Monday, January 5, 2015

Thinks...

Not long ago I was involved in an Internet discussion about neuroscience and the humanities in which I mentioned that I don't find that contemporary literary fiction is scientifically informed. A commenter then recommended Thinks..., the 2001 novel by David Lodge, as an example of literary fiction that engages scientific findings. I had previously read Small World, also by Lodge, and thought it mildly entertaining, so I followed the advice. Unfortunately, Thinks... was a waste of time for me. Normally I wouldn't make an effort to write about a novel that I don't like, but in this case I'll make an exception because the broader topic is the gulf between the humanities and the sciences, which this novel was supposed to remedy.

The story is about a woman writer, Helen Reed, whose husband has died recently and who is teaching a creative writing class at a fictional university in England. She meets and is attracted to Ralph Messenger, the head of the cognitive science department, where research is conducted on consciousness and AI. Throughout the novel there is mention of the broader questions of cognitive science, though none are delved into deeply. The narrative jumps around between Ralph's dictation to himself, Helen's diary and an omniscient narrator. Samples of the creative writing students' writing are also thrown in.

I did not find the discussion of cognitive science illuminating and thought that the novel was mainly about sex. The charismatic Ralph is an incurable philanderer, and the main thread of the book is his pursuit of Helen and their brief, shallow and unsatisfactory relationship. While this is going on he is temporarily involved in two separate affairs. Furthermore, Helen is shocked to discover that one of the students in her class has had an affair with her husband, and that her husband had several such affairs, which is all news to her. To round things off, it turns out that Ralph's wife, Carrie, is also having an affair, and one of Ralph's chief researchers is a pedophile who has been downloading pornography onto his computer at work. Finally Ralph and Helen break up, and she returns to her home in London when the term ends.

Obviously I was expecting a lot more than this. It is really just a titillating novel about the dishonest and debauched lives of upper-middle-class academics. If there is any subtext to it, it is that Helen, whose family background is Catholic, stands on higher ground than Ralph, who, consistent with his scientific outlook, feels free to chart his own moral course and ignore religious and moral conventions whenever it suits him. If there is any lesson it is that Helen's relatively greater moral rectitude made her a victim of Ralph and her husband, who both operated on lower moral planes than she did. There is no explicit statement of it, but one may presume that Lodge is rooting for traditionalists like Helen and critical of the amorality of most of the others in the story. One might say that he implicitly favors humanism over scientism.

This, of course, does nothing to assuage my ongoing disappointment with literary fiction and the escapism and artificiality associated with it. Although I don't know any cognitive scientists, it is difficult not to think that Lodge has made a caricature out of Ralph Messenger in order to meet the objectives of his novel. If anything, Helen Reed is a stand-in for Lodge and represents his point of view as a novelist and an English professor. I come away from this book feeling that Lodge is a bit of a literary huckster with little genuine interest in clarifying, let alone solving, the deep split in academia between the humanities and the sciences. Lodge's scope is so narrow and his prejudices are so obvious that I probably won't be reading any more of his novels.

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