Sex becomes a metaphor for life

December 18, 1998

A Pilgrim's progress report

In David Lodge's Nice Work, Robyn Penrose, Cambridge graduate, has finally secured a poorly paid three-year lectureship in English literature at the University of Rummidge. A feminist leftie, she views the novel as a capitalist artefact and lectures in Victorian "industrial" fiction.

As part of the government's effort to make universities responsive to industry, she is assigned a project to follow the work of Vic Wilcox, director of a Midlands steel company. On her first visit to J. Pringle & Sons, she demands to know where the chimneys are - "great tall things, with smoke coming out of them". In the corporate-academic interplay that follows, sex becomes a metaphor for life.

In the second half, her lover, Charles, having secured a job at the University of Suffolk, announces he is becoming a merchant banker. He is abandoning a profession where he feels "stranded on the mudflats of an obsolete ideology", with tight money forcing "bigger classes, heavier workloads, and scant chances of promotion".

In one passage, as Robyn scans The THES for jobs, she considers "the previously unthinkable prospect of a non-academic careerI with fear, dismay and bewildermentI Of course she was aware, cognitively, there was a life outside universities, but she knew nothing about it I When she tried to imagine herself working in an office or a bank, her mind soon went blank, like a cinema screen when the projector breaks down or the film snaps."

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