John Lanchester: Mr Phillips

The working class of the industrial age had its heroes or at least we all know the iconic images of coal miners flexing their bulging muscles. Mr Phillips — the main character of the book — is an accountant or rather was an accountant, because he has been made redundant. The blue-collar vs. white-collar issue reflected in the fact that Mr Phillips’ father was an electrician and invites the reader to reflect on social progress in the context of the transformation of English society, of how what was once called “The workshop of the world” turned into a post-industrial society.

Having had the same job with the same company for years, Mr Phillips, now in his fifties, wanders through London on a monday — his first day out of work. He failed to break the news to his wife or family. Trying to grasp what happened to him, thoughts about his own situation, about things he sees in the streets, people he meets, memories and obsessions come to his mind and to the readers attention. It is a drama which happens every day to some extend in our own minds — even if we are not downsized.

Issues like social class, the labour market, consumer culture and the media are present on almost every page, but through the medium of the most inner and kept-to-himself thoughts of Mr Phillips rather then the usual pretentiously impersonal style of the news or text-book. Mr Phillips’ conscious theorising adds depth and complexity to the story including the peculiarity of using his accounting skills to make sense of his world. The annual number of naked women in newspapers and magazines, the demographics of people lying on the floor of a bank being robbed and the odds of winning the lottery are treated to number crunching. The effect is often comical and at the same time insightful.

In Mr Phillips’ own way I give the book a eight out of ten.

John Lanchester: Mr Phillips. Faber and Faber. 2000. ISBN 0571201717.

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