I’ve read some of David Lodge’s literary criticism but never any of his novels. My undergrad advisor had recommended The British Museum Is Falling Down as a twentieth-century novel that is really funny. And truly, in my field, funny is not always so easy to find. I was more than happy to give it a shot, but excited to see that it’s also a novel about academia.
The novel focuses on Adam Appleby, a doctoral student and a devout Catholic, who is afraid that his wife Barbara is pregnant for the fourth time. The story takes place in a day, which seems to be a nod towards both Ulysses and Mrs. Dalloway. Here, Adam rides his decrepit old scooter to the Reading Room of the British Museum, where he is supposed to begin work on his doctoral thesis. He has to truck ALL his notes and books with him, for fear that he will not have the right one when he needs it, and thus his day’s work would be moot (all I could think when I read that was, “Brother, I have BEEN THERE.”). He encounters his colleague Camel, has several telephone conversations with Barbara, goes to a meeting of Catholics to debate contraceptives, and meets the niece of a minor Catholic writer in an attempt to acquire unpublished manuscripts to earn his way into academic acclaim and, thus, a job.
As an examination of cultural Catholicism, it’s pretty incisive. Adam’s declaration that literature is all about sex and not about children, whereas life is the reverse, is quite spot-on. The problems of marriage and sex that ensue from a no-artificial-birth control policy come alive and demonstrate how dogma is enacted and questioned today.
As a satire of academia, it could not be better. I *howled* with laughter at the episode during the fire drill, in which the woman weepingly urges the firefighter to take her manuscript, because she cannot lose her doctoral dissertation. Seriously, I have BEEN THERE. Writing a dissertation makes you crazy. Unproductivity makes you burn with guilt. Everything is agony. Lodge gives piercing insight into a highly self-conscious time of intellectual life and makes it all-too-real.