Deaf and the maiden can be a dangerous combination in David Lodge’s new novel. Forced to retire because of his rapidly diminishing hearing, linguistics professor Desmond Bates is going though a mid-life crisis.
He has had a fulfilling career teaching at a local northern University, but because of his hearing loss
the question-and-answer sessions with students were becoming just too stressful; more and more he has found himself struggling to pick up the gist of arguments.
When Desmond isn’t traveling up to the London suburb of Brickley to visit Harry Bates, his ailing octogenarian father, he’s mostly a stay-at-home retiree and a willing husband to his wife, Fred
(Winifred), who runs a trendy interior design store called Décor with her best friend, Jacci. But even as Desmond settles into a middle-aged life, he worries about his increasingly spotty sexual performance.
While Fred seems to be getting better with age, blooming into the flower of independence with a stunning new career and new look helped along by Jacci, Desmond has grown older and deafer and is now subject to occasional erectile dysfunction that seems to be exacerbated by the endless advertisements for Viagra appearing daily in his email box.
It comes as no surprise then that Desmond, somewhat hampered by his hearing loss, falls into predictable daily routine, his communication with those around him becoming difficult at best.
His family, friends and colleagues stand by, confused and embarrassed most of the time, and ultimately unable to relate to
his many misunderstandings in the conversation.
With sex becoming an object of anxiety rather than pleasurable anticipation, Desmond receives a completely unexpected and disturbing call from Alex Loom, a young post-grad who is writing a thesis about suicide notes and wants Desmond to help her out. An unpredictable and enigmatic girl with streaming blonde hair, Alex becomes ever more obsessed with obtaining Desmond’s help - even enticing him with seductive visits to her apartment.
While Desmond anguishes over what to do about Harry, whose standard of living is rapidly deteriorating, Alex gradually becomes his female nemesis, the clandestine afternoons at her apartment a constant cause for concern. Indeed, Desmond curses the day that he ever let this unscrupulous young woman into his life and allowed her to “twist him around the little finger of her flattery.” To confess his dealings with her would make him look smaller in Fred’s eyes, and he fears that an acknowledgement of Alex’s attempted seductions would further undermine the status of his marriage.
Ending with a birth and a death, for most of its pages this novel is a gentle and unassuming celebration of life, albeit one that may be a little disadvantaged. There is much humor and pathos to be found in poor Desmond’s battles with his hearing and the various situations that he lands himself in
- a messy Christmas dinner, a New Year's holiday at a sexy leisure resort, a chaotic dinner in a loud Italian restaurant in which Desmond ends up giving up on conversational content just to enjoy the fabulous food and wine.
Filled with literary alusions and couched in misunderstood irony, this novel is a modern comedy of manners framed around the themes of life’s fragility and the ease with which the marks we leave on the surface of the earth are erased. Alternating between the first and third person, Desmond ultimately comes across as a heroic senior citizen who entertains the reader
as he lifts a veil of candor with his sardonic thoughts on aging, marriage, seduction, and the advantages and disadvantages of deafness.