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Mr Phillipsí Home Truths

John Lanchester: Mr Phillips (Faber and Faber, 2000)

John Lanchester, author of The Debt To Pleasure, has a new book out, Mr Phillips. The third-person account of a day in the life of its protagonist, fleshed out with plenty of background, Mr Phillips describes a progress through London that arguably resembles Mrs Dallowayís and just as arguably doesnít. The only clear difference is the absence of a counter-narrator on the order of Septimus Warren Smith.

It is too soon to write at any length about Mr Phillips. Iíve avoided the reviews that Iíve encountered and have no intention of writing one. Itís enough to know that Mr Lanchesterís prose is completely assured and no more mystifying than a walk the park. When he has produced a few more books, it might be apt to evaluate the literary and humane and whatnot aspects of Mr Phillips in the context of Mr Lanchesterís body of work. Just now I canít think of anything more overwrought than subjecting this candid story to further examination.

All the same, I canít wait indefinitely to prove that I was paying attention to this beguiling portrait of a Londoner moyen sensuel. Reading along, I came to notice the incidence of hard little kernels of wisdom, usually presented in stand-alone sentences suitable for cross-stitching. Page for page, Mr Phillips nearly matches Ďthe Marcel of the novelí for philosophical observation. At page 92 I began making notes, and here follows my collection of Phillipsian aperÁus:

What is the brutal old wivesí adage? If you put a penny in a jar for every time you did it during the first year of being married, then took a penny out for every time you did it thereafter, the jar would never become empty. (20)

Tuesdays are his least favourite weekday, since they lack the get-on-with-it feeling of Mondays, and at the same time the next weekend is still an impossible way off, and since, in addition, Mr Phillips was once told by a waiter in a Greek restaurant that Tuesdays are unlucky. (27)

Sleep is a bank account that you put capital in when you are young and draw on as you get older, and then you run out of capital and die. (31)

You could argue that those who fought their way to the seats were the people who needed them least. (47)

Like every mobile phone conversation Mr Phillips has ever heard, this call is largely about its own occurrence. (48)

We condition ourselves very hard to screen out the details or our enforced city intimacies. (49)

Itís like that story about the water in London having been through three peopleís urinary tracts before itís finally drunk (which Mr Phillips has seen denounced as a fiction by a bald man from the water company, the same one who was always going on about how little water there was in the reservoirs).(50)

We wouldn't care so much what people thought of us if we knew how seldom they did. (55)*

Itís so often menís desire not to look ridiculous that makes them look ridiculous. (58)

People always say the great taboo is death, but in my experience you hear death discussed a lot more than you do wanking. (73)

Why would anyone throw themselves under a train when they could chuck themselves off a bridge instead? (78)

They say that you have a moment of fear and then you go all calm, or even pass out. But how on earth do they know that? (79)

The world looks different, more fragile, when you have in mind that everyone everywhere tries to employ as few people as possible. (80)

Even if you like the pound coin, as he does, you have to admit itís hard on the old trousers. (82)

There would be a good number of people in this town who had never ever seen a dead body Ė conservatively, 80 per cent. So the set of people who had never been on the Thames and had never seen a dead body would be high too. (84)

Knowing someone so well that you could anticipate their response to most things should make their responses easier to bear but in practice often does the opposite. (92)

Mr Phillips remembers that feeling of waiting for something to happen, so strong when weíre young and so hard to recapture afterwards, just as boredom could be like a physical pain while it was happening but was impossible to recover through memory. (105)

Anyone who has any memory at all of the forties in Britain has a different attitude toward waste than anyone who doesnít. (109)

If banks try to look all secure and posh and safe and stable and big and respectable and stuffy and built to last for all time, for the simple reason that at heart they are just casinos, what is it that these government buildings were concealing? (129)

Itís a proverb: when the father helps the son, both smile; when the son helps the father, both cry. (141)

Like all churches, presumably because they are always empty, it feels bigger on the inside than the out. (175)

Mr Phillipsís least favourite part of any discussion or talk or meeting, from the PTA at St Francis Xavierís to the weekly accounts overview session at Wilkins and Co., is precisely this point, when people look at their shoes or rearrange their paperwork and pray that someone will say something. (177)

A real man shoots his own dog. (190)

It is a thing people do in cities now, Mr Phillips knew, he had seen an item about it on Crimewatch. They get their keys ready in advance. That way you are less likely to have someone come up behind you and bop you on the head. (238)

Mr Phillips has heard that goldfish, if they escaped into the wild, would grow to an unlimited size. (240)

He has no idea what will happen next. (247)

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* Thanks to Judith Muncy, of St. George's Square.