Thursday, February 4, 2010

DEAF SENTENCE by David Lodge

Mr Neff thinks he has read many books that he has actually never touched. This is because I have the annoying habit of reading their funny bits to him while he is trying to concentrate on some morally uplifting theological work (or to snooze with it sprawled across his chest). No doubt he thinks he has read Deaf Sentence.

Desmond Bates, a "tall, bespectacled, grey-haired man" in his mid sixties, has been hard of hearing for 20 years. Four years ago he took early retirement from the university--he was a professor of linguistics--because his deafness was interfering with his teaching, and now he feels vaguely useless. His 89-year-old father probably should not be living alone in London, half a day's journey from Desmond's house, but with his repetitive stories and unreliable bladder, he's no joy to have nearby either. Desmond himself is drinking far more than is good for him. Meanwhile, Desmond's wife, Fred, has opened a home decor shop, and business is thriving.

Enter Alex Loom, a narcissistic American sociopathic graduate student with long blond hair and attractive boobs, who begs Desmond to help with her research ...

No, it really isn't that kind of book, though I cringed through quite a few pages before Desmond figured out he was being duped and developed some backbone. For the first 250 pages it's a comic novel about deafness and old age and drunkenness and dementia and suicide--and then, without warning, it turns serious.

I'd give examples of how David Lodge, who himself is hard of hearing, makes each of those topics hilarious, but he rarely throws off one-liners. I'd have to quote whole pages, as I did to the long-suffering Mr Neff; and he thinks you'd enjoy them more if you just read them yourself, in context. Don't miss chapter 16, "Deaf in the Afternoon," in which Desmond and Fred join friends at a resort called Gladeworld, Desmond is reminded of Dante's Inferno, and a bizarre accident in an outdoor shower renders Desmond profoundly deaf and panicked.

The tone changes, however, in the untitled chapter 18. There is little badinage in the rest of the 291-page book as Desmond, on a speaking tour in Poland, visits Auschwitz and comes home to find his father in hospital following an incapacitating stroke. "Deafness is comic," Lodge writes, but "death is tragic, because final, inevitable, and inscrutable.... You cannot experience it, you can only behold it happening to others, with various degrees of pity and fear, knowing that one day it will happen to you."

The shift in tone might well irritate readers who had hoped to laugh all the way to the end of the book. Not that there aren't plenty of tonal shifts in the first part. Lodge merrily stirs up a brew of third-person fiction, journal entries, linguistic analysis, philosophy, slapstick, erotica, and literary allusion (he is, after all, the author of The British Museum Is Falling Down, a 1965 novel in which he intentionally mimics the styles of ten famous authors and alludes to a number of others). Still, chapter 18 comes as a shock. Lodge's trademark comedy vanishes, peaking out again only briefly before the loose ends are tied off and Desmond returns to his muted, vaguely useless, but perhaps now more interesting days. "You could say that birth itself is a sentence of death," Desmond observes. "Better to dwell on life, and try to value the passing time."

I read Deaf Sentence because I enjoy comic novels and David Lodge, and I was not disappointed. Given the book's subject matter, it could also be a good read for Lent.

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