In the satirical novel of ideas, David Lodge is king of the hill. When it comes to skewering the pretentious, nobody does it better than Lodge, Honorary Professor of Modern English Literature at the University of Birmingham. Lodge had great fun with academics and literary theorists in Small World and Nice Work. Therapy brilliantly exposed the mid-life woes of a successful media type and introduced us to the pilgrim trail in northern Spain long before Shirley MacLaine got there. Another area of Lodge expertise is the culture clash; he knows his English and his Americans and enjoys creating scenes where they utterly fail to understand one another.
In Thinks, his latest novel, Lodge weaves together many of his favourite threads, creating a tapestry which explores new and old theories about human consciousness. The setting is the fictional University of Gloucester, a 60s institution where the Arts and Sciences occupy opposite ends of a rather dreary campus, and where media darling Ralph Messenger heads the Holt Belling Centre for Cognitive Sciences. Intellectual, egocentric, provocative, Ralph is the kind of professor Lodge does to perfection. Nearing fifty, he is by turns engagingly attractive and totally repellent. Wife Carrie is a wealthy American and mother of four (she brought one daughter into their union); their arrangement is that Ralph will stray only on foreign turf so as not to embarrass her.
Into the mix arrives Helen Reed, a novelist hired to teach creative writing. Youngish, recently widowed, Helen is grieving her husband's unexpected death when Ralph spots her walking alone on the rainy campus. The chase is on. Helen represents everything Ralph has reasoned away: morality, a vestigial belief in the religion of her childhood, not to mention the dignity that comes with keeping your knickers on. In short, she's irresistible to the wily Messenger, the kind of slim, tidy Englishwoman who belongs in a novel herself¨perhaps one by Anita Brookner.
First, Lodge makes us intimate with the clever-yet-gross workings of the Messenger mind. Ralph pours his undiluted stream of consciousness, much of it sex-obsessed, into a voice-activated tape recorder, the premise being that his free-flowing musings will form the raw data to be used to describe the structure of thought. A bit of a scientific stretch, perhaps, but Ralph is so egocentric and so machine-obsessed (he soon switches to voice-recognition software) that the device makes sense, plus his 'thinking' is as honest as an auto wreck; we don't want to look, but we can't help it. Helen, unable to write fiction since her husband's death, very plausibly keeps a laptop diary. Thus we become privy to the contrasting perceptions of both characters as they circle each other. Somewhat confusingly Lodge resorts to the third person narrator when his narrative needs a final tidying¨rather like Helen dashing around her place when guests are due.
The erogenous zone that brings the two together is not physical¨Ralph is not terribly attractive¨but cerebral. Refusing to sympathize with her widow's state, Messenger nevertheless brings Helen alive by introducing her to current theories about thought. She proves a skilled debater when he insists that morality is dead and that computers will soon mimic not only human consciousness but human feelings. Helen's assumption that the novel is the natural area for the exploration of consciousness is brushed away by Ralph, who has no time for reading novels. Luckily an eccentric American has left behind a mural in the Cognitive Sciences building that portrays major cognitive theories in pictorial fashion, allowing us to visualize a series of mind-body questions. Showing Helen the building, Ralph walks her through the mirrored-and-glass techno palace to the "riot of colour" where major ideas about thought appear. Two vampire bats sharing blood, for instance, illustrate that altruism is a myth, that all creatures are ruled solely by "enlightened self-interest."
Initially, Helen uses Messenger's messages to alleviate her teaching panic. An assignment on 'What Is it Like To Be A Bat?' to be written in the style of a famous novelist, yields hilarious results; Lodge's wit illuminates the students' parodies of everyone from Irvine Welsh to Martin Amis to Salman Rushdie. The narrative proceeds briskly, with Helen steadily refusing Ralph's persistent advances on moral grounds. Carrie, his wife, has befriended her for one thing, alleviating the loneliness she feels in this odd new environment. Relaxing in the Messengers' California-import hot tub, Helen learns more about Ralph's thoughts on consciousness: "a virtual machine in a biological machine." No wonder Helen feels increasingly besieged, as if she were "struggling for [her] soul" which Ralph maintains is "just another way of describing self-consciousness." She wonders if, by honouring her husband Martin's memory, she is the only moral person left in a world where deception is the norm.
It isn't only Ralph and his platoon of cognitive scientists that are assaulting her soul; evidence of past and present deceptions begin to rain down on Helen as heavily as the weather on an average English day, eroding her defences against the temptations of the flesh. Opportunity and motive combine in Lodge's scheme of things to make adultery inevitable. But that's not all. Before long Ralph's behaviour¨his gluttony, his compulsive whoring after females he barely knows¨finally brings some chickens home to roost. A pretty, scheming Czech science major with whom he dallies in Prague turns their afternoon tryst into an opportunity for blackmail; a health scare lands him in hospital; his stepdaughter hints that she knows about him and Helen. Could his selfish acts really have consequences? It does seem as if Lodge is subjecting his two main subjects to experiments, like a somewhat malevolent Wizard of Oz hiding behind the curtain. Will Helen-the-other-woman continue to behave nobly? Will Ralph, caught out by biology and by scheming equal to his own, finally reveal himself to be human? Well, yes and no.
That everyone learns and no one really suffers is the ultimate lesson of Thinks... . Lodge's Gloucester University remains a kind of ivory tower theme park where ideas hover cloud-like over the characters' heads, remaining above and beyond any surprises that fate has in store. Lodge-the-author is a benevolent god in the universe he has created. Ralph, though not as odious as he first appears (others outstrip him as the plot develops), is punished a little; Helen leaves the campus as quietly as she first appeared there. Her next book, rather like this one, is set in a "not-so-new-greenfields university," features "an omniscient and sometimes intrusive narrator," and bears a title taken from Darwin that is much discussed in Thinks.... David Lodge is a writer who never disappoints, although sometimes, as here, he merely fails to delight. ˛