Using the bits and pieces of one man's past, John Lanchester has drawn a fully dimensional life and, in the process, made in Mr. Phillips an Everyman for our times.
Near-perfect. (The Washington Post Book World)
Author Bio: John Lanchester-born in Hamburg, raised in the Far East, educated at Oxford-was a football reporter, an obituary writer, book editor, and restaurant reviewer before turning to fiction. His first novel, The Debt to Pleasure, a bestseller, won four literary prizes, including the Whitbred and Hawthornden. He writes regularly for The London Review of Books, The New York Times Book Review and The New Yorker.
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At night, Mr Phillips lies beside his wife and dreams about other women.
Not all of the dreams are about sex. Not all the women are real. There are dreams in which composite girls, no one he knows, look on while Mr Phillips goes about his dream-business of worrying about things, or looking for things, or feeling obscurely guilty about things. There is a dream he has been having since he was ten years old, in which he saves a whole group of strange women from certain disaster by diverting a runaway train or safely landing an aeroplane or encouraging them to hang on to the roof fittings on a tilting ship until just the right moment. He has even had a couple of dreams which involve him doing something vague but heroic in relation to the Channel Tunnel.
In the aftermath of these feats he is becomingly casual, almost dismissive. To camera crews and the world's press he explains that it is no big deal; but the women in the dream know that that isn't true.
Mr Phillips has anxious dreams about meeting the Queen and being awarded an honour, but not being able to remember what it is for. He has dreams about being told off by Mrs Thatcher. He has dreams about meeting his mother and not being sure whether they are in Australia (where, in real life, she lives, with Mr Phillips's sister), or London (where, in real life, he lives), or somewhere else. He once had a dream about Indira Gandhi. None of these dreams was about sex. He never told his wife about them. What good could come of it?
As for the sex dreams, he never told her about them either. What good, etc., only more so.
Mr Phillips grades them from one to ten. A one out of ten is quite mild. For instance, he often dreams about Christine Wilson, his next-door neighbour but two when he was growing up in Wandsworth. At the age of twelve she was half a notch posher than most of the children in the street; she had brown hair worn in plaits and a naughty streak well hidden from grown-ups. Christine would often instigate uproar, though she was never blamed for causing it. Mr Phillips had gone from hardly noticing her to being horribly, drowningly in love with her in the course of a single Saturday. They had spent that day crawling around in the foundations of a new office building that was going up on land that had lain empty since a stray V-2 had cleared it thirteen years before. They played hide-and-seek among the concrete mixers, ducking and scrabbling through partially built walls. When an adult shouted at them they ran home. As he lay in bed that night Mr Phillips found that he was very much in love.
In the dream, he and Christine are at school together, which in real life they never were. Mr Phillips sits next to her at a scratched wooden double desk which is covered in archaeological layers of graffiti. They are solving, under test conditions, a series of simple algebraic equations: a + b = x; if a = 2 and x = 5, what is b? He has an erection so strong that he is worried his fly is going to pop open. The end of the lesson is approaching and he is going to have to stand up and everyone is going to see his cock. The unfair thing is that he doesn't feel sexually aroused, he has the erection only because he's got caught up inside his underpants. In fact his penis is trapped outside the entrance to his knickers and is pinned vertically upwards. But no one will believe that. He wouldn't believe it in their shoes. In the dream he starts to blush, feeling the blood rush upwards and his face become lava hot, electric-fire hot. Then he wakes up. That is a one out of ten.
By three out of ten, the sex component is more definite. Mr Phillips is kissing his secretary, Karen, on the cheek while the telephone rings. He knows that he should pick up the receiver, but Karen's eyes are closed and she looks so happy that he doesn't want to stop. He has such a good close-up view of the tiny hairs on the side of her neck that when he stops kissing her he says, "You'll have to start shaving there soon." She reaches down and puts a hand on his cock. Mr Monroe, the Aberdonian colleague with whom he shares an office and Karen's services, looks on approvingly. Then he wakes up.
A five-out-of-ten sex dream might involve what used to be called "heavy petting," or some form of explicit display. One of the most common of these dreams involves the television personality Clarissa Colingford. She has hair that is whitish blond and what would once have been called "a lovely figure" and eyes that are the same colour as the middle of a Mars bar. Mr Phillips is hiding in her cupboard, terrified and excited, as he watches her masturbate, covered only by a single thin cotton sheet. That is actually one of the most exciting of his dreams, but it scores only five since Mr Phillips's system is to grade the dreams not on how stimulating they are but on the explicitness of their sex content.
At seven out of ten, the sex component is such that it becomes hard to meet the eye of the woman in the dream, the next time he meets her in real life. There is, for instance, something embarrassing or delirious about bumping into Janet-secretary to his boss Mr Mill, the incompetent head of the accountancy department-as she walks down the corridor with two plain digestive biscuits balanced on the saucer of a cup of tea, for all the world as if she had not, the night before, been eagerly responding to Mr Phillips's frightened but keen request to be sodomised with a nine-inch rubber penis.
It can't just be him, Mr Phillips feels. Office life is an erotic conspiracy. Everybody in offices thinks about sex all the time-that's exactly what they do. If the air at Wilkins and Co. were like one of those swimming pools which change colour when someone pees in them, so that the air would be dyed blue whenever anyone looked on their colleagues with lust, or need, or at the very least sexual speculation, then the atmosphere would be as clogged and dense as a London pea-souper. Does he stalk rampant through the dreams of co-workers, a vivid principle of priapism, so that the working day carries the lurid after-tinge of the night before? Perhaps Karen herself has beguiled an idle moment by speculating as to what it would be like with Mr Phillips. After all, she's only human. People fall in love with their secretaries all the time, and vice versa-not least because most men are at their most attractive when at work, their attention directed outside themselves, with chores to perform and decisions to exercise, all unlike the sulking, shifty tyrants of the domestic stage, wanting everything their own way and locked in a battle to the death to get it.
It goes without saying that people use offices for sex all the time too. It's a rare photocopier that hasn't been used to take a picture of somebody's bum. It's a very unusual desk that has never had people fucking on it. In an important sense all this is what offices are for. Mr Phillips has even done it on a desk himself once, when he was working at Grimshaw's, his first employer. His girlfriend Sharon Mitchell came to the office late to collect him on the way to a film, a Western with James Stewart in it. This was in the days before security guards and after-hours subcontracted office cleaners. They had done it on Mr Phillips's very own desk, indeed on his very own ink blotter. Sharon was the first girl Mr Phillips did it with who was on the pill; she chucked him for a musician. A sixties memory.
One thing that all the dreams have in common is that Mr Phillips never actually manages to have sex in them. Even in the ten-out-of-ten dreams, Mr Phillips never gets it wet. He looks and sees and feels and kisses, he plots and schemes and gets women to agree to have sex with him, and in some versions they even pursue him to ask for it ("begging for it," "gagging for it"), but he never, in the dreams, actually puts his penis inside another person, not even in the homosexual dreams which come along every now and then, with their own agenda, as if trying to make a point.
This morning, Mr Phillips has just woken from a seven-out-of-ten dream in which he was trying to arrange to have sex with Miss Pettifer, his younger son Thomas's form teacher at St Francis Xavier's. She is in her early fifties and therefore around the same age as Mr Phillips. In real life, he hasn't been conscious of being even vaguely attracted to her-but when he wakes after the dream, he realises that isn't the whole story. The fact that she is, say, twenty pounds overweight he feels in part of himself as a liberation, as if, in throwing off one set of worries about being sensible and watching your weight, other worries might be thrown off too, so that her half-double chin and wildly blossoming hips, all the more visible because her clothes are a third of a size too small, hold a promise: With me, you can do anything you want.
This isn't the first time he has dreamt about Miss Pettifer. The last time it happened he made an effort to talk to her at the next PTA meeting, as a way of getting the dream out of his system. When they shook hands, in the tobacco-stained staff room which smelt of instant coffee, he had the feeling that there was something in her eyes beyond the usual struggle to remember who this particular parent was. Perhaps she was aware that she had spent at least part of one night trying to clear a space among the desks or find a cupboard where he could fuck her standing up among brooms and brushes and ironing boards. (That is a detail from the dream that had to be wrong-why would the school have ironing boards in the cupboard?) But they were constantly interrupted: people came in and out, children playing cricket in the corridors kept bursting in to ask Mr Phillips if he would be their umpire, and once Martin, Mr Phillips's elder son, came knocking on the door of the cubicle in the bathroom just as Miss Pettifer had undone Mr Phillips's fly and extracted his penis.
Reprinted from Mr Phillips by John Lanchester by permission of Putnam Pub. Group, a member of Penguin Putnam Inc. Copyright (c) 2000 by John Lanchester. All rights reserved. This excerpt, or any parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.
What People are Saying About This
"Near-perfect." The Washington Post Book World
"The Debt to Pleasure...was greeted with such approval around the world (translated into more than 20 languages) as to make it a very tough act to follow. With Mr. Phillips, he has given readers that rare thing, a second novel better than the first." Thomas Lynch, The Los Angeles Times Book Review
"Lanchester triumphs again as the poet laureate of male hysteria, creating a fully imagined, entirely convincing, and utterly unlikely hero." Boston Sunday Globe
Reading Group Guide
Mr. Phillips wakes on a Monday morning in his modest, nearly mortgage-free house, in the bed he has contentedly shared with his wife of nearly thirty years (though to be honest, at night he lies beside her and dreams of other women), ready to face another ordinary day. Except that this day is not ordinary, for on the previous Friday, Mr. Phillips was summarily sacked. Unable to deal with this disaster—unable even to tell his wife—Mr. Phillips rises at his usual hour and prepares himself, as he has done his entire working life, for the job he no longer has.
Dressed for work with no work to do, Mr. Phillips wanders the streets of London, seeing the world as if for the first time. What he sees triggers memories: some are improbably funny, some deeply affecting, and all gradually build a portrait of a decent man who only forty-eight hours before knew exactly who and what he was—husband, father, son, valued employee, home owner—and on this day wonders who and what he can become.
It is John Lanchester's great gift as a writer that, using the bits and pieces of Mr. Phillips's past, he compresses into this short novel a fully experienced life and, in the process, makes him a kind of Everyman for our times.
ABOUT JOHN LANCHESTER
John Lanchester's first novel, The Debt to Pleasure, was greeted with great critical acclaim. Translated into twenty-two languages, it won four major literary awards—including the coveted Whitbred and the prestigious Hawthornden—was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times First Fiction Award and a New York Times Notable Book. Reviewing that novel in the New York Times Book Review, Frank Prial ended by suggesting that the author "might think about giving up his day job." John Lanchester did just that, giving up his position as Deputy Editor of the London Review of Books, though occasional pieces of his still appear there as well as in The New Yorker and Granta. John Lanchester is currently working on his third novel at his London residence.
"A writer whose gifts border on the demonic." —Michael Upchurch, Chicago Tribune
"His writing has the clarity and zing of fine cut glass." —USA Today
"Mr. Lanchester is a commanding writer." —Richard Bernstein, New York Times
"Lanchester has clearly learned from the masters. I can't imagine where he goes after such a breathtaking debut—but wherever it is, I look forward to tagging along." —Pam Lamber, People (in reference to The Debt to Pleasure)
1. For much of the novel, the author refers to his protagonist as "Mr. Phillips" as opposed to his first name. What does he accomplish by doing so? What is the significance of Lanchester's choice of Victor as Mr. Phillips' first name considering the events that befall the character?
2. How would you describe the depiction of women in Mr. Phillips? What is your opinion of Mrs. Phillips and Clarissa Colingford? To what extent do you feel that this opinion is influenced by the fact that these women are described through the voice of Mr. Phillips instead of an impartial narrator?
3. In some sense, Mr. Phillips is a voyeur—watching the women playing tennis in the park, staring at people in their cars, viewing the adult film. In what sense is the reader also a voyeur in terms of observing both the people Mr. Phillips watches and Mr. Phillips himself?
4. John Lanchester employs a unique method of transitioning between chapters, often making an inexplicable jump in chronological order. How does this add to the mood of the novel? Do you view this as Lanchester's comment on our tendency to "lose" parts of our day because of their monotony only to recall the specifics from memory if so required?
5. What do you make of Mr. Phillips' preoccupation with numbers and calculations? Does it contribute to his lack of emotional intensity or is it simply a manifestation of it?
6. Mr. Phillips focuses on numerous aspects of business, from the promises of the travel agent's posters to the disregard with which Mr. Wilkins fires Mr. Phillips. What major comments do you feel this novel makes regarding the influence of the corporate world on our everyday lives?
7. In what ways does his experience with the bank robbery prove to be a maturation process for Mr. Phillips? Do you feel that his survival in the face of danger will provide enough of an impetus for him to tell Mrs. Phillips that he has been fired?
8. What compels Mr. Phillips to help the elderly woman with her grocery bags? Is this ultimately an act of kindness or an attempt by Mr. Phillips to reconfirm his own usefulness? In what ways does the story of Mr. Erith relate to that of Mr. Phillips?
9. The final line of the novel ("He has no idea what will happen next") does not provide the normal sense of closure. Is this a disappointment to the reader or the appropriate way to finish the novel? What do you see as the future of Mr. and Mrs. Phillips?
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
When you boil it down, nothing much happens in this engrossing little novel. It chronicles a day in the life of Mr. Phillips, an accountant who was recently laid off and, afraid to tell his wife about his predicament, spends his days wandering through London. As he moves aimlessly from bus to train, from museum to restaurant to church to bank, and then back home again, he keeps up a constant internal narrative, thinking about his past and the women he¿d like to sleep with and the statistical probability of a person dying before he could cash in a winning lottery ticket.While it doesn¿t sound like a very exciting read, the story caught hold of me and kept me enthralled. Mainly, it¿s the writing; the words are so precise, and the writing style rolls the reader right along with Mr. Phillips through his day. But it¿s also the character of Mr. Phillips himself. At first glance, he is merely an unassuming middle-aged man, the kind of person we see around us every day, but the swirl of thoughts inside his head are a fascinating mix of the mundane and the startling ¿ one minute he¿s thinking about sex, the next he¿s doing sums in his head. By the end of the book, we have not just traveled around London with Mr. Phillips ¿ we have practically become him.
A man is made redundant, can't bring himself to tell his family and spends the day wandering around London, pretending he's been at work all day. It reminds me a lot of "If nobody speaks of remarkable things" by Jon Mcgregor(another book, like "Possession", that I loved) because it's all about noticing the things that go on all the time that nobody normally notices. Mr Phillips wanders around, mainly thinking about sex, and a few things happen, but that's not really the point. Anyway, I thought it was quite cool, and one of those books that makes you think more about lots of things.
then you will love this. Lanchester is amazing in investigating the dimensions and depths of the average guy. He has the wit and wordsmith skills of Christopher Hitchens without being so pedantic. I read Debt to Pleasure, loved it, then this, love it, and will hereafter read anything I can find by Lanchester (even nonfiction! ugh). I'm not related or a booster of any kind, just thrilled to come across this author who I hadn't read before.
I still wonder why I finished this book. I kept waiting for it to get better; but that never happened. It was not horrible by any means, only disappointing.