Saturday, April 11, 2009

Book Review : Deaf Sentence (David Lodge)

David Lodge is not a flashy writer, but he is an extremely good one. Superficially, his predilection for working the same, relatively narrow, ground (he is a master of the academic novel) might seem constricting. But each of his novels delivers fresh insights, with his signature blend of intelligence, wit, and genuine affection for his characters.

"Deaf Sentence" is no exception. Although it's not as hilariously funny as some of his earlier books, it is - like all of his work - compulsively readable, and ultimately very moving, in an understated kind of way. Lodge's description of the various indignities that deafness brings is hilariously funny and so utterly convincing that you know it has to be based on first-hand experience. There is far more wisdom about aging in this unassuming story by Lodge than, for example, in Julian Barnes's recent, migraine-inducing, bloviation about his own mortality.

When I think of the trio of Julian Barnes, Martin Amis, and David Lodge (I try to think of Christoper Hitchens as little as possible), restaurant analogies come to mind. Amis is the risk-taking molecular gastronomist, brashly confident of his own genius, and hey - if the diners don't always appreciate the flashiness, that’s not his problem. To his credit, when he’s on target, he can be sublime. But the brilliance is hit-or-miss. Barnes is closer to Amis than he might care to admit, thought perhaps not writ quite so large. In general, the quality of his work doesn’t fluctuate quite as much, but he is still capable of succumbing to navel-gazing, and cleverness (or perhaps his consciousness of his own cleverness) is definitely his Achilles heel. You’ll be served some extraordinary meals chez Barnes, but there will be an occasional inedible mess. At the risk of beating this analogy to death, David Lodge, perhaps at the cost of never reaching the Olympian heights attained sporadically by the others, never disappoints, reliably serving hearty nourishing comfort food that leaves the reader satisfied and looking forward to the next visit.

That might sound like damning with faint praise, but is actually meant as the highest compliment. I can think of very few novelists working today who are consistently such a delight to read. He joins a very short list of authors (Margaret Drabble in early and mid-career, Anne Tyler) whose work is reliably intelligent, thought-provoking and interesting without being flashy. Such craftsmanship is rare and not something one should take for granted. I look forward to each new novel by Lodge, and thus far have never been disappointed.

****: Four stars out of a possible five.

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