Book Review: Nice Work, by David Lodge

Nice Work by David Lodge


What happens when an expert on 19th-century British industrial novels—who is a professor, a feminist, and a deconstructionist–finds herself in an actual factory?

This not being a time-travel novel, the factory is a contemporary one for the book’s setting in mid-1980s Britain.  It is a metalworking plant called Pringle’s, run by managing director Vic Wilcox.  Vic is not thrilled when his boss  (Pringle’s is owned by a conglomerate) suggests that he participate in something called the “shadow” program, designed to make academics and businesspeople better-acquainted with one another, but he goes along with the request.

Robyn Penrose, literature professor at a nearby university, is also not thrilled about her nomination to participate in the program, but she is concerned about her job in an era of reduced university funding, and also thinks she had better do as asked.  The way the program works is that Robyn will be Vic’s “shadow,”  joining him at the plant every Wednesday, sitting in on his regular activities, and learning just a bit about what is involved in managing a business.

Vic is a self-made man, not well-educated and with few interests outside work.  He is acutely aware of the danger that faces Pringle’s under the current economic climate, and is resolved that his factory will not join the long list of those that have been tossed on the scrapheap.

There is nothing quite so forlorn as a closed factory–Vic Wilcox knows, having supervised a shutdown himself in his time.  A factory is sustained by the energy of its own functioning, the throb and whine of machinery, the unceasing motion of assembly lines, the ebb and flow of workers changing shifts, the hiss of airbrakes and the growl of diesel engines from wagons delivering raw materials at one gate, taking away finished goods at the other.  When you put a stop to all that, when the place is silent and empty, all that is left is a large, ramshackle shed–cold, filthy and depressing.  Well, that won’t happen at Pringle’s, hopefully, as they say.  Hopefully.

Robyn and Vic dislike each other on first meeting:  Vic sees Robyn’s profession as useless, which Robyn sees Vic’s managerial role as brutal and greedy.  She is appalled by what she sees in her first tour of the factory..especially the foundry:

They crossed another yard, where hulks of obsolete machinery crouched, bleeding rust into their blankets of snow, and entered a large building with a high vaulted roof hidden in gloom.  This space rang with the most barbaric noise Robyn had ever experienced…The floor was covered with a black substance that looked like soot, but grated under the soles of her boots like sand.  The air reeked with a sulphurous, resinous smell, and a fine drizzle of black dust fell on their heads from the roof.  Here and there the open doors of furnaces glowed a dangerous red, and in the far corner of the building what looked like a stream of molten lave trickled down a curved channel from roof to floor…It was the most terrible place she had ever been in her life.  To say that to herself restored the original meaning of the word “terrible”:  it provoked terror, even a kind of awe.  To think of being that man, wrestling with the heavy awkward lumps of metal in that maelstrom of heat, dust and stench, deafened by the unspeakable noise of the vibrating grid, working like that for hour after hour, day after day….That he was black seemed the final indignity:  her heart swelled with the recognition of the spectacle’s powerful symbolism.

But still:

The situation was so bizarre, so totally unlike her usual environment, that there was a kind of exhilaration to be found in it…She thought of what her colleagues and students might be doing this Wednesday morning–earnestly discussing the poetry of John Donne or the novels of Jane usten or the nature of modernism, in centrally heated, carpeted rooms…Penny Black would be feeding more statistics on wife-beating in the West Midlands into her data-based, and Robyn’s mother would be giving a coffee morning for some charitable cause…What would they all think if they could see her now?


Vic and Robyn’s association does not get off to a good start:  Robyn almost causes a wildcat strike in her misguided attempt to save an employee who is in danger of being fired–and they argue incessantly about almost everything–Robyn for example is offended by the pin-ups that appear throughout the factory.  But the two soon develop a grudging respect for one another.

Vic is married, though not very satisfactorily so, and had in recent years found himself increasingly disconnected from his children.  Robyn is in a long-term relationship with another academic, Charles:  she is clearly on track to be more successful than he, which fact does not appear to bother him.  They live apart, for career reasons but also because of Robyn’s lack of commitment to the relationship,  staying together sometimes on weekends and holidays.  Via another woman he is attracted to, Charles develops an interest in the financial activities of the City.  (He sees it as analogous to literary deconstructionism:  “…exchanging one semiotic system for another, the literary for the numerical, a game with high philosophical stakes for a game with high monetary stakes…but a game in each case,”  whereas Vic has low regard for the finance industry:   “It’s all paper.  Moving bits of paper about.  Whereas we make things, thing that weren’t there till we made ’em.”)

Vic finds himself increasingly intrigued by Robyn and begins reading literature, going so far as to borrow one of his daughter’s schoolbooks.  And Robyn finds herself noticing and thinking about things that she wouldn’t have noticed before.  When looking down from the plane on a business trip with Vic:

People crammed into rush-hour buses and trains, or sitting at the wheels of their cars in traffic jams, or washing up breakfast things in the kitchens of pebble-dashed semis.  All inhabiting their own little worlds, oblivious of how they fitted into the total picture.  The housewife, switching on her electric kettle to make another cup of tea, gave no thought to the immense complex of operations that made that simple action possible:  the building and maintenance of the power station that produced the electricity, the mining of coal or pumping of oil to fuel the generators, the laying of miles of cable to carry the current to her house, the digging and smelting and milling of ore or bauxite into sheets of steel or aluminum, the cutting and pressing of the metal into the kettle’s shell, spout and handle, the assembling of these parts with scores of other components…The housewife gave no thought to all this as she switched on her kettle.  Neither had Robyn until this moment, and it would never have occured to her to do so before she met Vic Wilcox.


**will Vic be able to save Pringle’s?

**as part of this effort, will he be able to get rid of his sleazy and low-performing Marketing Director…who is apparently being protected by someone at a higher corporate level?

**will he be able to acquire the automated core-blowing machine (Altenhofer 22EX, with Siemens electronic controls) which he needs to preserve the foundry part of the business–but which is priced higher than he can afford?

**will Robyn and Vic become romantically involved?


At Chicago Boyz we’ve often discussed novels and films which deal realistically with work, and the relative paucity of such.  Nice Work is a significant accomplishment in this area, and very well worth reading.


12 thoughts on “Book Review: <em>Nice Work</em>, by David Lodge”

  1. My part-time semi-retired work as a field service engineer/technician takes me across N America (U.S., Canada, Mexico). About half of the trips focus on work in small, locally owned factories, with 10-50 employees. These places impress (read amaze, excite, encourage)me even more than the other half’s many city block size larger 100+ employees per multi shift sites. Often I find the place has found a market niche and produces a product I would never have thought of myself (eg, moving grain past electro magnets to remove metal so that one does not bite down on broken farm implements in one’s breakfast, eg, a huge vat on wheels with the arms extending from the vat having adjustably spaced hanging lines which drip weed killer on the weeds which have grown faster than the crop). But whatever the situation, the common factor proudly announces, “We exist because we provide a service you want.” At such sites someone has invested savings, thought, sweat, time that they might serve others. These folks know their income exist results not from forceful seizure, but from voluntary exchange. If they don’t make something desirable, make it better, make it less expensive, make it easily obtainable, then their investment becomes an unpeopled vacant building, bleeding rust into the soil.

    Glad to learn of a novel that tells it like it is.

  2. Several novels about business, and I agree they are rare, are Sincerely, Willis Wayde and a couple by Neville Shute.

    Trustee from the Toolroom which is about a man who designs miniature machinery. It has a story about an English professor who builds model steam engines because he still wants a connection with an engineer grandfather. The other, also by Shute, is Round the Bend about a young man who founds a charter airline in the middle east after World War II.

    Both have more complicated plots but are about men in business.

    “Nice work ” sounds interesting.

  3. Had a few days visit to such a factory in Glasgow a few years ago. People at all levels took evident pride in their work and the products they designed, built, and tested.

    Met some academics too who could use some of the same spirit.

  4. Academics in the 1700’s and 1800’s were generally an aristocratic pursuit, and the great majority of the common people never had much chance of going past a very elementary education.

    The attitudes of the nobility toward commerce and trade as debased occupations were absorbed into the intellectual community, compounded by the influence of the church in the universities, which also held worldly pursuits as something less than admirable.

    The unfortunate result is the bizarre situation we have seen in the 20th and 21st centuries, in which the supposed intellectual leaders of our society generally despise the people who actually put all sorts of ideas and innovations into practice as they produce goods and services.

    It is a simple fact of human existence that people generally believe what they’ve been taught, and don’t take it upon themselves to construct an entirely new worldview, unless something happens to undercut the pervasive tenets of their culture.

    One can see this in any number of societies which believed in all sorts of nonsense, superstition, and gruesome beliefs and practices, until confronted by another culture which overthrew the reigning set of beliefs and replaced them, for well or ill, by another set.

    The gradual inculcation of collectivist ideas by the progressive movement into our society over the last century plus has been a powerful, and painful, example of the strength and endurance of a creed which replaces the dominant belief system, even when that creed has little or nothing to show as a successful prescription for societal organization.

    The west now faces two very powerful, and malignant, faith-based ideologies, neither of which has any real concern or connection with the ideas of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness upon which this society was based.

    Only one of the three can survive, as they are all mutually exclusive, and utterly hostile to the others.

    Which will it be?

  5. The gradual inculcation of collectivist ideas by the progressive movement into our society over the last century plus has been a powerful, and painful, example of the strength and endurance of a creed which replaces the dominant belief system, even when that creed has little or nothing to show as a successful prescription for societal organization.

    The west now faces two very powerful, and malignant, faith-based ideologies, neither of which has any real concern or connection with the ideas of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness upon which this society was based.

    Very well gleaned and very well put.

  6. Collectivism, in whatever variety it is preached, is purely a faith based creed. I have long maintained that Marxism, for example, is nothing more than a form of gnostic heresy, substituting a form of “secret knowledge” about the class struggle for some equally esoteric secrets from the Bible.

    Once a person realizes the religious nature of collectivist beliefs, the manner of how it appeals to and holds its adherents becomes comprehensible in a way a purely political or economic analysis cannot reveal.

  7. I haven’t read the novel but I watched the BBC television serial.
    Why do you say Vic is not well-educated? He has a sound engineering education by the standards of the 1950s (when he was a student). He has apparently made a significant invention. While he is not cultured, once his interest is aroused by Robyn, he can pick up a novel and read it.
    Robyn, in contrast, is revealed as less than half educated. The description of the visit to the foundry, which comes as shock to Robyn, quoted shows her failure as a reader. While she can’t be expected to have read the novel in which she is a character, there are such descriptions in many other novels, so either she hasn’t read them or she has failed to appreciate them; otherwise she would have known what to expect, as anyone who has read the quoted passage now does.
    While Robyn gains an appreciation of the material economy, she is not equipped by her education to ever understand the underlying science. She could never appreciate the beauty of Maxwell’s equations, for example. Vic might not be able to say they are beautiful, but at vleast he knows what they are.

  8. “Not well-educated” in the sense that he has had little exposure to history, art, philosophy, literature, or any subject beyond the immediately practical. Of course, it is also questionable how truly well-educated Robyn is in this sense…how much has she actually studied beyond the material dictated by trendy deconstruction, leftism, and feminism?

    Re her shock when visiting the foundry, yes, there are probably vivid descriptions of such places in the 19th century industrial novels in which she is an expert. In the book (not sure if this is in the video), she has been subliminally influenced by institutional advertising of various companies to believe that *modern* factories are clean, cheerful, well-lit places.

  9. It is quite true that many (most?) of those who consider themselves “well-educated” have vast gaps in their knowledge, and this is probably even more true now than it was when the novel was written. In the mid-1980s, Robyn would have at least had a couple of high-school or college classes in chemistry or physics (in the US, I’m assuming this was also true in Britain), although she would likely not have had any comprehension of how a car engine operates or how steel is made, even at the most simplistic level. Today, though, she probably would not have even had the 2 or 3 basic science classes, instead, something on “social implications of science” or some such.

  10. I think we’re pretty much in agreement. I think the real gap in the education of people like Robyn is that, even when she appreciates the practical importance of eg the power grid she would not have the background to be able to understand the physical processes by which electricity is generated. This is not entirely her fault. She would have studied maths and one or two sciences to age 16. You need maths to 18 at least to understand physics in a worthwhile way. In contrast, the humanities are open to anyone who can read. I think the situation is better now in the UK in that more students intending to study the humanities are taking maths to A level (at 18) at least that’s my impression.
    What I object to is not that science is necessarily a closed book to humanities grads, but that so many of them think that what they can’t understand isn’t knowledge.

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