Magazine article The Spectator

The Man Who Can't Explode

Magazine article The Spectator

The Man Who Can't Explode

Article excerpt

Miranda France


by John Lanchester

Faber, L16.99, pp. 247

This follow-up to John Lanchester's much-garlanded The Debt to Pleasure charts one day in the life of an accountant. Mr Phillips is more Prufrock than Bloom. Up until this day, his life has not been filled with adventures. The most excitement he has is at night when he dreams that he is saving hoards of women from disasters by diverting a runaway train, safely landing an aeroplane or encouraging them to hang on to the roof fittings of sinking ships. He dreams of preparing to have sex with his secretary on the desk at work, but even then the excitement is limited: he never actually gets to have it.

An accountant to his toes, Mr Phillips is the kind of man people might snigger about at parties. He likes to warm himself up in the morning by thinking about something 'semi-worrying', like his tax return. For years he has tramped the same route from a South London home to the accountancy department of a large company. There he might quietly have continued to measure out his days in circulated memos, but in these times of down-sizing, Prufrocks are the first to go. Mr Phillips has lost his job, but he has not told anyone yet.

On this, the first day of his 'redundancy', he sets off for work as normal, but gets off his commuter train at Battersea Park. He spends the rest of the day wandering around London, having the odd conversation, stopping occasionally to look at things. More than looking or talking, though, he is thinking.

As it happens, Mr Phillips's thoughts are fascinating. There are the usual meanderings, taking in childhood memories with current concerns and worldly philosophies. But the funniest thing about him, and this novel, is his passion for calculations. He works out the logistics of obtaining a ground-to-air missile from the mujahedin and transporting it back to Clapham where it could be used to shoot down noisy air traffic. He uses a combination of calculations to deduce that on a bus containing 80 people, 33.6 of them would never have been on a Thames river boat, had anal sex or seen a corpse.

A day's worth of Mr Phillips's thoughts certainly bears out that adage about men thinking of sex every three minutes (though it would be interesting to see his own, more precise calculations on the subject). …

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