Love on a Laptop

Thinks…

by David Lodge
Viking, 341 pp., $24.95

It is no secret that British writing is on something of a science jag. The last few years have seen—to name only major works from well-known writers in mid-career—Margaret Drabble’s The Peppered Moth (which draws freely and heavily on ideas from genetics), Ian McEwan’s Enduring Love (psychiatry), Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen (quantum physics), Martin Amis’s Time’s Arrow and Night Train (physics, cosmology), and Philip Pullman’s magnificent His Dark Materials trilogy (physics). Forty-two years after C.P. Snow complained about the entrenched division between the arts and the sciences in The Two Cultures, we seem to be witnessing a salutary level of cultural osmosis from science toward the arts.

David Lodge’s eleventh novel, Thinks…, is part of this general trend, but it is also in one important respect different from the books mentioned above. All those fictions draw on, borrow from, and exploit scientific ideas, and use science as a source of imagery and metaphor; but there is a sense in which they are not about science. They tend to treat it as a body of knowledge to be drawn on rather than a subject under scrutiny. They see science more as a point of departure than as a zone of contention. This is only to be expected: common sense tells us that one can use physics as a source of metaphor in a novel more readily than one can, say, use a novel to make an intervention in the multidimensional mathematics of string theory. Thinks…, however, takes on a subject which is not only hotter-than-hot in scientific and philosophical circles, but is also one about which the novel has traditionally felt it has a good deal to say: consciousness. Lodge’s new book is not just around the subject of consciousness, but about it, and is refreshingly undeferential in its willingness to speak directly, engagedly, and skeptically about current scientific concerns.

One of the pleasures of Lodge’s fiction is the classical clarity of its structures. In Thinks…, the two main characters represent the Two Cultures. In the science corner we have Ralph Messenger, director of the Holt Belling Centre for Cognitive Science at the fictional University of Gloucester. (Readers who miss Rummidge, Lodge’s reimagined version of the Birmingham where he lives, needn’t worry too much, since his comic world continues to—in the 1975 words of Changing Places—“resemble the one we live on, without corresponding exactly to it.”) Messenger is a fluent, confident, pugnacious pop-science public intellectual, author of a TV series on the mind–body problem and a frequent media performer who is—in the words of an envious colleague—“the master of the scientific sound-bite.” He is a good-looking fifty, and has affairs, though his tacit agreement with his wife, Carrie, is that he will only do so at some distance from home and work. He thinks that some people are “hardwired for happiness,” and he seems to be one of this elect body. He is …

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