A.I. at Universal U

A.I. at Universal U


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.

Thinks… is told in the form of alternating first-person narratives (in the respective media of speech-recognition software or traditional diary) by Messenger and Helen Reed, the English department’s new Writer in Residence. Helen is teaching a seminar in creative writing–a profitable course for the university but one that pays “peanuts,” as Helen acknowledges and any adjunct professor knows. Recently widowed, she is half in mourning and half in heat, though she doesn’t yet realize the latter. She only came to Gloucester U to get out of her emotional rut, and if Messenger has his way, she will, just as fast as you can say “artificial intelligence.”

But Helen is a well-known novelist of sensitivity and subtle expressiveness (the kind that Joyce Carol Oates writes appreciative reviews about), so we know it’ll take more than the usual academic high jinks to bed her. Like many in the humanities, she’s stereotypically suspicious of scientific endeavors to quantify human consciousness: “They have decided that consciousness is a ‘problem’ which has to be ‘solved.’ This was news to me, and not particularly welcome. I’ve always assumed, I suppose, that consciousness was the province of the arts, especially literature, and most especially the novel,” she asserts. Ralph will have to engage her mind at a higher level of intellectual involvement than he’s used to with women, and he only manages it with the full arsenal of tantalizing scientific tales (handily represented on an illustrative mural) about the problem of consciousness. It’s a form of intellectual seduction that seems to work on Helen, if not quite so well on the reader, who can’t help wondering where this putatively successful novelist has been for the last ten years, considering that she doesn’t even know how to use e-mail until Ralph installs it on her computer. But before such questions are ever answered, unsuspected infidelities are exposed and the delicate balance of human relations crashes, like the central computer system at the Holt Belling Centre. Thus the novel manages to prove, by a kind of narrative algebra, Ralph’s thesis that you can never really know what another person is thinking (something most of us know already).

Lodge’s story caps the “subjective” chapters told by his characters with a third, “objective” kind, as if to capture in third person the wave of first-person blather, mostly about past sexual experiences or lost loves, in the female register. Lodge is attempting to isolate constituent narrative elements that are normally fused, as Helen observes, in the work of someone like James, where “it’s all narrated in the third person, in precise, elegant, well-formed sentences. It’s subjective and objective.”

These narrative triads are also interrupted by experimental chapters that parody the work of Martin Amis, Irvine Welsh and Salman Rushdie in the form of writing exercises by Helen’s students (take that, amateurs!), or as funny e-mail exchanges between Ralph and the various women in his life, all jockeying for advantage. (Ludmila Lisk, a Czech graduate student he meets in Prague, is especially adept at this kind of electronic blackmail.)

While the subjective chapters imply how language can reproduce the lived experience of human consciousness–or qualia, as the novel informs us–the objective ones hint at the efforts of cognitive scientists to quantify such experience. Thus the book represents a kind of formal struggle between sense and sensibility, science and subjectivity.

Each half of the paradigm is personified by Ralph or Helen, who find their mutual seduction taking place in the form of a continuing debate about the nature of mind, its relation to the body and whether or not it has an existence all its own, like a soul. Sensualist that he is, Ralph denies the possibility of mental life existing independently of the body, while Helen stubbornly insists that the best works of literature suggest otherwise. But Helen suffers from residual religious feeling, even if she doesn’t accept the basic catechism of her old faith anymore. Not surprisingly, she finds that her shaky beliefs, like her determination to resist Ralph’s advances, are flagging under the assault of a rather glib scientific discourse generated by the “Messenger.”

Ralph Messenger is Lodge’s ad man for cognitive science, artificial intelligence and other cutting-edge disciplines. Like most skilled careerists, he seems to outsmart all his critics, often to the detriment of the reader’s appreciation. He even wriggles from the grasp of threatened fate when a potentially cancerous lump discovered in his liver gets downgraded to a mere “hydatid cyst,” whatever that is. That’s OK in a story intended to tickle our sense of quirky destiny and intellectual fun–particularly at the expense of new-age and postmodern pieties. But one can’t help thinking that Lodge himself is taking a few too many swipes at the usual suspects: political correctness, cultural studies, women and… incidently, does anyone of color attend Gloucester U?

One gets impatient with Lodge’s contrived plot twists, pedantic explanations (the book defines things like CT scans and colonoscopies) and tendentious dialogues that often betray a smug contempt for nonconformists with unpopular critical agendas. The crafty Messenger even short-circuits student activism, noting, “Students these days are more concerned about what hurts their pockets than about principles.” Anyone who doesn’t scintillate with media savvy or swagger at departmental cocktail parties is routinely caricatured and usually turns out to be some kind of backstabber or sexual deviant (Douglas Douglass is Humbert Humbert).

This, of course, does not apply to Helen, whose supple aesthetic instincts sometimes cruelly position her for the most chilling revelations about her colleagues, their spouses, her students, her deceased husband. She provides the conscience her male counterpart often lacks and, by the end, even manages to draw moral lessons about the new technologies themselves. When Ralph informs her that everything one downloads from the Internet is indelibly recorded on a computer’s hard drive, she asks: “Like the recording angel writing down your sins?” Yet even Helen (Lodge’s bait for a larger female readership?) seems to fall in and out of love, in and out of mourning, with a kind of mechanical efficiency and not from any deeper fund of feeling. Thus what Lodge often gains through structural complexity, formal experimentation and witty observation, he squanders through facile characterization. But in the end, for anyone still struggling with the reality of A.I. and the theories behind the machines that increasingly run our lives, the book should provide a humorous introduction.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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