Mocking Absurdities In British Industry. BOOKS: REVIEW

NICE WORK By David Lodge, London: Secker & Warburg, 277 pp. 10.95 net

WHEN Vic Wilcox, managing director of J.Pringle & Sons, awakens on Monday, Jan. 13, 1986, he is unaware that his world is about to be turned, slowly but irrevocably, upside down.

Under the auspices of a government-concocted program for ``Industry Year,'' he will acquire a ``shadow'' - an academic from the local university whose job it will be to follow him about once a week, thus fostering understanding between industry and academia. So begins ``Nice Work,'' David Lodge's witty novel of British industry today, and winner of the 20,000 ($34,800) Sunday Express Book of the Year Award.

Naturally, since this is a David Lodge book, the ``shadow'' is the very antithesis of the rough-and-ready Vic. An ardent feminist, Robyn Penrose - the shadow - is a theory-spouting leftist lecturer of English literature, who views the Victorian novelist as ``a capitalist of the imagination.'' It's a simple case of loathing at first sight for each of them.

Lodge uses this forced relationship to illustrate the canyon of ignorance that divides the industrial world from the ivory tower and to expose the prejudices that buttress this separateness.

Robyn is an expert on the Victorian industrial novel. But she has insulated herself from the harsh realities of the industrial world, substituting Freudian and deconstructionist analyses for a true or even superficial understanding of life in a factory. Her venture into Pringle's machine shop and foundry is for her comparable to Dante's descent into the inferno.

``This space rang with the most barbaric noise Robyn had ever experienced,'' Lodge writes. ``Her first instinct was to cover her ears, but she soon realized that it was not going to get any quieter, and let her hands fall to her sides. ... Here and there the open doors of furnaces glowed a dangerous red, and in the far corner of the building what looked like a stream of molten lava trickled down a curved channel from roof to floor. ... To Robyn's eye it resembled nothing so much as a medieval painting of hell - though it was hard to say whether the workers looked more like devils or the damned.''

WHILE ``Nice Work'' offers a pithy assessment of the manifold challenges facing British industry today, the author never loses his sense of fun or his sense of the ridiculous. Whether he is speaking of the city types pushing paper for fun, the academics indulging in psychobabble, or the measurements of corporate success, he mocks these absurdities without resorting to cynicism. Though Lodge often writes in the present tense, his use of it never becomes an irritant. Nor does he shy away from vulgar working-class reality.

Like Thomas Hardy, who created the mythical kingdom of Wessex in which to set his novels, David Lodge has invented the mythical city of Rummidge, which is modeled on Manchester. And there the similarity between them ends.

Or does it? Like Hardy, Lodge addresses himself to the particular issues of his age. But unlike Hardy, Lodge writes books that will delight even as they inform. When the Sunday Express panel of judges called ``Nice Work'' stylishly written and eminently readable, they weren't wrong. That's exactly what it is.

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