Tuesday, March 04, 2008

the last book I read

Thinks... by David Lodge.

You generally know what you're going to get with David Lodge: it's likely that there'll be an academic setting, most likely a university of some sort, there'll be an underlying theme which the various characters illustrate various aspects of during the book by their words and actions, and while they're doing that there'll be a spot of bed-hopping to spice things up. Layered on top of that there'll be a little bit of metafictional meddling, but nothing too alarming or experimental.

So, bearing that in mind....Helen Reed is a moderately-successful novelist, still grieving the recent death of her husband, Martin, and starting a job as a visiting lecturer at the (fictional) University of Gloucester. Ralph Messenger is a cognitive scientist, minor celebrity and serial skirt-chaser based at the same university.

So with our Lodge checklist to hand, we can tick off the following points: we've already covered the academic setting; the underlying theme is consciousness and the mind, what it is, where it comes from, how we might describe and measure it, that sort of thing, the obvious conflict here being between Ralph's scientific approach - encompassing some interesting thought experiments, AI and a brief foray into the Prisoner's Dilemma and game theory in general, all fascinating topics in their own right - and Helen's more touchy-feely instincts deriving from her slightly lapsed religious beliefs and, more obviously, her status as a chronicler of human behaviour in her novels. The bed-hopping aspects are taken care of by Ralph's attempts to persuade Helen into the sack, despite his marriage to, and Helen's developing friendship with, Mrs. Messenger.

The only trouble with having a "theme", particularly one that your readers may not be familiar with, is how to get over all the necessary exposition without revealing all the scaffolding and bits of string holding the book's superstructure together, or ending up being insufferably didactic and patronising (to see how profoundly irritating a book of this sort can be, try Sophie's World by Jostein Gaarder). Lodge does this by presenting most chapters of the book as the journal entries of the two main protagonists (with the inherent dangers I mentioned in an earlier post), Helen's being orthodox diary entries, Ralph's being more stream-of-consciousness dictaphone transcripts. The third-person narrative voice which starts intervening among these chapters gives the whole thing a rather lumpy and uneven rhythm, though of course this may be intentional.

Couple of complaints: the first is a very general one whereby whenever authors write about computer technology (even basic stuff like e-mail and Word documents) they always get it wrong, and secondly the pivotal revelation halfway through the book regarding Helen's late husband seems like a rather unlikely coincidence (though of course you could argue that coincidences are by definition unlikely). Lodge seems to like coincidences, though - the plot of his earlier novel Small World was full of them, to a degree I found a bit annoying. The presentation of the literary pastiches which Helen gets her students to write illustrating some of Ralph's thought experiments seemed a bit unnecessary as well, or at least it seemed a bit unnecessary to present them all, in full, except as a bit of authorial showing-off.

But, that said, it was very readable, though probably not as good as the earlier novels Changing Places and Nice Work. Just to hark back to an earlier post, Small World and Nice Work were shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1984 and 1988 respectively; my suspicion is that Lodge's novels are a bit too cosy and orthodox to win, good though they are.

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