David Lodge holds a special place among British novelists. In certain ways he is heir to Evelyn Waugh as a Catholic writer with a mordant wit and concern for religion. He is also an accomplished academic, with half a dozen works of criticism to his credit. No surprise, then, that the academy is a frequent target of his comic fiction, as it is in this, his 12th novel.
Lodge has been twice shortlisted for Britain’s top fiction award, the Booker Prize, in both cases (Small World and Nice Work) for novels about university types. Third time lucky?
He also likes to experiment. In the hilarious Small World he subtly wove the Arthurian legend into his plot, with the Grail being the world’s largest and most prestigious literary prize, the United Nations Chair of Literature. In Thinks... the lure of the Nobel plays a similar role for Ralph Messenger, campus Lothario and director of the Holt Belling Center for Cognitive Science at the entirely fictional and decidedly provincial Gloucester University. Onto that scene comes Helen Reed, a successful London novelist, who has recently lost her husband and gratefully accepts a last-minute appointment as a creative-writing professor.
Ralph is quick to notice and set his sights on her, but Helen initially has little interest. The novel develops in large part in contrapuntal chapters that give Ralph’s stream-of-consciousness tapings and Helen’s carefully crafted journal entries, each form reflecting their divergent takes on human consciousness. For Ralph, the goal is artificial intelligence, the scientific replication of the human mind. For Helen, fiction offers our best (only?) hope of capturing the elusive interplay of mind and emotions. Another divide between them is religion: Ralph is a convinced atheist; science is his faith. Helen is not so sure. Educated in a Catholic school but non-practicing thereafter, she is not ready to rule God out and finds herself strangely moved by the Easter Vigil service she attends each year with her aging parents.
From chapter to chapter we move back and forth between them, getting overlapping takes on their encounters and their sizing up of each other. Helen becomes more and more intrigued by Ralph. When she discovers, through a student’s manuscript, that her much-mourned husband had been systematically unfaithful to her for years before his death, she is devastated and responds to Ralph on the rebound, despite her growing friendship with his wife and family. All goes smoothly until Ralph overreaches and suggests they swap tapes for journal in order to learn more about each other. Helen is appalled at his insensitivity in even suggesting such a thing; Ralph is astonished at her vehemence. When Ralph later fears he may have cancer, he approaches her again to be his accomplice in euthanasia should the diagnosis be terminal. Again, Helen recoils. Ironically, the affair with Ralph (and her husband’s infidelity) have revived her sense of sin, a concept inimical to Ralph’s brave new world mentality. When she tries to explain to him why she can’t assist him (It’s because I love you), he simply kisses her on the cheek and departs, clueless about her meaning.
Ralph Messenger’s problem in work and play is his single-mindedness and self-absorption. Scientific reductionism and predatory behavior make him incapable of noticing nuances. Mysteries are simply unsolved problems that must eventually yield to his intelligence or his ardor. What finally destroys any remaining relationship with Helen is her discovery that he has violated her privacy by skimming her computer files to get at her journals. But, we are told in a brief afterword, Ralph’s next book, Machine Living, sells well and gets lots of media coverage, and Ralph himself is awarded a C.B.E. in the millennium honors list.
It is the novelist, however, who has the last word. In that same year, Helen Reed publishes a novel, set in a new rural university not unlike Gloucester, that is described by a reviewer as so old-fashioned in form as to be almost experimental. Its title, Crying Is a Puzzler, alludes to one of the major deficiencies of artificial intelligence, which can outsmart us in many ways but cannot make sense of our grief or other deep emotionsa failing shared perhaps by its most loyal acolytes?