Our Doppelgangers…

Nice Work (1988) is a novel by British author David Lodge. It won the Sunday Express Book of the Year award in 1988 and was also shortlisted for the Booker prize. In 1989 it was made into a four-part BBC television series starring Warren Clarke and Haydn Gwynne. The University of Birmingham served as the filming location of many of the scenes from this series.

Plot summary

The book describes encounters between Robyn Penrose, a feminist university teacher specialising in the industrial novel and women’s writing, and Vic Wilcox, the manager of an engineering firm. The relationship that develops between the unlikely pair reveals the weaknesses in either character. Robyn’s academic position is precarious because of budget cuts. Vic has to deal with industrial politics at his firm.

The plot is a pastiche of the industrial novel genre, particularly referencing North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell. This gentle ribbing acts to undermine the postmodern and feminist position of Robyn, who accepts the hand of fate despite ridiculing its role as the sole restorative capable (in the minds of authors of industrial novels) of elevating the female to a serious social position. Robyn acquires insight into the pragmatic ethos whose encroachment on university culture she resents and Vic learns to appreciate the symbolic or semiotic dimension of his environment and discovers a romanticism within himself that he had previously despised in his everyday life.

The story is set in the fictional city of Rummidge, a grey and dismal fictionalised Birmingham. It is part of the same series as the novels Changing Places, Small World, and Thinks …. In Nice Work, Philip Swallow is still head of the English Department from Small World and thus is Robyn Penrose’s boss. Morris Zapp makes a cameo appearance in the last part of Nice Work, to add a plot twist where he tries to arrange for Robyn to have a job interview at his American university, Euphoric State (a fictionalized UC Berkeley), in order to stop his ex-wife from being a candidate for an open faculty position. Robyn Penrose makes a cameo appearance in Thinks ….