Honey, I shrunk the id

THERAPY by David Lodge, Secker £15.99
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The Independent Culture
THE TITLE alone should be enough to warn the alert reader that this represents a new departure for David Lodge. Gone are such colloquial collocations as Nice Work and Small World; instead we have one of those terse, teasing titles - Providence, Possession, Innocence - which appear to pose the question, "What is this book about?", floating the hot-air balloon of a large abstract noun which the narrative brings smartly down to earth.

Gone too is the reassuring presence of Lodge himself as authorial master of ceremonies, setting and changing the scene and putting his puppets through their paces in the grand manner of a latterday Thackeray or Trollope. Instead we have a first-person narrative in the form of a journal written by Laurence 'Tubby' Passmore, a rich, happily married and professionally successful 58-year-old TV scriptwriter who is suffering from a mysterious pain in his right knee and a sense of anxiety and unease.

For these ailments, he is seeing a physiotherapist, a cognitive behaviour therapist, an aromatherapist and an acupuncturist, as well as his platonic mistress Amy, who is herself in analysis. It is Amy who introduces Passmore, who left school with two '0' levels, to the notion of existential angst, which helps him to understand his major problem, which is why he has a problem in the first place. But by the time he discovers Kierkegaard and the concept of Dread, his life has started to fall apart in more concrete ways as his wife leaves him and his hit TV show is threatened by the departure of the star.

It would be easy enough to imagine Passmore in a traditional David Lodge novel, his predicament compared and contrasted with that of quite a different 'type' - a penniless, anorexic Kierkegaard specialist, perhaps, with whom he collaborates on the screenplay of Fear and Trembling in Las Vegas. But here he is alone. Not only are there no other characters of any substance, there is, crucially, no other voice either. A section in the centre of the book which looks like a shift to other points of view turns out to be a series of imagined monologues written by him on the instructions of his shrink; and it is a measure of the book's failure that this realisation comes as a crashing disappointment.

In his earlier novels, David Lodge played with assurance and success to his considerable strengths as a writer: tight plotting, bold characterisation and acute social observation. Therapy seems almost like a conscious exercise in exposing his limitations. There is no plot to speak of, the characters filtered through Passmore's consciousness remain shadowy and notional, while the social commentary for which Lodge is justly famous is reduced here to a series of stale routines about how dirty London is these days and the privations of travelling by British Rail.

That leaves nothing much to fall back on except the writing itself, and David Lodge's style, while perfectly serviceable, is simply not up to the considerable task of sustaining interest in Passmore's personal problems - which seem to amount, finally, not so much to unhappiness as its British equivalent, uncomfyness - over more than 300 pages.

In the spare, structured framework of Nice Work such clichs as teeth like tombstones in a neglected churchyard or snowflakes swirling like a shaken paperweight passed almost unnoticed; but here the flatness of Passmore's maundering recollections and self-analysis rapidly becomes tiresome, especially as the fictional pretence that he is writing a personal journal is continually undermined by Lodge's need to flesh out his novel by having Passmore explain to himself the workings of a TV studio or make jokes about names (Marples/Marbles) selected for the very purpose of making such a joke possible.

That said, the ending involving Passmore's reunion with his first girlfriend is genuinely moving and credible (although the parallel with Kierkegaard's relationship with his jilted fiance seems forced - as ever, the professor in Lodge cannot resist drawing the reader's attention to such details. But it is a very long time coming, and would have worked even better as an episode in a book with other elements of interest, or at least differing perspectives on those on offer.

In an epigraph, David Lodge quotes Graham Greene to the effect that writing is a form of therapy''. Perhaps so, but readers - unless they are getting paid the kind of fees professional therapists command - are unlikely to be prepared to judge its success on that basis.