World - but it’s wholly unbelievable, and surely meant to be so. (OK - let’s go the whole hog of unbelievableness: in one of the episodes in this part one the principal characters in the book is kidnapped for a ransom.)
Part Five opens with one of those conferences with 10,000 participants. Needless to say, present all together among those 10,000 are pretty well all the characters we have met before. It is the climax of the novel in more sense of the word than one. Talk about a dénouement - meaning the unexpected disentangling of all sorts of relationships! But for our young Irish poet, the end of one quest is merely the beginning of another.
The writing is stylish and witty, of course; the references to literary theory both learned and suitably mocking; the plotting, however irritating I found it, is ingenious; but, despite pulling together of many threads at the end, I found the novel over-long and too scrappy to hang together. The man has talent, but the mentality displayed in too much of this novel strikes me as basically juvenile.