Let Your Mind Wander
London: Penguin Books, 2002
Thinks… covers familiar ground for David Lodge: academics struggling in marriages, indulging in love affairs, facing their own long-repressed desires and fears, and finally discovering there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in their philosophy. The trick this time is that the ‘philosophy’ at stake isn’t merely a set of personal moral quibbles, but the possibility of the Human.
Lodge sets his Fall of Man at the fictional University of Gloucester, where novelist Helen Reed has moved from London to take a temporary position as a writing instructor. There’s our Eve. Playing the parts of both the serpent and the apple is the self-assured cognitive scientist and skeptic Ralph Messenger, who gets all the best lines in Thinks… Ralph deftly juggles his various love affairs, shrewdly conducts his academic business, maintains order in his family life, and even faces death with aplomb: with a possible diagnosis of cancer looming, he resolves in his journal that ‘The thing to do is to take defensive action where one can, and stoically await the outcome where one can’t.’ In the face of our hero Ralph’s commitments to agnosticism and philandering, Helen stands little chance of maintaining her eternally faithful love for her recently deceased husband, or, for that matter, her belief in ‘human selfhood.’
Much of the novel consists of excerpts from the two protagonist’s diaries, which interlock so perfectly as to emphasize, with a wink, just how constructed the whole situation is. Lodge underlines the contrived fatedness of their affair, and, by extension, so many other just-so love stories—wouldn’t it be nice if the person you were dreaming about on a rainy Sunday was at that very moment wishing for someone just like you? This recognition of reading-as-fantasy becomes an integral part of Lodge’s treatment of reading-as-voyeurism.
His real insight is that in order to preserve our most deeply held personal myths, we often restrict our voyeuristic (and, equally, exhibitionist) impulses from the people closest to us. He offers this comment both implicitly (there is a surprising, painful, and intimate betrayal at the heart of the novel) and explicitly: when Ralph offers to exchange diaries with her, Helen protests, ‘Why is torture so horrible, so morally repugnant? Not just because of the pain it inflicts, but because it uses bodily pain to prise secrets from the mind, which should be inviolable.’ Sure enough, Ralph soon hacks into her e-diary.
Lodge writes courageously; he is confident in anyone’s head, narrating thoughts or speeches or lectures or notes with equal dexterity. He doesn’t write with a great deal of sensitivity for the subtlety of social interaction. But if on the one hand you could complain that his characters are too often reduced to ideas, you could just as easily point out that his ideas are convincingly alive. His versatility in handling different narrative forms gives his work a rich texture, and he doesn’t shy away from sheer entertainment: Thinks… titillates, and its sex appeal also keeps the interwoven intellectual discussion interesting. The ending is too complete a vindication of Ralph’s smug, didactic intellectualism, but it is perhaps fitting for this all too tightly constructed plot to end with the scholar of artificial intelligence on top. There is, after all, a bittersweetness to every Death of the Human, no matter how predictable.
Chris Bradley is at Balliol College, Oxford. He studies religious repression in the late Middle Ages.