Thinks..., by David Lodge

While Therapy seems to have been written after Lodge found out about Kierkegaard, Thinks... is influenced by the problem of how we investigate the concept of consciousness: again you get the idea that Lodge has found a subject which he feels is very interesting and uses it as a springboard for a novel.

In this story, we have Ralph Messenger, who's a cognitive scientist at a university, and Helen Reed, who's a novelist, both approaching the problem of consciousness from different angles. Ralph has a background in philosophy and neuroscience, and is interested in trying to come up with a mechanistic explanation, while Helen (and perhaps Lodge?) believes it cannot be explained this way but thinks that literature can provide a window into peoples' thought processes.

The book mostly alternates between three styles: in the first we have Messenger's audio-diary which is his attempt to dictate his thoughts as they occur to him - ostensibly an attempt to document in real time the processes that are at work when he allows his mind to drift. In the second, we have Helen's journal, which she starts to keep after arriving at the university. In the third, the story is told in the present tense and in the third person, but with no details of what the characters are thinking: there is no "omniscient author", just a record of events as might be recorded by an invisible watcher who cannot read the minds of the people involved.

In fact, Ralph's diary quickly becomes little more than a journal - whether this is Ralph can't manage to keep track of his thoughts, or whether it's Lodge's way of telling us that trying to do so is futile is not clear - and so we have essentially two views on how events unfold (with additional observations but no clues as to people's inner feelings from the third narrative).

This all makes it sound a little contrived, but the story is very good, and despite having Ralph lecture Helen (and us) about various philosophical thought-experiments (e.g. "what is it like to be a bat") it doesn't feel over-done, and the clash between the two personalities and academic backgrounds is very well done (bit like in Nice Work, where we had an English professor and a factory manager).

Needless to say, an affair between Ralph and Helen is on the cards, and so their thoughts about this form a large part of the story - in fact this really is the main story, and it's a very readable one. I think most of the stuff Ralph said was not new to me, but Helen's insight into the way that the novel can express conscious thought was very convincing, and much more moving than Ralph's explanations.

In fact, since reading this book, and especially when reading the Cazalet books I can't help but be struck by the way in which a writer seems able to capture a person's train of thought and convey the emotions felt by a character in a book, in a way that defies a purely mechanical explanation of what thought is about. I suppose this is Lodge's point.

A really enjoyable read.

Completed : 05-Feb-2004 (audiobook)

Re-read in 2016, after reading Therapy and wanting a bit more Lodge. Made a couple of notes:

Completed : 25-Jan-2016

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