Mr Phillips, on Friday, was made redundant. Sacked. Given the boot. However you phrase it, he's no longer an accountant at his London firm, a job that has provided him sustenance to nearly pay off his house, educate his children, and provide a comfortable life with his wife of 27 years. And so, on Monday morning, he arises, breakfasts, dresses, boards the commuter as if to spend the day behind his desk, all without telling anyone of his plight.
MR PHILLIPS is an often funny, sometimes touching look at a rather ordinary day under extraordinary circumstances of a man whose life has always been in rather sublime order. He has a penchant for reducing many of life's situations to mathematical equations. As he rides the bus, then the tube, and wanders through Trafalgar Square and down London's streets, he offers wry observations on how many feet per second he would be traveling when he hits the water should he jump from Chelsea Bridge, for example; or just how many British women are willing to take their clothes off for money and appear in British publications each year, based on the number he observes while riding bumpily along on the bus and looking over the shoulders of others. His thoughts turn often to sex, of his own experiences and the imagined experiences of others. He observes Londoners and tourists through a dispassionate eye, all the while mulling his future with the same dispassion. He remembers events from his childhood, in particular what his father had said when presenting him with the watch, which he still wears, when he passed his charter exams.
"'At the time that had seemed a perfectly natural thing to say; or at least Mr Phillips had felt he understood it. Now he sometimes looks at the watch and remembers his father's single word and wonders whether it meant There --- that's the whole business of present-giving discharged, or There --- you're a grownup now, you need to be on time, or There --- you'll never again look at the time without remembering your father. Or perhaps it really had meant, I'll be dead one day. There are times when he looks at the watch and is overcome by a recollection so acute that he can feel the stubble on his father's chin as he embraced him, and smell the slight sourness of pickled things on his breath. And at other times he just looks at his watch and thinks, Oh, it's five to two.'"
John Lanchester's eye for telling detail and his ear for the commonplace speech that makes each of us who we are, are brought together in a gem of a novel, formed from the common clay of the ordinary. MR PHILLIPS is Mr Everyman. Lanchester won a Whitbread award for his first novel, THE DEBT TO PLEASURE.
Reviewed by Roz Shea on April 3, 2001