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Book Forum: FICTION   |    
Thinks…
ROBERT MICHELS, M.D.
Am J Psychiatry 2001;158:2096-a-2097. doi:10.1176/appi.ajp.158.12.2096-a
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By David Lodge. New York, Viking Press, 2001, 342 pp., $24.95.

It is unusual to find a novel that comes complete with its own bibliography, particularly if the bibliography includes Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins, Antonio Damasio, Gerald Edelman, Stephen Pinker, and John Searle. One might anticipate a work that reads more like a seminar in cognitive psychology, and at times David Lodge’s new novel Thinks… does:

That’s Searle’s Chinese Room, a very famous thought experiment. The idea is that this guy is receiving questions in Chinese, a language he doesn’t speak or read, and he has a kind of rule book containing logical procedures that enable him to answer them in Chinese. He sits there all day receiving questions and giving out correct answers, but he doesn’t understand a single word. Is he conscious of what he’s doing?…

He argues that the man can’t be conscious of the information he’s processing, and inasmuch as he’s acting like a computer program, neither can a computer program be conscious of the information it’s processing. (pp. 51–52)

However, other passages don’t read at all like a textbook. For example, a few hundred pages after the exposition on Searle’s thought experiment:

He liked to get inside her quickly and copulate in various positions before he achieved his orgasm, bringing Helen to several in the meantime. He was immensely strong in the arms and shoulders, and flipped her effortlessly this way and that, over and under him, like a wrestler practicing "holds." Sometimes it seemed to her that he was straining too hard, that he wanted to reduce her to a helpless quivering bundle of sensation, to force the astonished, languageless sounds of pleasure from her throat, to make her beg for mercy, slapping the mattress like a beaten wrestler. (p. 263)

Lodge moves rather effortlessly from essays on cognitive psychology to descriptions of steamy sex. His 10 previous novels are most well-known for their brilliant and often hilarious deconstruction of academia. (His deconstruction of deconstructionism in Small World[1] is priceless—he may have intended it as a spoof but I learned more about deconstructionism from it than I had from scholarly works on the subject.) Lodge, 66, is himself a retired academic (a professor of modern English literature at the University of Birmingham until 1987). He describes himself an agnostic Catholic—a theme that appears in several of his previous works and occasionally gets in the way in this one, where it describes his heroine. He is married to a teacher and has three children—a daughter who is a microbiologist, a son who is a lawyer, and a son with Down’s syndrome.

Thinks… is a novel about consciousness. The plot is simple. Helen Reed, a recently widowed novelist, comes to the fictional University of Gloucester as a writer-in-residence. There she meets Ralph Messenger, who heads the program in artificial intelligence and human consciousness. Messenger explains his field to Reed (and to us), and she questions and challenges, suggesting that humanists in general and novelists in particular may know more than cognitive psychologists about consciousness, or at least more about the content (as opposed to the process) of consciousness. Messenger is more interested in the process. Meanwhile Messenger’s marriage, his sex life (not the same thing), his family, and his health and Reed’s idealization of her late husband and her depressive response to his death all get shuffled and reshuffled. The story is told in three voices: Messenger’s dictation to a recorder as he experiments in what amounts to free association (although, interestingly, Lodge doesn’t mention the concept); Reed’s diary, typed on her computer; and the "objective" view of an impersonal third party. From time to time there are also e-mails and essays by Reed’s students—the latter providing opportunities for Lodge to demonstrate his virtuosity at mimicking the styles of famous authors.

Lodge knows English literature better than cognitive psychology; as a result, although he has obviously studied extensively, the mini-seminars sprinkled throughout the text are closer to the level of Sunday supplements than graduate seminars, well below the level of his discourses in earlier works. He is an extremely intelligent writer—the plot, the style, the language, and the characters are all designed successfully to fit together. At times, however, the design is too apparent, almost intrusive, as though the book had been written as a classroom exercise by one of Reed’s students.

Lodge is also a moralist, and virtue triumphs over vice, with virtue defined pretty much in the way one would expect a boy who grew up with a good Catholic education in the 40s and 50s to define it. At least Messenger’s fatal moral flaw isn’t related to his infidelity, or for that matter his sexuality. Befitting the theme of the book, he intrudes into Reed’s consciousness, reading her diary without her permission, and she banishes him in retaliation.

The world implicit in the novel is based on a number of dichotomies that extend from the textbook to the novel—science versus humanism, brain versus mind, robot versus human, England versus California, love versus lust, and sex versus death.

This last theme emerges as a bit of a surprise late in the novel after Messenger, whose wife has been called to the side of her dying father, has a passionate sexual interlude with Reed. He then finds a lump on his liver and is worked up for a possible cancer. Lodge himself has recently reviewed a book with a similar theme—The Dying Animal by Philip Roth (2). The Roth book is simpler, a pure novel, one that focuses exclusively on the theme of sex and death. In his review (3) Lodge praises Roth as an artist and then has academic fun and scores a few points correcting Roth’s technical and scholarly errors. (The ages of Roth’s characters vary from novel to novel, and Roth seems unaware of the referents of a famous painting he describes.) Lodge then gets to the core—sex and death. Roth’s professor, like Lodge’s, is concerned with aging. For Roth, as for Lodge, cancer follows sex (this time in the woman rather than the man). Lodge ends his own novel by making the moral choice clear. He ends his review of Roth as follows:

What the author himself thinks is inscrutable, because of the chosen form. Like many works of modern literature, The Dying Animal ends on a note of radical ambiguity and indeterminacy. What is rather unusual about it is the way it challenges the reader at every point to define and defend his own ethical position toward the issues raised by the story. It is a small, disturbing masterpiece.

We can’t say quite the same about Lodge’s book. It is an interesting exercise. Several of its mini-essays are tours de force, and the novel in which they are embedded is clear, entertaining, and intelligent. It is certainly one of the most painless introductions to cognitive psychology and consciousness studies that is available. However, its clear moral compass challenges the reader too little and contrasts unfavorably with its recognition of intellectual "ambiguity and indeterminacy." The result is fun, but it is neither disturbing nor a masterpiece.

Lodge D: Small World: An Academic Romance. New York, Macmillan, 1985
 
Roth P: The Dying Animal. New York, Houghton Mifflin, 2001
 
Lodge D: review of P Roth: The Dying Animal. New York Review of Books, July 5, 2001, pp 28-32
 
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References

Lodge D: Small World: An Academic Romance. New York, Macmillan, 1985
 
Roth P: The Dying Animal. New York, Houghton Mifflin, 2001
 
Lodge D: review of P Roth: The Dying Animal. New York Review of Books, July 5, 2001, pp 28-32
 
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