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by David Lodge
Penguin USA, 2001
Review by Christian Perring, Ph.D. on Oct 16th 2001

Thinks...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 of argument.

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 always does."

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 self-referential devices.

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