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, with the first-person narrator, a precious, homicidal foodie, munching his way through France as he gives vent to “gastro-historico-psycho-autobiographical-philosophic lucubrations” on food.
Still in Battersea Park, Mr. Phillips watches the peacocks spread their tails, two girls playing tennis, and an old couple walking their dog. “They are wearing roughly twice as many clothes as everyone else, as old people often do. Mr. Phillips is feeling hot in his suit with the buttons undone, but this couple are wearing coats and, in the man’s case, a little tweed hat. One of them will die before the other.” Mr. Phillips is much possessed by death, but his calculation also demonstrates his déformation professionnelle: the accountant’s compulsion to see everything in numerical terms—quantities, probabilities, averages, percentages. In the course of the day, Mr. Phillips does a double-entry estimate on the assets versus the liabilities of Battersea Park; on the amount of time during his or her life that a person spends doing absolutely nothing at all—a different percentage, of course, at different ages, “and obviously sleep was controversial in this context.” Then he works out the average daily probability of having sex: the answer is 96.7 against, “a pretty grim figure.” Finally, he establishes that of the eighty or so passengers on the bus, 35.6 will never be on a boat on the Thames, see a dead body, or have anal sex.
He gets off at the Embankment and visits the Tate Gallery, where he runs into some mildly eccentric people. A woman accosts him:
“I’ve not seen you here before,” she says as they stand in front of a painting by John Craxton which features multicoloured cubist goats. “You’re not one of the regulars.”
“Would you expect to know me if I was a regular?” asks Mr. Phillips.
“Heavens yes,” says the woman. “I come here every day. Mainly I come to heckle the tour guides. They talk the most fearful tripe and need much correcting. I used to pick them up on more or less everything they said but now I wait for errors of fact before I pounce. I think it helps them keep on their toes. Then once I’ve established a bridgehead I broaden out into more general interpretative points. I like to think that my perspective is broadly feminist though also unmistakably personal. And then sometimes, not often but every now and then, I like to spout any old mad rubbish just to see if they notice the difference, and you know the shocking thing is they never seem to.”
“Yes, that is disturbing,” says Mr. Phillips.
He drifts on to Soho. He takes his elder son Martin out to lunch in a local restaurant where
every single customer in the place seems to be talking or shouting as loudly as possible, except for the waiters, who are rushing about at dangerous speed, and who seem especially to enjoy the bit where they swivel and bang backwards through the kitchen doors holding their trays stylishly high.
Tom is still at school but Martin runs a tiny company making compilations of Sixties and Seventies pop hits. “If he were not his son, Mr. Phillips realises, there is not the slightest chance that he and Martin could ever have met. And perhaps an equally small chance that they would have had anything to say to each other.” Still, the lunch goes off in a genial manner; he says nothing about losing his job.
After lunch, Mr. Phillips wanders into a sex shop and the porn movie house next door: disappointing. His next stop is an ecumenical church, where a man is lecturing on Buddhism to a pesky audience; he makes his way to Knightsbridge and the top end of Sloane Street, where the shops and their customers on the street intimidate him with their poshness. Suddenly he sees Clarissa Colingford, a TV newscaster with whom he has been sexually obsessed for the last few months. He can hardly believe his eyes, as his feet carry him after her into a bank.
And then the climax: there is a hold-up. Two gunmen force the customers to lie face down on the floor, while another two go to clean out the safes. After a few minutes of gazing at Colingford’s beige suede bottom, Mr. Phillips gets to his feet. “I’m not doing that any more,” he says to one of the gunmen, and he encourages other people to get up too. They all remain where they are, but Mr. Phillips
feels a great sensation of lightness. It is as if his life is a crushing weight, a rucksack filled with bricks that he gradually got so used to he forgot it was there, and he has now managed to shift the burden, so that the sense of ease, of release, is exhilarating. He feels that he could hop ten feet straight into the air. Or, more gently, just decide to float upward, so that from his perspective down on the floor people would become steeper, and the bank robbers would crane their necks up at him in amazement, and then he would be up through the roof, looking down at the building and out across Knightsbridge, the traffic, Harrods already visible, and then further up, able to see the Victoria and Albert Museum….
And so he floats off until the whole of Europe is beneath him, and then Russia and the Atlantic simultaneously, and then up into the universe until the earth would seem “tiny, decorative, hardly disturbing the calm of the blank lifeless world.”
This mini-apotheosis ends abruptly when one of the robbers points his gun at Mr. Phillips. The police arrive a split second later. The gunmen are arrested, and Mr. Phillips is interrogated by a couple of laid-back comic detectives.
“Could you confirm your place of work, sir?” the one asking the questions asks.
“Do I have to?” says Mr. Phillips. The effect of this remark is to make the two policemen look at each other and then look back at him without speaking.
“I popped in to check my balance,” Mr. Phillips says.
“At four-thirty on a weekday,” says the hitherto silent detective.
“When your office is in the City,”says his hitherto nice colleague, in a friendly way, as if asking for clarification.
“Well, when I say it was my office, I mean it used to be my office.”
There is an interrogatory silence.
“I don’t work there anymore.”
“So where do you work?”
“I, er, I don’t,” says Mr. Phillips.
“You don’t look like you don’t work.” This is the nasty one again. Mr. Phillips, on the point of saying thank you, catches himself and nods instead.
“Briefcase, suit,”the nasty one adds.
“Dressed for the office, I’d say,”says the nice one.
“Yes,” says Mr. Phillips.
“Yes, I’m dressed for the office.”
“But you don’t work.”
“No, not anymore.”
“Made redundant, were you sir?” asks the nice one.
Both detectives sit back slightly.
“We see a lot of it, sir. You’d be surprised.”
“Not quite on a daily basis, I wouldn’t say that, but a lot of it all the same.” This from the former Mr. Nasty.
“More than you’d think.”
“It affects people in different ways.”
“Many of its effects couldn’t be called small ones.”
“People do things.”
“Things they wouldn’t usually do.”
“They say things too.”
Mr. Phillips is free to make his way home. On the last stretch, the walk from Clapham Junction railway station to his house on Wellesley Crescent, Mr. Phillips bumps into an old woman loaded with parcels. He helps her carry them to the fourteenth-floor apartment in a housing development where she lives. The woman’s decency, humor, and strength of character emerge, dry but engaging, from her conversation, and over a cup of tea it turns out that she is the widow of a slightly crazy (Lanchester is keen on and good at mild craziness) scripture teacher whom Mr. Phillips remembers from his schooldays. Why this revelation should be as touching as it is is one of the secrets of Lanchester’s charm as a writer.
When Mr. Phillips gets home, he finds his younger son washing the family car. This unexpected (to Mr. Phillips), quite uncovenanted act of kindness, coming on top of the episode with the old lady, gives an oddly Victorian uplift to the whole novel. Quaint, but surprisingly effective. Then Mr. Phillips “fumbles for his keys, which he finds in his left-hand jacket pocket, and opens the door. He has no idea what will happen next.” That’s the final sentence.