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Review-a-Day
The Atlantic Monthly
Tuesday, July 3rd, 2001


 

Thinks...

by David Lodge

A review by Brooke Allen

Neuroscience, as Tom Wolfe pointed out in his essay "Sorry, But Your Soul Just Died," is at this moment "the strategic high ground" not only in the academic world but well beyond it. Recent discoveries about the human brain, which show its workings to bear an unnerving resemblance to those of an analog computer, have thrown age-old ideas about the nature of human identity into question. Who are we? Do we really have a self, a soul, free will?

David Lodge, the extraordinarily clever and accomplished author of comic masterpieces such as Changing Places, Small World, and Nice Work, has always been a deft anatomist of intellectual trends. He, like Wolfe, clearly takes seriously the philosophical challenges posed by neuroscience, and in this book he has concocted a smart, seductive novel of ideas. The setting is a university in the west of England. Helen Reed, the author of several exquisitely sensitive, feminine novels, holds old-fashioned notions about consciousness: as a teacher of writing and literature, she makes a specialty of Henry James, and as a lapsed Catholic, she holds a residual, rather vague faith in the immortal soul. Her opposite number, who bears the Jamesian name of Ralph Messenger, is a cutting-edge, media-savvy cognitive scientist, confident, unsentimental, and extremely male. The self, spirit, soul, as far as he is concerned, "are just ways of talking about certain kinds of brain activity." "You're a machine," he tells Helen, "that's been programmed...not to recognize that it's a machine."

What starts out as an intellectual friendship between the recently widowed Helen and the long-married Messenger soon heats up. The cheerfully amoral Messenger suggests an affair; Helen, still mourning her husband and encumbered with scruples about sleeping with married men, demurs. She is shocked by Messenger's skeptical interpretation of moral behavior. The uneasy sexual equilibrium is shattered when Helen makes a series of discoveries that disturb her complacent views. Liberated from guilt, she throws herself into passion and self-gratification – perfectly illustrating, in the process, Messenger's model of human motivation. But events take a turn she had not anticipated, and she must readjust her ideas about love, marriage, and self-interest all over again.

Lodge is one of the most readable writers now at work. In Thinks..., he shows himself to be at the top of his form: his smooth gift for narrative has never been more in evidence; neither has his easy way with the theoretical, or his mastery of (as he once wrote of the late Kingsley Amis) "that combination of surprise and logicality that is the heart of comedy."


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