David Lodge has long been a writer of engaging, literate, witty, entertaining novels, many of them taking place in an academic setting. Reading him is always a pleasure because his irony is never savage; while poking gentle fun at his characters, such as the famous Morris Zapp in Changing Places (1975) and Small World (1984), he never dislikes them. His is a tolerant, wryly amused voice, one that always has empathy for the small vanities and hypocrisies, the tangle of imperfect relationships and thwarted desires that seem to go with the human condition. Thinks . . . is no exception. As in Nice Work (1988), in which Lodge juxtaposed a trendy female left-wing academic with her direct, opposite, a down-to-earth, practical businessman, so in Thinks . . . he sets up his two main characters as typifying opposing approaches to the nature of human consciousness, the topic he wishes to explore. Lest the reader find such a topic too daunting, Lodge makes sure that he does not lose his comic touch, and his gift for presenting real characters in believable interactions is as apparent as ever. The ideas do not overwhelm the story, which is skillfully plotted and contains many twists and surprises along the way.
The two protagonists in Thinks . . . are Ralph Messenger, professor of cognitive science at Gloucester University, and Helen Reed, an established novelist who is taking on a temporary assignment as a creative writing instructor at the university. The story alternates between their points of view and also has chapters told by a narrator in the third person. There are also some fine literary parodies which occur when Reed’s students, in a literary exercise, imitate the styles of some well-known writers.
Messenger (that is what his wife calls him) is a fine creation. He is a charismatic, highly successful academic and media star, the sort who is always popping up on radio and television explaining new scientific discoveries, hot psychological issues, and the like. As a popularizer, he is regarded with some suspicion by other academics, particularly his dour, uptight colleague Douglas C. Douglas, who has the brains but lacks Messenger’s powerful presence and so misses out on the trappings of success. Messenger’s intellectual interests lie in the field of consciousness, the systematic study of the human mind, which, he says, was once the domain of just a few philosophers but is now the biggest game in town, attracting the interest of physicists, biologists, zoologists, mathematicians, and neurologists. Messenger heads the prestigious Holt Belling Center for Cognitive Science and spends a lot of time thinking about topics such as artificial intelligence, or AI, as it is known in the profession. He and his graduate students are all involved in projects that attempt to duplicate in robots or computers the workings of human consciousness. This includes something called “affective modeling,” which is computer simulation of the way emotions affect human behavior.
Messenger is an argumentative fellow, not given to self-doubt. He is confident that his way of seeing the world is the correct one, and he has little patience with views that run counter to his own. He recognizes the validity only of things that can be objectively measured. He does not believe in such abstractions as the soul or spirit, which for him are simply ways of speaking of certain kinds of brain activity. In his view, when the brain ceases to function, consciousness ceases also. He has no time for what cognitive scientists call “pan psychism,” the idea that consciousness is the fundamental component of the universe, which he associates with a...
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vague transcendentalism or oriental religion. He believes that everything that processes information (including a human being), is a machine, and can be explained in purely physical terms.
When Messenger is not thinking about issues surrounding the study of consciousness, he is thinking about sex (or perhaps it should be the other way round). He has had many extramarital affairs, and has developed an unspoken agreement with his American wife Carrie that he can continue to do this just as long as his affairs take place well away from their own neighborhood. For the most part, this arrangement works well for him, since he travels extensively to academic conferences, although at the beginning of the novel he is developing a risky flirtation with Marianne Richmond, the wife of the head of the English department.
What really upsets the smooth running of Messenger’s intellectual, professional, and marital life is the arrival on campus of novelist Helen Reed. They meet at a dinner party, and Helen is rather fascinated by his movie star presence. When they meet again by chance and have lunch together, it becomes apparent that their attitudes and worldviews are decidedly different. Helen was brought up as a Catholic, and she cannot entirely relinquish the remnants of her faith, especially as she is still recovering from the recent death of her husband. She does not believe that the universe is entirely random or without purpose, and clings to the belief that there must be some kind of afterlife, an idea that to Messenger seems pointless.
However, Helen is sufficiently interested in Messenger’s theories to encourage him to tell her more about his pet subject. He tells her that the human brain functions like a computer, “running lots of programs simultaneously. What we call attention’ is a particular interaction between various parts of the total system. The subsystems and possible connections and combinations between them are so multitudinous and complex that it’s very difficult to simulate the whole process.” The ultimate goal, as Helen deduces, is to design a computer that thinks like a human being. Helen has her doubts. “A computer that has hangovers and falls in love and suffers bereavement?” she pointedly inquires. Or a robot that laughs at another robot’s jokes?
Helen is extremely skeptical that any computer program could even come close to replicating the mechanics of human consciousness. For Helen, the experts in the study of consciousness are not Messenger and his friends in cognitive science but the great novelists, especially Henry James. It is they who are able to penetrate what goes on in someone’s head—their emotions, feelings, and memories. In the jargon of cognitive science, these elements of consciousness are known as qualia. But Messenger, who loves a good argument and is attracted to Helen partly because she is able to give as good as she gets, claims that all a reader can discover from a novel is what the writer thought, which in his opinion is not real knowledge. Messenger is only prepared to accept scientific knowledge, so his quest is to find a way, so far impossible, to give an objective, verifiable account of the subjective phenomenon of consciousness.
One experiment Messenger is trying is dictating his thoughts into a tape recorder, just as they come to him, without censoring or editing, to see whether this could reveal anything about the structure of thought. He soon finds out the difficulties involved in such an enterprise. Not only does the knowledge that he is conducting an experiment alter the direction and content of his thoughts, but when the thoughts are articulated, he is already at one remove from the phenomenon of consciousness itself. He realizes that every phrase he speaks is like a “bulletin, an agreed text hammered out behind closed doors after a nanosecond’s intense editorial debate, and then released to the speech centers of the brain for outward transmission . . . And that editing process is impossible to record or observe, except as a pattern of electro-chemical activity between millions of neurons.”
The transcribed text of Messenger’s thoughts makes interesting reading. It is a disconnected stream-of-consciousness narrative that jumps back and forth from philosophical ideas to mundane thoughts to explicit details of Messenger’s sexual desires and exploits, both in the past and in the anticipated future. One object of his desire, spelled out in some detail, is Helen Reed, and it does not take him long to make a pass at her. She firmly rejects this, but they do become friends. When Messenger discovers that Helen keeps a journal, he is extremely curious as to what her private thoughts are, and he proposes a very risky experiment—that they make an exchange. He presents this idea to her as an opportunity to discover what it is normally impossible to know—what is going on in the mind of another. Fortunately for Messenger, Helen refuses.
The plot now moves into high gear. Helen has for a while been disconcerted after she discovered eerie similarities between a character in the work-in-progress of her student, Sandra Pickering, and Helen’s dead husband, Martin. At first Helen assumed that Sandra was merely borrowing from one of Helen’s own novels, but the similarities go even further than would have been possible through literary plagiarism. When she challenges Sandra, the truth comes out: Sandra had an affair with Martin when she worked at the BBC, where he was a radio producer. Helen is devastated, even more so when she discovers that Sandra was not the first young woman to be seduced by Martin, whom she had thought to be the perfect husband. Helen is thrown into further confusion when she discovers that Carrie, Messenger’s wife, is having an affair with an art professor from the university. Faced with such evidence of betrayal all around her, Helen reverses her previous attitude regarding Messenger, and they embark on a passionate affair.
The events that so disturb Helen are confirmation of the central idea ofThinks . . . , that one cannot know what is going on in someone’s else’s head. This is also clear from the journals of Messenger and Helen, since they sometimes offer divergent views of events in which they both participated, or misconstrue the motives and intentions of the other. Needless to say, things do not turn out too well for the secret lovers, who go through—as lovers do—numerous subtle shifts in their emotions and end up with a relationship that neither of them wants. No robots could match them.
Sources for Further Study
America 185 (September 24, 2001): 29.
The Atlantic Monthly 287 (June, 2001): 104.
Booklist 97 (April 1, 2001): 1428.
Commonweal 128 (August 17, 2001): 24.
Library Journal 126 (June 1, 2001): 217.
The Nation 273 (July 23, 2001): 42.
The New York Review of Books 48 (August 9, 2001): 27.
The New York Times, June 5, 2001, p. B7.
The New York Times Book Review 106 (June 10, 2001): 8.
Publishers Weekly 248 (June 4, 2001): 58.
The Times Literary Supplement, February 23, 2001, p. 21.