Years ago, I tried my hand at a few book reviews. Here is one of them, because I think it still has merit, and because I need some content to test the function of this web site I’m building. This was previously published at an old site of mine, BookishThoughts.com.[/toggle]
Some years ago, I read a book of literary criticism by David Lodge. In a discipline where so much writing is deliberately murky, hopelessly trivial, or stridently ideological – or some unfortunate combination of the three – his prose was a refreshing, encouraging exception. His thoughts, like the sentences and paragraphs he created to express them, struck me as being carefully, artfully, precisely crafted. This is not to say that Lodge’s prose is sterile and mechanical; on the contrary, it manages, while never calling attention to itself, to be quite lively and fresh, and infused with a gentle, natural humor. One does not roll on the floor laughing, reading Lodge, but one tends to smile a lot, and sometimes chuckle aloud.
I was sufficiently impressed that I made a mental note to read some of David Lodge’s fiction someday. I have recently read two novels, Nice Work (1988) and Thinks (2001). They have several things in common. First, in both cases, the literary craftsmanship (perhaps I should say artistry, but it’s not just art) is superb, and the chapters are brightened by the same gentle humor I remember from his nonfiction. Second, both novels feature the collision of two worlds, which is to say that relationships develop between people with very little in common, who have to struggle mightily to understand each other.
In Nice Work a British government program designed to foster mutual understanding between the academy and the outside world ends up doing (strangely enough) exactly what it intends. Robyn Penrose, a temporary lecturer in English literature at the university, is assigned to “shadow” Vic Wilcox, who runs a factory. Robyn’s temporary status makes her at once vulnerable to receiving such an undesirable assignment and consumed by the quest for a tenured position somewhere – “nice work if you can get it,” as they say, and hence the title. Her fashionable leftist world view leaves her completely unprepared for the everyday realities of Vic’s occupation. The clash of ideologies and lifestyles is deftly drawn and delightful to read.
The cautious reader should note that there is some fairly candid description of sexual matters here and there in the novel, as the “mutual understanding” goes a bit farther than the government intended.
The two main characters in Thinks . . . are both in the academic world, at the fictional Gloucester University, but the gulf between them is vast. Helen Reed is a novelist, temporarily on the faculty to teach a course on creative writing. Ralph Messenger is the director of a research institution that is devoted to studying the phenomenon of consciousness and developing artificial intelligence. Each is introduced to the other’s world and finds it a strange.
This novel is something of a thought experiment on the nature of consciousness; the reader notices this long before encountering confirmation in the two pages of acknowledgments that follow the novel. To what extent is consciousness an objective phenomenon, reproducible from human to human, or perhaps even artificially? (One scientist in Messenger’s institute is trying to program a computer to simulate mother-love.) Can the mystery that is consciousness ever be solved? Reed argues, as I think Lodge also means to argue, that fiction is our best data on consciousness. Even though it is invented, as Messenger points out, and therefore of little scientific value, it probes its characters’ consciousness far deeper than we are presently able to probe an actual person’s consciousness.
Three voices narrate the bulk of the novel. One is Messenger’s; his chapters purport to be transcripts of his very private attempts to record his conscious thoughts as they occur, with as little ordering or censorship as possible. (Again, the cautious reader is warned that the man spends a fair amount of time thinking about sex.) Of course, as he notes early on, the very effort to express and record his thoughts implies some ordering and censorship, making his transcripts of little scientific use; but they serve their literary purpose. Reed’s narrative voice is in the form of journal entries, which are more carefully crafted and less spontaneous than Messenger’s ramblings. The third major narrative voice is a third person narrator.
Lodge’s exploration of consciousness relies on the technique of juxtaposing the three narrators’ views of the same events and ideas. This is far more artfully executed than the familiar television plot, where several characters recall and relate the same events in vastly different ways, often for comedic effect. Reed sets forth an idea in her journal, in the process of recording her discussion of the idea with Messenger, and Messenger examines it in his record, too. Ideas Reed encounters in conversation with Messenger even find their way into writing assignments for her students; some of the students’ writing fills two or three chapters of the novel, including a memorable sequence about an imaginary experiment to explore a person’s consciousness of color.
From time to time, events combine to teach one character or another quite forcibly that he or she has little or no idea what another person is thinking. This is hardly original with Lodge; such surprises play a major role in many novels. But in this case, these twists and turns in the plot are more than just devices; they are a commentary on the subjective, very personal nature of consciousness, and the role and importance of literature in exploring the nature of consciousness.
The philosophical implications are, in any case, quite profound. To the problem of consciousness are connected many larger issues: the existence of the self (or the soul), the immortality of the soul, the nature of personality and of conscience, the interrelationship of mind and body, the role of fiction, and so forth. For all that, Thinks . . . is admirably light on its feet. It may challenge the thoughtful reader, but it will also entertain. Lodge makes the scientific and philosophical issues involved about as accessible as they could possibly be, and thus manages, I think, to say something useful on the subject of consciousness.