The first time David Lodge drops the phrase that recurs throughout this 1980 novel, it means "how far can you go sexually without going to hell?", a question of paramount concern to the ensemble cast of young people we meet at a Thursday morning mass in 1952. As the novel tracks their lives through the cultural transformation of the 1960s and early 1970s, however, it quickly becomes clear that the real question being posed is "how liberal can Catholicism get before it ceases to mean anything?" That sex comedy is the most frequently struck note in exploring this question is not mere happenstance; one of the key premises of the novel is that the collision of Catholicism and modernity manifested itself as "a great debate about — not, say, the nature of Christ and the meaning of his teaching in the light of modern knowledge — but about the precise conditions under which a man was permitted to introduce his penis and ejaculate his semen into the vagina".

I said "sex comedy" just now, but we're not talking about an extended Three's Company episode, nor about the semen-drinking and testicle-eating that has come to bill itself as sex comedy in recent American cinema; the humor (and, yes, the book is often really funny) comes from the arch narration and the awkwardness of the protagonists, whose initial inexperience runs "directly counter to statistical evidence recently tabulated by members of the Kinsey Institute for Sexual research in Indiana, but these young people are British, and in any case unrepresentative of their age group." It's certainly not built into the plot, the organizing principle of which is simply the patterns of people's lives, which meander as they will, and for every amusing anecdote there's a marriage breaking up or a child killed. For all the amusement, this is, as the narrator points out on more than one occasion, "not a comic novel, exactly".

Of course, to say "the narrator" is a bit coy, given that he refers to previous David Lodge novels as his own and talks about the fan mail he's received about them. Which is hardly the most postmodern move in the book. Lodge plays the pomo card early when he tells the reader to get the ten main characters straight now, because he'll soon be giving them spouses and children and readers are liable to get hopelessly confused if they don't have a fix on who's who. He then goes on to spell out all the writer's tricks he's used so far: "Angela's very name connotes angel [...] and her blonde hair archetype casts her as the fair virtuous woman, spouse-sister-mother figure [...] Adrian, bespectacled (=limited vision), in belted gabardine raincoat (=instinctual repression, authoritarian determination)" and so forth. Then he introduces a new character: "Let her be called Violet, no, Veronica, no Violet, improbable a name as that is for Catholic girls of Irish extraction, [...] for I like the connotations of Violet". He even manages to make this work with the darker bits, as when he hits the four-year-old with a van: "I have avoided a direct presentation of this incident because frankly I find it too painful to contemplate. Of course, Dennis and Angela and Anne are fictional characters, they cannot bleed or weep, but they stand here for all the real people to whom such disasters happen with no apparent reason or justice. One does not kill off characters lightly, I assure you, even ones like Anne, evoked solely for that purpose."

Lodge even manages to tie together his postmodernism with his theme: "[...] they stood upon the shoals of Faith and felt the old certainties and dogmas ebbing away rapidly under their feet and between their toes, sapping the foundations upon which they stood, a sensation both agreeable stimulating and slightly unnerving. For we all like to believe, do we not, if only in stories? People who find religious belief absurd are often upset if the novelist breaks the illusion of reality he has created." But really, these outré moments aren't representative of the whole; what they do is afford Lodge the ability to step outside the narrative from time to time and offer some background information for those readers who might not be intimately familiar with Catholic doctrine and history, without the jarring effect that might result were a more traditional narrator to attempt the same. These infodumps, more Everett K. Ross than Kim Stanley Robinson, are among the novel's best bits, filling readers in on the Catholic worldview without actually expecting them to swallow it. I kept expecting that eventually we'd get to one that'd make clear Lodge's stance on the changes in Catholicism over the period he's covering, but the closest we come is one that posits that the fundamental one is "the fading away of the traditional Catholic metaphysic [...] Heaven, hell, purgatory, limbo. Mortal, venial and original sin. Angels, devils, saints and Our Lady Queen of Heaven. Grace, penance, relics, indulgences and all the rest of it." He goes on to assert that "We [uh-oh!] must not only believe, but know that we believe, live our belief and yet see it from outside [...] Just as when reading a novel, or writing one for that matter, we maintain a double consciousness". I'm not necessarily looking for something so simple as a thumbs-up or -down about the entirety of a social phenomenon, though the Sunday Times critic seems to think he or she has found a "superbly presented montage of the false nostrums that assailed Christianity like worms" when the book portrays said "nostrums" as effecting true liberation (albeit with tradeoffs.) But here's what I don't get. Lodge doesn't seem overly distraught over the loss of the claptrap — the bits about whether "Christ jumps from His wheaten vehicle into your soul" before or after reaching the esophagus and stuff like that are hilarious and none too affectionate. What remains, however, seems to be not much: "You can do whatever you think is right," explains one character when asked about the precepts of the new Catholicism. Yet most of the characters, and Lodge, stick with it. Why? What's the point?

When one character asks this point-blank, she gets three replies from different people and they're all really inane. ("People need religion, and Catholicism is the most popular"; "People need religion, and should stick with the one they're born into"; "Like, whatever.") Then there's the answer supplied by the author, in the interstices as it were, which is to my mind by far the weakest element of the book: there's little more to it than some extremely handwavy stuff about how it provides a framework to think about the Big Questions (a framework of long-exploded answers — gee, swell) and about how it's helpful when family members die (with no further elaboration: a character's father dies, and later she asserts in an aside that, oh yeah, being a Catholic was helpful. How it was helpful is apparently none of our business.) But that's a bit like defending the space program on the basis that it led to Teflon. Rather than sift through what remains of a religion that's more or less fallen to pieces looking for tangents, why not search for one that specifically targets your concerns? But I guess I'll save that for my next book. (Which reminds me: the insider's perspective allows Lodge to slice-n-dice Catholicism with impunity. He has no such perspective on my hometown of Anaheim, yet spends several pages trying it anyway. Grrr. Again, more grist — already-written grist, this time — for my second book.)

So, to sum up: I have some fairly deep reservations about where this book is coming from and what it's trying to do, but on a surface level, it's great! How this diagnosis compares to the various characters' diagnoses of Catholicism is left as an exercise for the reader.

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