Adultery, consciousness and qualia: a review of “Thinks…” by David Lodge

thinksAdultery, consciousness, mortality, artificial intelligence and grief are just some of the themes explored in David Lodge‘s entertaining novel “Thinks…” set in the fictitious University of Gloucestershire – somewhere near Cheltenham.

It’s principally a story about two people: philandering cognitive scientist Ralph Messenger and recently widowed and still grieving visiting creative writing lecturer Helen Reed.

Most of the action plays out across the grounds of the university campus with its vast fields and austere faculty buildings – a world all of its own. Adding some modern period piece fun, the book is set at the dawn of the internet and email age with dial-up modems and floppy disks.

David Lodge is a gifted writer: able to write a well-paced, plot-driven story in the style of popular fiction but delving into weighty issues about human experience.

I’ve read a number of David Lodge’s novels, which though set against fictitious backdrops are always about believable, never extraordinary, but very interesting characters.

It reminded me of his novel – “Nice Work” (later made into a BBC television series) about a feminist university lecturer Robyn Penrose assigned to shadow unfulfilled factory boss Vic Wilcox as part of a government program to bring industry and academia closer together. Both can’t stand each other, but eventually end up having an affair.

In “Thinks…” you could almost simplify the plotline into: a story about sex-addicted Ralph Messenger trying to get repressed Helen Reed into bed and if you re-read the description above of “Nice Work” you could be forgiven for thinking David Lodge writes racy situational sex comedies.

That would be a shallow reading of his work. Lodge is a serious writer with many literary awards and nominations to his credit. His writing style though is not aloof and impenetrable as some serious fiction can be, but instead, highly accessible.

As for his obsession with university life (Lodge was a University english lecturer for 27 years) he said of this, in an interview with the Book Depository in 2008:

The academic institution is a small world, a microcosm of society as a whole, in which themes like the operation of power, ambition, and sexual desire, can be studied in a comic and satiric rather than tragic manner. The fact that university staff are theoretically committed to the preservation of high culture, and the pursuit of truth, but are fallible human beings with ordinary human weaknesses and perhaps more than usual eccentricities, makes a good setting for comic and satirical writing.

In ‘Thinks…’ Lodge’s chief male protagonist, Ralph Messenger has the sex drive and narcissism of a teenager, but is also a highly intelligent, engaging, cognitive scientist and an expert on artificial intelligence.

Ralph Messenger sees the world through the rational order of science and computer programs and attempts to explain everything in this context – “You need an algorithm for self-preservation,” he tells one of his post-graduate students.

Ralph views life as a science experiment and also as a way of satisfying his sexual urges. As part of his courtship of Helen Reed, he suggests they swap journals (both record their thoughts). In his own mind, he sees it as a way “to find out if she fancies me and what her principles are” whereas in his email to Helen he suggests it would be:

a kind of opportunity…if we swap we would each have unique insight into the workings of another persons mind. We could compare our responses to the same event. I could literally read your mind, and you mine.

Much of the romance between Ralph Messenger and Helen Reed stems from their arguments and debates about the limits of science and human consciousness –  Are humans just highly sophisticated robots or is there a “mind” separate from the brain that cannot be explained or located by science?

The novel introduced me to the concept of “qualia” – essentially the subjective, conscious experience of things.

There is a debate among scientists and philosophers about whether everything can be explained by brain waves or if qualia are inherent, irreducible human qualities.

Early on in the novel, Ralph Messenger shows Helen a mural that runs along a curved wall in his research lab. It depicts a series of famous though experiments such as Schrödinger’s cat, Thomas Nagel’s What is it like to be a bat?, the prisoner’s dilemma and Searle’s Chinese Room.

In this way he draws Helen into his world of science and atheism, but also challenges her to express her views on consciousness and the human soul, which derive from the psychological realism of writers like Henry James.

The novel’s sub-plot is all about thinking and thought processes and how one processes experiences.

Ralph Messenger’s often debauched (or just plain honest) thoughts are delivered via “train of thought” monologues into a dictaphone, later directly onto his computer via speech recognition software. In one recording he tries an experiment to recover a long-term memory to see how the mind reconstructs the past:

My first fuck, how about that, yes no problem, her nickers over her hips…looking at me slyly from under her hair  falling forward across her face. I was transfixed, I’d never seen a woman undress before…except in films of course.

Helen Reed thoughts are revealed in her journal:

FRIDAY, 11th APRIL: A very extraordinary thing happened today. Just when I thought my life had settled back into a humdrum unexciting routing, an event occurred that throws everything into question again and makes me wonder whether anything in human behaviour is ever what it seems.Not the least remarkable aspect of the experience is that what began as a kind of [Henry] Jamesian pilgrimage turned into a scene that might have come from one of his own novels…

Thrown into the mix are adulterous relationships, revelations about past lovers, a child pornography scandal, a life-threatening health scare and a consciousness conference.

‘Thinks…’ is a richly rewarding reading experience by the master of the academic novel that will indeed make you…think.

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