Monday, June 13, 2011

Consciousness, Love and Literature in David Lodge's Novel "Thinks..."

The novel “Thinks…” aims high, and on all fronts, it succeeds brilliantly. It’s a philosophical discussion, an analysis of consciousness, sex, the basis of morality, the human spirit, but it’s also a hilarious, witty page-turner. I’m frankly amazed at what author David Lodge accomplishes in this book and how hard he makes it to put this book down.

The novel is set in 1997 at a fictional University of Glouchester. The aptly named protagonist Ralph Messenger is a scientist who studies consciousness with the ultimate goal of using a scientific understanding of consciousness to produce artificial intelligence. He’s an atheist, a materialist, an opportunist. He’s also very smart, kind of an asshole, a driven man, but one who is susceptible to the whims inherent in his personality. He’s married and likes ladies a lot, which of course adds all sorts of drama to this tale.

The other main character, Helen, is the polar opposite. She’s a recently widowed novelist who tries to understand the world through literature, language and story: "Of course one can argue that there's a basic human need for narrative: it's one of our fundamental tools for making sense of experience - has been, back as far as you can go in history.” Ralph likes her immediately, and they have many fascinating discussions about science and literature. Helen maintains: “Literature is a written record of human consciousness, arguably the richest we have.” After attending a philosophy conference, Helen, the champion of literature and story as a way of knowing, makes a great critique of highfalutin philosopher talk. "Where was the pleasure of reading in all this? Where was personal discovery, self-development?" This is how she as a novelist tries to understand the world, a means of consciousness that stands in opposition to the scientific and philosophical materialists. Helen was raised Catholic, and initially feels hesitant about the idea of having an affair with Ralph. Things start to get complicated as they start the affair, but they always maintain really interesting discussions. One of the biggest strengths of this novel is the realness of Helen’s voice. Lodge is a master at crafting characters and making them feel absolutely real.

In this novel, Lodge plays with literature like he plays with science. He throws these two forces up against each other, just like a great philosopher. And then he dissects these ideas through character development, plot and place, drawing the reader an exciting philosophical debate.

The points of view in this novel correspond perfectly with its themes. The reader transitions from Ralph’s first-person to Helen’s first-person narration to an omniscient third-person narrator, a cycle that is repeated through the entire novel. Portions of the book are made up of reading assignments that Helen has given her students. One such assignment is to write a story about a woman who was raised in a closed room with no colors except black, white and the shades of gray in between, and what happens when she goes out into the world and sees a red rose. The students’ responses are a really interesting blend of scientific writing and fiction, showing that the two forces can be combined to attempt to answer questions about consciousness. Some other portions are made up of emails or of Ralph’s recitation to a voice recorder. It all plays well with the theme that different people experience the same event in completely different ways. One can never fully know what another person is thinking. And Lodge does a great job of demonstrating that through differing points of view.

This book is, among many things, a foray into the undercurrents of sexual desires. It's a peek into the minds of sexual beings, and an analysis of the things people think about, their innermost sexual fantasies. The reader gets to see how Helen acts around Ralph through a scene written in limited third-person. Then the reader gets to hear Helen’s take on the scene through her first-person narration. What the reader sees happening, and what the reader hears Helen saying, are two very different things, as they should be. She pretends not to want him, but clearly does when she’s vetting to her journal.

This is more than just a novel about sex. It's about vulnerability. In the end, a whole lot of crap that has been simmering over the course of the novel all explodes. Ralph’s sordid affair with Helen goes awry. His work at the University is thrown in jeopardy when police discover someone in his office is downloading child pornography. And his health catches the better of him. It seems, for someone who had it all figured out on paper, that the world is turning on him. Ralph doesn't have a forced, corny, made-for-television epiphany, but he is, like any great character, changed.

“Thinks…” is an analysis of love, pain, science, deceit, god and morality, but it’s also just a damned good read. This book gets an official recommendation, and it would make a great beach read this summer, if you’re looking for some solid writing that is also mentally intriguing.

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