Thursday, April 5, 2012

David Lodge's "Deaf Sentence" and the pleasure of browsing

Deaf Sentence by David Lodge

The great thing about libraries and bookstores is that (for the moment, at least) they still have books. Shelves and shelves full of books. Actual, physical books with weight and substance, literal and metaphorical. Books that you can browse, books that you can hold in your hand, books that you can flip through and read a page or two here and there before deciding whether to read all the way through. Which is precisely how I discovered Lodge's Deaf Sentence.

Well, actually I was shelving. But you get the idea.

Deaf Sentence is a wonderful novel: wry, funny, tender, and devilishly smart. It's never smug or condescending, but it takes for granted that art and culture and philosophy are at least as interesting as sex and death and family strife. All of which abound in it, though in an understated, typically English way.

The book's protagonist is Desmond Bates, a linguistics professor in his mid-sixties, driven to early retirement years earlier by failing hearing. The question, he quips, is whether he will be stone deaf or stone dead first. In a way, his situation is an ironic reflection all those 20-something college grads who have too much education and too few prospects these days. Except he has a lifetime of achievements and baggage behind him, and the question of how to fill all the empty days that stretch before him now has a mortal urgency to it.Then a femme fatale appears in the form of a brash young female American graduate student named Alex Loom looking for help with her doctoral thesis, a linguistic analysis of suicide notes. It's a set-up we know by heart, whether from Blue Angel, Wonder Boys or Setting out in the Evening, but Lodge puts a fresh spin on what otherwise could be a tired old tale. The professor's deafness becomes almost a character in itself, an ever-present third party and a kind of tragi-comic foil for him. Indeed, the whole book is written in journal format and narrated in alternating first- and third-person voices by Desmond Bates, who observes that he may be keeping this record as a sort of "occupational therapy." Maybe.

Someone once asked Joseph Campbell how he meditates, and without missing a beat he answered "I underline sentences." Deaf Sentence puts me in that kind of meditative mood. If I were reading my own copy I would be underlining things left and right. The passages describing Desmond's awkward visits with his 89-year-old father, or his rage at finding highlighting in library books (!), or even his throwaway remarks on the state of modern art are all gems, mini-essays well worth revisiting even after you're through with the story. Nice work, Professor Lodge!

1 comment:

  1. Don, this sounds like a fabulous find. Thanks for the review. I wish I could start it right away but I'm pretty booked up for the moment. Very interesting reading, your review! Sounds as if it would make a good movie as well.