In 1892 the brothers George and Weedon Grossmith published The Diary of a Nobody, covering fifteen months in the life of Charles Pooter and his wife, Carrie. Hilaire Belloc called it an “immortal achievement,” and it is still much read. John Lanchester’s Mr. Phillips is Mr. Pooter, a hundred-and-ten-odd years later, only sadder. And even funnier. This is because The Diary of a Nobody is mainly about class and convention, standard light comedy themes, whereas John Lanchester’s novel is mainly about sex and death and therefore closer to the edge. Which is not to say that it is not about class. Mr. Phillips takes it for granted that every single Englishman and woman has in their brain
a top-of-the-range on-board computer calculating the exact geographical and social location of the speaker every time somebody opens their mouth. Grammar-school-educated Mr. Phillips’s accent is Received Pronunciation overlying a stratum of South London. Martin and Tom [his sons] both speak with a mild South London rasp that they can, especially Martin, roughen up or tone down at will. Mrs. Phillips has a beautifully neutral form of R.P. that Mr. Phillips had once found sexy—it was part of the idea of having sex with someone posher than you were. Class makes sex more interesting for everybody.
Lanchester does class accents every bit as well as the Grossmiths, and that’s funny. But his comedy is more subtle than theirs, depending a lot on a parody of the unspoken words that go around in people’s heads as they struggle with their dilemmas and hang-ups: so it has its built-in pathos.
Mr. Pooter is a clerk from the North London suburb of Holloway, Mr. Phillips an accountant from the South London suburb of Clapham. Both go to work on public transport, except that Mr. Phillips doesn’t go to work anymore. Lanchester’s novel is a chronicle of one day, the Monday after Mr. Phillips is laid off—with immediate effect and a modest bonus—by the catering supply company where he has worked for thirty years. He is in his early fifties. He hasn’t managed to break the news to his wife, so he starts this day at his usual time, in his usual business suit, with his briefcase in his hand, and drifts through a London so vividly and wittily evoked that it would make an engaging guide book to the places on Mr. Phillips’s route.
His first stop is Battersea Park, where a jovial fellow accosts him, full of sympathy, encouragement, and good advice when he discovers Mr. Phillips’s predicament. He turns out to be a publisher of porn magazines, but none the worse for it as a human being. Mr. Phillips must be the most benign novel published in the last few years. This is a shock, because Lanchester’s first novel (Mr. Phillips is his second; the first was The Debt to Pleasure, published in 1996) was a diabolically snide murder mystery …