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Deirdre DonahueBritish writer John Lanchester's new novel Mr. Phillips achieves its goal of getting inside another human being's head and body. And Libido. The result is moving and funny.
— USA Today
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 Penguin Books, a member of Penguin Putnam Inc. Copyright © 2001 John Lanchester. All rights reserved. This excerpt, or any parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.
Posted December 11, 2010
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.
Posted September 13, 2000