Perpetual Succour 3, 40 Martyrs nil

THERAPY David Lodge Secker & Warburg £15.99

"I'm game for almost any kind of therapy except chemotherapy" - so confesses Laurence Passmore, depressive narrator of David Lodge's new novel. What's wrong with him? To all appearances Laurence, or Tubby as he's known, has got the lot; he's making a mint from the television sitcom he writes, drives a nifty Japanese sports car, commutes between his des res in Rummidge and a chic pied terre in central London, and still has sex with his wife after 30 years of marriage. What he hasn't got is peace of mind, or any explanation of the blinding pains he's had in his right knee; ergo he spends a fortune on a variety of experts - physio- therapists, acupuncturists, aromatherapists, cognitive behaviour therapists - who, he hopes, will tell him why.

So, more mid-life crisis, though less in the manner of Martin Amis's The Information than of the tortured monologue of Joseph Heller's Something Happened (1974). Compare Tubby's "somewhere, sometime, I lost it, the knack of just living, without being anxious and depressed. How?" with a moment from Bob Slocum's aria of mid-life, middle management anguish: "Something did happen to me somewhere that robbed me of confidence and courage and left me with a fear of discovery and change". Nobody is exactly sure what the root to Tubby's malaise might be ("I don't know" is the novel's constant refrain), though his shrink reckons he's suffering from a loss of self esteem and, at her suggestion, he starts keeping a journal, writing itself being a kind of therapy. It is also, for Lodge, a kind of challenge, primarily of his imaginative flexibility. In most of his fiction hitherto, including his industrial novel, Nice Work, at least one central character has been an academic, and therefore a convenient mouthpiece for the author's current intellectual preoccupations, while the conference circuit allowed him to break out of the study into the hotel bedrooms.

Therapy tries to tilt the perspective slightly. Laurence Passmore is a writer, but of comedy scripts rather than conference papers: with his two O-levels he's strictly University of Life material. One suspects Lodge conceived him as a liberation, a chance to impersonate a self-taught, canny, blokeish type with plenty of money to throw around - a chance to do reflectiveness in a non-professorial key. The results are mixed. On the one hand, Tubby's eager consultation of dictionaries and reference books to enrich his word-power feels absolutely right, the hunger of an auto-didact. On the other, his allusions to Larkin and his sudden interest in the works of Kierkegaard seem improbable. The narrator's mask keeps slipping to reveal the novelist. Much worse, however, is the narratorial fast one Lodge pulls halfway through. A portion of the book is devoted to testimonies from other characters (Tubby's wife Sally, his best friend Amy, his producer, his assistant etc.), which are subsequently revealed as monologues dreamed up by Tubby as a therapeutic exercise. The effect is disastrous: at a stroke it diminishes all the supporting characters, whose private motivations are, we're asked to believe, completely within Tubby's imaginative grasp. It recalls a similarly feeble trick that misfired in Paradise News, Lodge's last and least interesting novel; you feel it might be time for him to drop the metafictional gimmickry.

Yet just when the novel appears to have ran out of gas, it flares unexpectedly, and brilliantly, back into life. During a session of aromatherapy, Tubby gets a whiff of lavender that opens the floodgates of memory - and, praise be, neither he nor Lodge feels compelled to make galumphing reference to Proust. It elicits a long and tender reminiscence of boyhood during the Fifties, and specifically of Maureen, the Catholic schoolgirl who was his first love. The 15-year-old Tubby cuts quite a different figure from his present-day angst-ridden self - not tubby at all, in fact, but a talented footballer and budding comic actor. His shy courtship of Maureen is set against a narrow suburban London of trams and Brylcreem, of dances at the Catholic youth club and Sunday afternoons with parish football teams providing scorelines like "Immaculate Conception 2, Precious Blood 1 or Perpetual Succour 3, Forty Martyrs nil." That Lodge has roamed this territory before - principally in How Far Can You Go? - is of little consequence; the depth of feeling and exactness of detail lend these pages an impact unmatched anywhere else in the book, or indeed anywhere else in his fiction.

It is only the uneven patchwork structure of Therapy that allows it to accommodate this memoir, but its effect on the remainder of the book is astounding. Tubby finds that the answer to his spiritual crisis lies, as these answers usually will, in the past, and the novel turns from a maundering, mid- life bellyache into an elegiac comedy of remorse and redemption. It does nothing less than save the book. That it needed saving indicates something of a crisis in Lodge's own direction as a novelist. Readers will find here a measure of what this writer does best - beady- eyed observation of contemporary faddishness, gruesomely funny set-pieces and an affectionately sceptical take on the business of being a left-footer. But they will also find some mightily implausible sleights of narration and a central character who feels a shade too effortfully drawn. Lodge evidently intended to sniff the air outside academia; you get the idea he enjoyed it for a while but then started reading Kierkegaard and lost the plot. As a long-time fan I felt uneasy: you want to be on his side, but how far can you go?

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