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.
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 Austen 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-base, 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.