Told through the first person perspective of retired linguistics professor Desmond Bates, Deaf Sentence is a classic example of a genre of british writing that might be termed comic fatalism, where the central characters inevitably find themsleves victims - emotionally and as here, physically - of a world they find confusing and more often than not simply baffling.
Lodge thus sits very comfortably with writers such as David Nobbs and John Mortimer, sharing their bemusement of the modern world as well as an almost morbid fascination with all things sexual. Thus while Professor Bates succumbs to gradual deafness - a sure fire marker for encroaching physical decline - his appetite for sex, somewhat cruelly - even mockingly, remains steadfastly healthy. C'est la vie.
Perhaps it's just symptomatic of ageing male writers. Do female novelists obsess about failing sexual capacity? I doubt it. In these types of books, the spirit is willing - always willing, but the flesh, the wretched flesh, just mocks. What writers such as Nobbs and Lodge manage to do rather well is capture all the absurdty and insecurities of the mid-life male, warts and all. Reading Lodge, Nobbs and Mortimer is always a funny and very often uncomfortable experience - at least for some of us...
Deaf Sentence is a curious novel all told. On the one hand it's a rather poignant account of a father and son relationship, as Desmond struggles to cope with a father whose infirmity is surpassed only by his stubborness. In his notes, Lodge points out that the father/son relationship is very much based on his own relationship with his father. That much is obvious. At times this novel feels highly personal, confessional even. I wonder if Mrs Lodge reads her husband's novels.
Passages when Desmond and dad - both deaf - try, but ultimately fail to connect with one another, are often grimly comical and at times excrutiatingly poignant. Anyone who has had to care for elderly parents will cringe and chortle in equal measures. Lodge gently reminds us that today's mothers and fathers are tomorrow's helpless children. And then there's always that tricky question of duty.
Compounding the stress of dealing with a grumpy father knocking on death's door, provocative American Phd student, Alex Loom then walks into Desmond's life. A tale of academic stalking unfolds. Ms Loom, a lady of obscure origin and unfolding instability, decides that Professor Bates would be the ideal mentor for her thesis - on suicide notes. Bizarre. The prof nearly takes the bate(!). After all he is male.
Despite its promising premise - wacko yank stalking straight-laced Brit professor - and some admittedly funny interactions twixt the pair - it's a sub-plot which struggles to move through the gears. Indeed, the plot ends rather anti-climatically as Alex ups sticks and returns home - presumably to the US, by which time Desmond's attentions have turned entirely to his father. Moreover the father/son, professor/student plots never really coalesce. Lodge could possibly have written two different books here, each taking and developing what are very different strands.
As the student stalker plot somewhat disspates, the book - perhaps searching for direction - takes us on a couple of random holiday trips. Firstly to a synthetic holiday parc, where Desmond and his wife sample the delights of plastic wraps and artificial wave machines and secondly we find ourselves in Auschwitz as Desmond accepts a British Council mission to Krakow.
While both episodes are certainly related with customary dry wit and observation, both feel rather tagged on in terms of the novel as a whole. Reading these accounts one can't help but feel they would make wonderful essays in their own right. Integrated into the novel, they are arguably, much less successful. It's as if Lodge decided to include these excerpts simply because he wished to relate his personal experience of these places to the reader, in particularly his meditations on Auschwitz. I'm not sure Deaf Sentence was the most appropriate place to fulfill this ambition.
Overall the three separate strands to Deaf Sentence balance fairly precariously: Desmond's decline in hearing, Alex Loom and father/son are, however, all admittedly rather deft examples of tragi-comic writing at its finest.
While not being in the same class as other Lodge works such as Thinks, Therapy or Nice Work, there is more than enough here within the individual passages to raise more than a few smiles and also more than a few painful winces.
In the final analysis, Deaf Sentence is arguably an example when the sum of the parts are perhaps greater than the whole.