by David Lodge
The setting is the industrial heartland of Thatcherite Britain in the early 1980's. The managing director of an engineering company and a university lecturer are thrown together against their will. The Industry Year Shadow Scheme is a government initiative to help academic thinkers to understand the practical industries. Vic Wilcox is allocated Robyn Penrose from the University of Rummidge for a term (semester) and they do not get off to a good start, especially since Vic was expecting a man ("Robin").
She becomes a thorn in his side, particularly when she interferes with a human resourcing problem, resulting in industrial action. Gradually they come to appreciate each other's point of view and it becomes a case of opposites attracting one another. Vic has never met anyone like Robyn and he becomes somewhat infatuated with her after a business trip to Frankfurt, where her linguistic skills helps him to clinch an important business deal. They both need to sort out their lives and the repercussions of the Shadow Scheme help them to see things in a different way and make important decisions about their future.
Some say that he tries to compensate for his short stature by his aggressive manner. Now in his early forties, Vic has worked his way up from humble beginnings, through Grammar School and an engineering apprenticeship to become Managing Director of Pringle and Sons Casting and General Engineering. He is proud of his achievements and firmly believes in British Industry, despite the increasingly hostile competition from other countries. He works and worries hard. His favourite motto is that there is no such thing as a free lunch. His favourite music is slow tempo, jazz-soul by female vocalists such as Jennifer Rush and Sade.
In her early thirties, Robyn came from an academic background, her father being an academic historian. She wears loose dark clothes that do not make her body into an object of sexual attention. Rejecting Oxbridge she opted for the freer lifestyle offered by Sussex University where she met Charles. She is now a temporary lecturer at the University of Rummidge. Her specialism is the 19th.century industrial novel and the role of women in literature.
Robyn's longstanding boyfriend from their student days in Sussex. Always seemed to take his studies more seriously, although never such a promising academic as Robyn. Has landed a plum job as Lecturer in the Comparative Literature Department of the University of Suffolk but subsequently resigns to take up a job in the city as a merchant banker, moving in with Robyn's brother's girlfriend.
Now Dean of the Literature Faculty at the University of Rummidge. The adventurous character from Changing places and Small world has aged. He looks tired, careworn and slightly seedy. Suffers from high-frequency deafness and consequently tries to guess what people are saying to him, sometimes with bizarre results.
Obliged to support herself at university and takes a succession of part-time jobs. Turns up as a kissogram for Vic when he is holding a works meeting at Pringles.
Marketing Director at Pringles. A big man with bushy sideboards and RAF-style moustache. Often late for work. His sense of humour is a little coarse. Is moonlighting with a sun-bed delivery service.
A voyage of discovery for Robyn and Vic as they try to make sense of each others worlds. David Lodge cleverly uses the very substance of Robyn's literary teaching on the industrial novel as the basis for her own discovery of the sometimes harsh world of industry. By the end of the book each is transformed into a more rounded and thoughtful person, using opportunities that present themselves to escape from the comfortable rut they are in at the start.
Vic has already begun to realise that he is bored with his life. Although he is proud of his house-with-four-toilets, his status and his car with personalised number plates he is dissatisfied with his family. His wife is no longer physically attractive to him and they seem to have nothing of importance to talk about. He is in the throes of a mid-life crisis when Robyn comes along. A most unlikely person, Vic would have said, to have set his pulse racing.
The author is able to use Robyn to develop a range of themes including literary semantics, feminism and a whole range of biases including race, class and gender.
David Lodge has admitted that he was somewhat disillusioned with what was happening in literary theory, particularly the debate about structuralism versus deconstructionism. The Silk Cut advertisement allows the author, through Robyn, to explore the distinction between metaphor and metonymy. Vic, just an ordinary person, is overwhelmed by the imagery and is certainly most uncomfortable about the sexual connotations. He asks "Why can't you people take things at face value."
Robyn believes that there is a strong link between the rise of the novel and of capitalism, hence the deconstruction of the classic novel in the 20th century reflects a terminal crisis in capitalism. She uses a range of 19th century English novels in her lectures and tutorials and David Lodge uses extracts from these same novels to preface each of the six sections of Nice work. They include Benjamin Disraeli's Sybil, or the two nations, Shirley by Charlotte Bronte and Hard times by Charles Dickens. David Lodge saw that these older works were trying to do what he, through Robyn and Vic, was also attempting, to recognise and do something about a divided society. The two protaganists come to realise that their main goals in life are not necessarily shared by others and, in fact, are quite alien to them. Robyn tells Charles that 99.9% of the population could not care less about their literary research and debate (their whole world). To Lodge, this is the power of fiction, to record and examine thoughts, new perspectives and consciousness.
The factory scenes in Nice Work help to consolidate Robyn's feminist stance. It is a man's world, the few women on the shop floor seem to be sexless, or, rather, robbed of their sex. Brian Everthorpe is portrayed as a somewhat shallow ladies man (or so he would probably like to be described) and his idea for a girly calendar is ideal ammunition for Robyn in focusing on all that is wrong with the factory management. He is genuinely surprised when his plan for "... the usual sort of thing. Birds with boobs ... tasteful ... nothing crude" is met with anger from Robyn. She asks Vic if he is really proposing to advertise his products with a calendar that degrades women.
Page created 23 November 2002 and last
updated 25 April 2003
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