Cardigan comedy

Thinks . . .

David Lodge <em>Secker & Warburg, 368pp, £16.99</em>

ISBN 0436445026

In Paris, a few years back, a French professor of literature made something of a slip at a colloquium designed to heal the long-standing rift between science and the arts. Halfway through an otherwise well-received paper, she inadvertently referred to the scientific field ("le champ scientifique") as scientific cack ("le chiant scientifique"), suggesting that the stand-off is set to last. In Thinks . . ., David Lodge joins the fray. A literature professor himself, it is by no means clear whether he wishes to sue for peace.

Ralph Messenger, who is approaching 50, is the director of the Centre of Cognitive Science at the University of Gloucester. A scientific determinist, Ralph is convinced that not just the body is a machine, but the mind also, and has embarked on an experiment designed to reveal the mechanics of random thought, with himself as guinea pig. Armed with an Olympus Pearlcorder, he is somewhat disturbed to find that, as far as randomness goes, his own thoughts are one-track, focusing on the urge that constantly threatens to ruin his marriage - adultery.

He is soon making eyes at Helen Reed, recently arrived on campus to teach creative writing. A distinguished novelist, Helen has suffered an emotional and creative block since the sudden death of her husband, Martin. Contact with the womanising Ralph forces her not just to emerge from widowhood, but also to re-examine her own cherished ideas about the nature of consciousness, which she had assumed was the preserve of novelists such as herself.

Into the Pearlcorder, Ralph conveniently offloads tales of extra-marital "bonks", "shags" and "snogs", while over lunch, and at faculty parties, he grapples with the more spiritual opinions that Helen expounds. Although neither manages to change the other, a mutual attraction grows. Helen, however, is a lapsed Catholic, and this, as well as her friendship with Ralph's wife, arms her with principles useful in seeing off Ralph's increasingly amorous desires.

Ralph's dictum that we can never know what goes on in people's heads proves true when Helen discovers that her idealised husband was a bounder no less unscrupulous than Ralph himself. Helen finds her own principles in tatters, not without noting in her diary, however, that it is her body which "craves to be held and stroked and comforted". The old mind/body split might salve her troubled conscience but, rather revealingly, it is also the omniscient - and presumably objective - narrator's prejudice, too.

Adultery has never been as safe as this. Unlike, say, Goethe's Elective Affinities, where science - namely the combustion of previously stable chemicals - serves to allegorise passion and its frequently destructive consequences, Thinks . . . , nearly 200 years on, is content to let its dualisms stand. Mind v body, science v art - in the end, it doesn't amount to much. There are no long-term side effects and nobody really gets hurt.

Such complacency is vindicated at the end of the novel when Ralph, suffering from suspected cancer, gets a reprieve as the brilliant Professor Douglass, his arch-enemy, is unveiled as a paedophile. With his jam-jar glasses and that sinister double "s" in his surname, Douglass was bound to come a cropper eventually, but for a book that purports to explore the mind/body puzzle, this is too much of a set-up, and leaves the morally vacuous Ralph and his self-satisfied universe looking saintly in comparison. For a satirist, Lodge seems much too fond of his characters.

The mind is unfathomably strange. We think dangerous thoughts, and quite often, like French professors, we blurt out things we shouldn't. Thinks . . . is often an absorbing read, but in the interests of safety, it sidesteps the awkward issue of how unknowable our own minds are. It sidesteps a century of Freud, in fact, and tidies away the unquantifiable, the downright dangerous - as when Douglass does the decent thing and hangs himself. This is humane comedy, but tame stuff, in cardigan and slippers, where a sharper, more subversive writer might have done justice to this corner of Middle England and its secrets and lies.

This article first appeared in the 05 March 2001 issue of the New Statesman, The New Statesman Essay - Democracy can be bad for you