Thinks…, David Lodge’s new novel about cognitive science, university politics and marital infidelity, shows once again the author’s knack for making intellectual concepts user-friendly by couching them in funny, satirical plots that even anti-intellectuals will chuckle over. With a cast of characters from both on and off campus, Lodge’s latest foray among imaginary academic communities deftly conveys an insider’s take on a scene we’d never have dreamed of as undergraduates.
At the center of this wily spoof is middle-aged bad boy Ralph Messenger, director of the Holt Belling Centre for Cognitive Sciences at the University of Gloucester. A successful popularizer of scientific theories of cognition, Messenger brandishes an unshakable, if rather smug, conviction in the prerogatives of science and its ultimate truth-value over other forms of critical inquiry: “These postmodernists are mounting a last-ditch defence of their disciplines by saying…there are no foundations, and no sand. But it’s not true. Science is for real. It has made more changes to the conditions of human life than all the preceding millennia of our history put together.”
Messenger’s intellectual forthrightness doesn’t prevent him, however, from being a sly departmental intriguer, an effective media pundit and an incorrigible adulterer. But for appearance’ sake he keeps his skirt-chasing at a distance, indulging in these shenanigans only at academic conferences, with the tacit consent of his rich and shrewdly tolerant wife, Carrie, who likes to address him by his last name. (It is a name well suited to a cognitive scientist, but one with ironic implications for a philanderer.)
Messenger’s academic archrival, Douglas C. Douglass (a k a Duggers), weighs in on cognition when he describes quantum physics: “Very small particles behave like waves, in random and unpredictable ways. When we make a measurement, we cause the wave to collapse. It’s been suggested that the phenomenon of consciousness is a series of continuous collapses of the wave function.” When certain secrets unexpectedly come to light, a series of private collapses, or crises, ensue. But the mind of Messenger is an excellent and durable thing, and after a number of complex electrochemical interactions in his brain, clever political maneuvers among his colleagues and a thorough re-examination of the mental hard-drive of his heart, Ralph Messenger is back–if kinder, gentler, more monogamous.
In short, the book is a novel of consciousness updated for the postcomputer age. At a time in which the human mind is increasingly theorized in terms of simultaneously running software programs, Lodge seems to have selected the multitasking model as a way of formally structuring his story, putting a kind of Cubist twist on a Henry James novel. (It’s no accident that James is either referred to or quoted at least ten times.) Thinks… also follows on Lodge’s many successes in the “campus novel” genre that has so recently tempted the likes of Francine Prose, Philip Roth, Michael Chabon and Jane Smiley. Lodge’s multiple entries include Changing Places, Small World and Nice Work, incisive spoofs of academe, replete with university dons, internecine scholarly feuds and all the schmoozing and posturing that goes on at academic conferences.