by David Lodge
Penguin USA, 2001
Review by Christian Perring, Ph.D. on Oct 16th 2001
Lodge has always been a clever novelist, and in his last two novels
he has gone one step further, using his fiction to explore philosophy.
His previous novel, Therapy,
explored whether and how philosophy can make one happy, and whether
we should even expect to be happy. His new novel Thinks...
explores modern philosophy of psychology, and the problem of consciousness.
The plot is typical Lodge. A non-academic, novelist Helen Reed,
spends a term in a university, teaching a writing seminar for
budding writers. She meets and befriends Ralph Messenger, head
of the university's prestigious Centre for Cognitive Science,
and notorious philanderer. He introduces her to the new debates
in his field, such as whether computers can think, whether science
can describe every fact about our experience, whether emotions
are no more than ways of processing information, and what evolutionary
purpose crying serves.
The story is told through three alternating voices: Ralph and
Helen in their personal diary entries, and a nameless narrator
telling the story as it happens. Lodge doesn't play much with
this format -- for example, he doesn't highlight the differences
in how different people experience the same events. His story
provides plenty of material for the discussion of consciousness
and emotion. Helen husband Martin has recently died unexpectedly,
and her grief is still fresh. They had a solid and dependable
relationship, and she feels lost without him. She has chosen to
spend this time at the university in part because she wants a
change of scene. After a few weeks, she makes a discovery about
Martin that makes her doubt how well she really knew what was
going on in his mind.
Ralph also feels secure in his marriage with Carrie, but that
doesn't stop him from having affairs. Carrie knows that he does
it, but doesn't protest so long as he does it while he is away
from home. But Ralph doesn't abide by their agreement, and is
keen to get Helen into bed. One of the funniest themes of the
book is how the philosophical conversations between Helen and
Ralph creates a sexual tension between them. On the whole, despite
all the thoughts of philosophy and death, Lodge keeps the tone
of the book light. It will provoke thought in readers open to
thinking, but Lodge himself doesn't push any particular point
of view, and the novel does not constitute any particular kind
Lodge knows this, and manages to explain what he is doing. Helen
asks her writing students to do short pieces on a couple of famous
thought-experiments in the problem of consciousness. She shows
the products to Ralph, who points out that her students don't
address the philosophical issues. Helen agrees, but answers, "They're
using the story of Mary to defamiliarise something we take for
granted, the perception of colour, which is what good writing
Maybe then, Lodge himself is defamiliarizing something, but what?
University life, affairs, grief, creative writing? None of these
is an obvious answer here. So maybe Lodge isn't really in the
business of defamilarization in this work. Indeed, it seems that,
apart from bringing cognitive science into his novel, all the
themes here are very familiar, and he's content just to tell a
good story. There's enough here to make you want to keep on turning
the pages and to prompt a knowing smile in seeing the Lodge's
It's certainly clever, and I'll recommend Thinks... to
my friends. But some of his previous novels have been both funnier
and bleaker, and I can't help suspecting that Lodge is shying
away from really challenging himself. Near the end of the novel,
Helen gives the final word at a conference on cognitive science,
and she ends by saying, "Literature can help us to understand
the dark side of consciousness too." The plot has its references
to death and despair, but his writing didn't make me feel the
darkness. Getting readers to share his middle-aged characters'
worries about relationships and mortality is Lodge's problem of
consciousness; it's not that there's something ineffable about
the experience, but rather that we just would prefer not to know.
© 2001 Christian Perring
Also available in the UK from Amazon.co.uk.
This review first appeared online Sept 1, 2001