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Mr. Phillips wakes on a summer's Monday morning in his modest, nearly mortgage-free house, in the bed he has contentedly shared with his wife of almost thirty years, ready to face another ordinary working day.
Except that this day is not ordinary, for on the previous Friday, Mr. Phillips was summarily fired. Through no fault of his own, Mr. Philips has suddenly found his whole life cast into doubt.
Unable to deal with this disaster -- unable to even tell his wife -- Mr. Phillips rises at his usual hour and prepares himself, as he had done his entire working life, for the job he no longer has. Dressed for work with no work to do, he wanders the streets of London, seeing the world as if for the first time, and what he sees triggers memories. Some are improbably funny, some deeply affecting, and all gradually build a portrait of a decent man who only days before knew exactly who he was -- husband, home owner, father, valued employee -- and on on this day wonders what he can become.
With his eye for the telling detail, his ear for the commonplace speech that make each of us who we are, John Lanchester has created both a jewel of a novel and an Everyman for our times.
A statistician and inveterate quantifier, Mr Phillips likes to give marks out of ten for things (including sexual dreams), a habit that has especially humorous consequences when he visits the Tate Gallery. A Gaudier-Brzeska head: seven out of ten; The Boyhood of Raleigh: five. His thoughts on Millais's Ophelia are typical: "If she had drowned surely she wouldn't be floating on her back like that? Certainly that wasn't how drowned people looked on TV. Six out of ten." Mr Phillips's judgments may lack sophistication, but they are often hilariously apt, and above all true to his personality. He has a penchant for mental arithmetic, and speculates about how many women in England pose nude for magazines and tabloids (16,744, he deduces). He isn't exactly sex-obsessed, but he illustrates dramatically the notion that men think about sex a great deal of the time.
His thoughts also meander in many directions: How many people on a London bus have never been on the river Thames? What would the financial accounts of the Battersea Park authorities look like? Standing on Chelsea Bridge, he calculates the speed at which a suicide would hit the water. Is this litany of seemingly trivial arithmetical puzzles a response to the trauma of unemployment, or is it a heightened version of the mind games we all privately play? Mr Phillips is extremely observant and insightful--he should have given up accountancy long ago. He is good on old age and especially good on death: "But the thought that you would be aware of what was going on as you died implied that somewhere in his future was a moment of the purest terror, terror at 200 proof, so that you could have a small taste of the fear every time you let your mind touch on the subject, even for a second or two."
Reviewers have already been talking about literary influences--Woolf, Joyce, Wells--but John Lanchester's mesmerizing second novel has a cumulative power and brilliance all its own. --Jonathan Allison
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