I’ve bumped into references to Lodge’s campus novels from time to time, so when I saw all three collected in a single volume, I snapped it up. I was hoping for the sort of “campus novel” defined by Jane Smiley’s Moo and Richard Russo’s Straight Man—both great books. Changing Places, the first in the Lodge’s series, did have some memorable moments, but it’s no Moo.
Set in 1969, Changing Places involves a faculty exchange: lackluster Philip Swallow travels from Rummidge University to Euphoria State, while hot-shot Morris Zapp heads the other way. Of course, there are some dated references, but it was actually a revelation to see how many things still felt fresh; for example, the book’s campus protests could be today’s “occupy” movement. (Sadly, despite our protests and movements, we haven’t made as much progress as we’d like.)
For some reason, Lodge felt the need to change place names—Euphoria for California, Esseph for San Francisco; it seems precious rather than witty, and certainly doesn’t fool anyone.
I think it’s the struggle to map the two exchanges that diminishes the book. Just when Lodge seems on the verge of delving into a situation in sufficient detail, he switches to its opposite number on the other side of the pond. There are many paired circumstances, so that the plot—and the resultant humor—feels forced.
Yet there are some funny moments. Zapp, a notorious womanizer, discovers that he’s the only man on a charter flight for women traveling to England for abortions (one of his students sold him her ticket). Later, he has to hide from a rampaging colleague on a paternoster, an elevator with revolving compartments; the description of the two men’s movements on and off the device felt ideal for film. Indeed, when I flipped to the foreward (afterward), Lodge mentions that there was a film option planned in which John Cleese would play Swallow and Walter Matthau, Zapp—but the project stalled.
Although Changing Places wasn’t quite what I expected in a campus novel, I plan to read the second and third installments later on this year.