Thinks... by David Lodge

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Thinks... by David Lodge

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewer: Magda Healey
Reviewed by Magda Healey
Summary: The characters are well developed and human, the setting evocative, the dialogue brilliant, the narrative voices work well. I like David Lodge a lot, I like campus novels, and I am very interested in cognitive science for which this book is a decent introduction so I liked this one too. But the casting of characters is a bit of a ideological cop-out, the lack of editing is unbecoming to such an experienced writer and the sexual farce is taken a bit too far.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 352 Date: May 2002
Publisher: Penguin Books Ltd
ISBN: 014100021X

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I have been wondering recently if the reason I like David Lodge so much is perhaps because I have never really grown out of 'edutainment' offerings of my youth: half adventure, half textbook with the information part sometimes integrated into the story and sometimes just put in as a footnote. I don't know how popular this didactic genre was or is in the UK, but I used to love them when growing up in Poland.

David Lodge is a bit like that: one actually gets quite a lot of solid knowledge out of his book and it's usually passed on in an interesting way and fairly naturally, as most of the characters in his novels are scholars or writers of some kind.

Until recently the academics populating Lodge's novels were almost exclusively literary theorists/historians with a smattering of writers. 'Thinks...' departs from this elusive and limited subject area as 'Thinks...' is about cognitive science - a subject closer to my heart and one I consider much more interesting, though not such a good material for an easy ridicule. Cognitive science deals with the human mind and 'Thinks...' concentrates on one of the most fascination areas of enquiry: the so-called problem of consciousness.

But first and foremost, it is a campus novel. It doesn't take place at Rummidge known from previous Lodge novels (though some characters from Rummidge appear as cameos) but at (also fictional) Gloucester University.

'Thinks...' has two main protagonists and a good cast of second-plan characters, ranging from caricature to realistic and engaging (but still funny) portraits developed within virtually one or two scenes. But the absolute majority of the novel concerns the interaction of Helen Reed and Ralph Messenger.

Helen is a bereaved novelist who has taken a post as a writer in residence at the Gloucester University in order to supplement her income and to take her mind of the grief after a sudden death of her beloved husband. She teaches a creative writing course and thus is a very convenient vehicle for inserting shorter and longer samples of un-connected writing into the novel (under the guise of students' assignments). The novel is more or less the story of Helen's sojourn at the Gloucester campus, with some action and a lot (and I mean a lot!) of talking thrown in.

Ralph Messenger is a cognitive scientist: one with a slightly suspicious career history (having started as a philosopher rather than a neuroscientist, psychologist or linguisticist) but a cognitive scientist nevertheless.

Helen and Ralph represent the main intellectual conflict of the novel: roughly equivalent to Snow's two cultures and still haunting the academia and the wider world. The conflict is between the scientific materialism grounded in experimental measurement and theory of evolution versus the more romantic (romantic as in early 19th century, not as in candle-lit dinners), emotional, spiritual, sometimes religious view of the world.

Lodge wouldn't be Lodge if a substantial amount of almost farcical soap-operaish goings on were not included. Most of the characters in 'Thinks...' are middle-aged and older and they all seem to engage in inordinate number of adulterous and non-adulterous affairs. As I have yet to reach that age being currently at the stage in life when a prospect of never having sex again seems rather attractive, I can't comment on the realism of that representation...

David Lodge is a good writer and thus the characters are not just posters for points of view or objects of his jokes, they are well developed human beings and they usually behave in a reasonably believable, grown-up way. They seem to notice the wider world around them and seem to have some form of intellectual life which they share with people around them. How often the mental life of characters in modern novels seems to consist of the every-day mundanity mixed with attacks of emotional torment of one kind or another!

Ralph is proud, ambitious, always on the lookout for the next sexual adventure despite or perhaps because of his advancing age. I felt that choosing such a character as an exponent of the hard-line scientific view of the mind/brain problem was a bit of a cop-out, though certainly had a lot of comic potential. Ralph Messenger is a materialist as invented by somebody who did not believe in possibility of morality without some kind of god.

Helen is, on the other hand, a good representative for her position: not too woolly and not particularly religious (but a lapsed Catholic with spiritual leanings), trusts in intuition, feeling and generally the qualities considered to be 'female', she seemed to me a fairer embodiment of the 'believer-in-soul' (or 'ghost in the machine') position than Ralph is for the other side.

The writing style is brilliant: the voices given to each of the narrators are distinctive and clear, setting descriptions are short but evocative and the dialogue funny. As expected, 'Thinks...' is very clever. Perhaps a bit too clever for its own good. The main thread of the plot and the argument sometimes seems overwhelmed by the gimmicks and fireworks of narration techniques.

Several of those are employed throughout: Ralph uses a voice-recognition software to record what he first wants to be a free stream of consciousness. To his credit, he soon realises that the sheer act of talking acts as a filter. However, he gets strangely (and conveniently for the narrative techniques galore) addicted to the process of recording his thoughts and keeps on - at least for the duration of the novel: and we read the transcripts. For those who worry about such things, the parts of the novel that belong to Ralph are full of so called 'language' and very sexual musings, recollections and imaginings.

Helen's parts are told through a suitably traditional medium: she keeps a diary, a private one, but then of course edited and formatted by the act of writing. And how possible is it for a male writer to write as a female diarist? To me she seems convincing, I generally like Lodge's female character maybe because they seem reasonably reasonable, even in their irrationality.

There is also a voice of an omniscient and somehow patronising in a true post-modern fashion narrator chipping in between the chapters devoted to Ralph's recordings or Helen's diary entries.

On top of that, and completely unnecessary, appear aforementioned samples of creative writing assignments by Helen's students. They all are dazzling and mostly funny exercises in parody/pastiche of modern British writers, but largely surplus to the narrative and rather annoying.

Does Lodge then believe that we will be able to peek into the mind of 'the Other' via computer modelling and thought experiments? Or perhaps he holds with the view that a writer can do it better than anybody else? Or, maybe, he believes that the other minds are impenetrable and as much as we cannot even start to imagine what it would be to be a bat, we cannot imagine what it is to be another person? I don't know and the novel doesn't say; but it asks these questions and for all who are interested in such issues it is a stimulating material presented in a readable way.

On the bigger problem of mind vs. brain, materialism vs. idealism no answers are offered either, but the novel presents the basic tenets of modern cognitive science in an extremely accessible form: after all Ralph Messenger explains them to Helen who has no science background whatsoever.

This book is an entertaining but by no means brilliant campus comedy for fans of the genre; or if you feel any interest in the subject area while not feeling up to tackling a scientific book you could start at worse place than 'Thinks...'. This is of course provided you don't find David Lodge unbearable for some reason.

If you are interested in cognitive science, Steven Pinker's Language Instinct tackles some aspects of in a fascinating and approachable way.

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