Thinks....by David Lodge
Ralph Messenger is a man who knows what he wants and generally gets it. Approaching his fiftieth birthday, he has good reason to feel pleased with himself. As Director of the prestigious Holt Belling Centre for Cognitive Science at the University of Gloucester, he is much in demand as a pundit on developments in artificial intelligence and the study of human
Ralph Messenger is a man who knows what he wants and generally gets it. Approaching his fiftieth birthday, he has good reason to feel pleased with himself. As Director of the prestigious Holt Belling Centre for Cognitive Science at the University of Gloucester, he is much in demand as a pundit on developments in artificial intelligence and the study of human consciousness – “the last frontier of scientific enquiry.” He enjoys an affluent lifestyle subsidized by the wealth of his American wife, Carrie. Known to colleagues on the conference circuit as a womanizer and to Private Eye as “Media Dong,” he has a tacit understanding with Carrie to refrain from philandering in his own back yard.
This resolution is already weakening when he meets and is attracted to Helen Reed, a distinguished novelist still grieving the sudden death of her husband more than a year ago. She has rented out her London house and taken up a post as writer-
in-residence at Gloucester University, partly to try and get over her bereavement.
Fascinated and challenged by a personality radically at odds with her own, Helen is aroused by Ralph’s bold advances, but resists on moral principle. The stand-off between them is shattered by a series of events that dramatically confirms the truth of Ralph’s dictum, “We can never know for certain what another person is thinking.”
- Random House Adult Trade Publishing Group
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Read an Excerpt
One, two, three, testing, testing . . . recorder working OK . . . Olympus Pearlcorder, bought it at Heathrow in the dutyfree on my way to . . . where? Can't remember, doesn't matter . . . The object of the exercise being to record as accurately as possible the thoughts that are passing through my head at this moment in time, which is, let's see . . . 10.13 a.m. on Sunday the 23rd of Febru—San Diego! I bought it on my way to that conference in . . . Isabel Hotchkiss. Of course, San Diego, 'Vision and the Brain'. Late eighties. Isabel Hotchkiss. I tested the range of the condenser mike . . . yes . . . Where was I? But that's the point, I'm not anywhere, I haven't made a decision to think about anything specific, the object of the exercise being simply to record the random thoughts, if anything can be random, the random thoughts passing through a man's head, all right my head, at a randomly chosen time and place . . . well not truly random, I came in here this morning on purpose knowing it would be deserted on a Sunday, I wouldn't be interrupted distracted overheard, nobody else around, the telephones and fax machines silent, the computers and printers in the offices and workrooms in sleep mode. The only machine humming to itself, apart from those in the Brain, is our state-of-the-art coffee machine in the common room where I got myself this cappuccino with cinnamon no sugar before beginning the experiment, if that's not too grand a word for it . . . The object of the exercise being to try and describe the structure of, or rather to produce a specimen, that is to say raw data, on the basis of which one might begin to try to describe the structure of, or from which one might infer the structure of . . . thought. Is it a stream as William James said or as he also rather beautifully said like a bird flying through the air and then perching for a moment then taking wing again, flight punctuated by moments of . . . incidentally how is the audiotypist going to punctuate this? I'll have to give instructions, say put dots for a short pause, and a full stop for a longer pause, new para for a really long pause . . . This thing is voice-activated, stops if you don't say anything for about three seconds, but there will be perceptible pauses in the flow of words under that threshold . . . Nifty little gadget . . . Isabel Hotchkiss . . . I recorded us in bed to test the range of the condenser mike, left it running on the chair with my clothes without her knowing . . . she made a lot of noise when she came I like that in a woman . . . Carrie won't unless we're alone in the house, which doesn't happen very . . . Jesus Christ I can't have this stuff transcribed . . . impossible . . . even if I sent it to an agency under a pseudonym, from a box number GPO Cheltenham, it would be too risky . . . even if I pretended it was a piece of avant-garde fiction the names . . . there's always a risk somebody would recognize the names and send it to Private Eye or even try to blackmail me, fuck, and I can't change the names as I go along, too difficult, too distracting, I'll have to transcribe the bloody thing myself fuck what a bind. But perhaps it's just as well, otherwise I might subconsciously censor my thoughts for the typist . . . In fact perhaps I already did, when Isabel Hotchkiss first came into my head . . . after all the essential feature of thought is that it's private, secret, so knowing that somebody else, even some anonymous typist, was going to listen to this would completely distort the experiment, I should have thought of that . . . But then I only got the idea this morning in bed, lying awake in the dark too early to get up, I didn't sleep well, a touch of indigestion, I didn't really like that starter Marianne served, crab mousse or whatever it was . . . What I need is one of those software packages with speech recognition so you can dictate to your PC . . . only I believe you have to speak very slowly and distinctly, which might be inhibiting, spoil the spontaneity, if you had to pause . . . like . . . this . . . between . . . every . . . word . . . Still, it might be worth looking into if I do much more of this sort of thing, no doubt they're improving the software all the time . . . Where was I? You don't have to be anywhere, remember. But it was something interesting . . . Isabel Hotchkiss, no not her . . . not that she was uninteresting . . . What a lot of pubic hair she had, black and springy and densely woven, like a birdsnest, you wouldn't have been surprised to find a little white egg warm inside her labia . . . James, yes, William James and the stream of consciousness or the bird of consciousness, that was it . . . I wonder where that tape is, did I ever erase it? Wouldn't want Carrie to find it . . . pissed off with me last night because of the way I bullied, she said bullied, I would have said argued, remonstrated, at the dinner party last night with Laetitia, Jesus imagine being called Laetitia, Letty not much better, Laetitia Glover her crap about the Indians and the earth and Chief Seattle . . . That was a delicious steak last Wednesday . . . completely illogical of course to eat steak in restaurants, though it was the Savoy Grill, they must get their meat from the finest herds . . . even so it's daft to renounce beef at home and eat it out I have to admit . . . but then you don't have a menu at home so there's no temptation . . . I do love a juicy steak, medium rare, branded with the lines of the grill on the outside, pink and slightly bloody on the inside . . . [sighs] . . . BSE has deprived me, BSE and AIDS between them have made two of the greatest pleasures in life, prime beef and wild pussy, possible causes of a horrible death . . . sad. Even domestic pussy isn't the same since we . . . I wonder did she really come off the pill for health reasons or was it to make me use condoms? Trouble is, I can't tell her I've stopped screwing other women without admitting . . . of course she must have guessed that I haven't been a hundred per cent faithful all these years, but we've had a tacit agreement she wouldn't kick up a fuss as long as she never knew about it . . . When she asked me what I had for lunch with the publisher I said chicken she said 'What kind of chicken?' I said Chicken Kiev off the top of my head, a bit naff for the Savoy Grill, Carrie obviously thought so too, and my breath didn't smell of garlic, she probably thought I'd been having it off with somebody in London and the publisher's lunch was a story, ironic that . . . Perhaps in the vegetarian future people will use adultery as an alibi for eating meat . . . fuck in public and slink off afterwards to seedy beef hotels that rent private dining rooms by the hour . . . How come I'm thinking about beef? I was thinking about . . . about William James and consciousness as a stream or consciousness as a bird, flying and perching . . . the interesting question is, are those perchings of the bird completions of a thought or pauses in thought, blanks, white space or white noise would be better because there is brain activity still going on all the time or you would be dead . . . I think therefore I am true enough in that sense . . . Must be the best-known sentence in the history of philosophy. What's the second best I wonder? But is thought continuous, inescapable, or is it as somebody said against Descartes, sometimes I think and sometimes I just am . . . Can I just am without thinking? The verb to am . . . I am you am he am she am they am, meaning to merely be without thinking . . . but is thinking the same as being conscious, no . . . There's a distinction between passive consciousness, receiving, identifying, organizing signals from the senses, aware of being alive, of being awake, and reacting to the stimuli . . . so not exactly passive then . . . but not formulating coherent thoughts either . . . So say there is a, not a distinction, but a continuum, a continuum between an almost vegetative state, no scrub that, plants aren't conscious even if Prince Charles likes an occasional chat with his geraniums . . . Say there's a continuum between a mere processing of sense data, I am hot I am cold I itch, at one pole, and abstract philosophical thinking at the other, with an infinitely graduated series of stages in between . . . Yes but it's possible to do both at once, for example driving, it's possible to drive a car without being conscious of what one is doing, changing gear, braking, accelerating, etcetera, quite efficiently and safely, while thinking about something entirely different, about consciousness for instance. So where does that get us?
Ah, a blank, a definite blank, for an instant, not more than a second or two, I didn't have a reportable thought or sense impression, my mind as they say went blank, I thought of nothing, I just ammed . . . So when a train of thought suddenly gives out collapses you just am, you go into a kind of standby mode ready for thought but not thinking . . . like the hard disk spinning in a PC that's switched on but not being used, like the coffee machine humming to itself ready to make coffee but not making any . . . Of course this experiment is hopelessly artificial because the decision to record one's thoughts inevitably determines or at least affects the thoughts one has . . . For instance I feel a little stiffness in my neck at this moment, I move my head, I stretch . . . I swivel round in my chair . . . I get up . . . I walk from my desk to the window . . . all these things I would normally do without thinking, I would do them 'unconsciously' as we say, but this morning I'm conscious of them because I hold a taperecorder in my hand, Olympus Pearlcorder, specifically for the purpose of . . . That was a good paper Isabel gave at San Diego . . . on modelling three-dimensional objects, she sent me a copy afterwards, there's a true scientist for you, you shag her senseless in her hotel bedroom and she sends you an offprint of her conference paper afterwards by way of a memento . . . Dead now poor Isabel Hotchkiss, breast cancer somebody told me, fucking shame who'd be a woman, one in twelve chance your tits will kill you, or try to . . . She had nice ones too, nice three-dimensional objects I remember telling her as I eased off her bra and cradled them in my hands . . . must look for that tape if I haven't erased it, I'd like to listen to it again and masturbate to it in memory of Isabel Hotchkiss.
Another full stop . . . well death is a full stop . . . enough of that enough of that . . . the campus is deserted not surpr . . . now that's interesting, I've been gazing out of the window for some time but not thinking about what I'm seeing, thinking instead about Isabel Hotchkiss, as if the mind were like a movie camera you can't have a close-up and depth of field at the same time . . . and as I stopped thinking about her the campus came into focus, or as much as it can this morning with raindrops dribbling down the window panes streaking the dirt, that's the trouble with an all-glass building they badly need cleaning, I must write a memo to Estates and Buildings waste of time their maintenance budget has been cut to the bone . . . there's another change of topic . . . It's a matter of attention, you can't attend to more than one thing at a time, like the duck rabbit picture you can't actually see them both in the same instant though you can flip back and forth between them . . . Not many people about, hardly surprising, a wet Sunday morning, staff all at home sifting through the Sunday newspapers over a late breakfast students sleeping off the booze and drugs and bopping and bonking of last night there goes a jogger though, splashing through the puddles . . . I ought to do more exercise take up squash again, not jogging can't stand running just for the sake of it . . . mind you they say sex is good exercise, one fuck the equivalent of running a mile and a bloody sight more enjoyable . . . There's somebody, who is it, a woman in a raincoat with an umbrella, not a student they don't wear raincoats they wear anoraks and cagoules or just get wet . . . a smart raincoat too with a kind of cape and a long full skirt who is it and high boots . . . Carrie had a pair like that with high heels, she used to strut about the bedroom with nothing else on to indulge me . . . not any more, wouldn't have even a quickie last night . . . I was still feeling aroused by the snog with Marianne but no luck . . . pissed off with me for throwing my weight about at the dinner table but why do people have to talk such crap . . . Who is that wandering about the campus on a wet Sunday morning, she doesn't look as if she's going anywhere just going for a walk, but who'd go for a walk in this ah good she's collapsing her umbrella the rain must have stopped she . . . it's that woman, the writer, at the dinner party last night, Russell Marsden's stand-in Helen whatshername . . . Helen Reed yes of course, she's living on campus in one of those little maisonettes over on the west perimeter between Severn Hall and the squash courts, she told me before dinner she's let her own house for the semester. So you won't be nipping back to London from Thursday evening to Tuesday morning like most of our visiting writers, I said, 'No,' she said, 'I've burned my boats, or is it bridges?' and smiled but there was a trapped hunted look in her eyes as she said it, nice eyes very dark brown pupils, pretty face, perfectly formed bow lips with a faint very faint down on the upper lip a long delicate neck hard to say what her figure is like, or her legs, she was wearing a long skirt and a loose-fitting top, but not skinny not fat . . . how old would you say, must be at least forty she has a kid at university another just left school, but doesn't look it . . . And what about your husband, I said, noticing her ring but foolishly forgetting she'd said my house not our house. 'He's dead,' she said, 'he died about a year ago,' just as Marianne clapped her hands and summoned us to sit down and I never had another chance to speak to her because we were at opposite ends of the table . . . Marianne arranged the seating, didn't want me to get too chummy with this attractive new woman, a widow too, he died of a brain haemorrhage Marianne whispered to me later, 'Very sudden very tragic only forty-four he was a radio producer for the BBC . . .' There she goes, round the corner of Metallurgy, wonder where she's going what she's doing at half-past ten on a wet Sunday morning, must be lonely as hell living here on her own, 'You must come over for lunch one Sunday,' Carrie said to her last night as we were leaving, and she said that would be lovely, they seemed to take to each other, Marianne remarked on it . . . that was a nice snog we had in the kitchen between the main course and the dessert, I had my tongue right inside her mouth and she was kneading my bum with her fingers I have an erection now thinking about it . . . It's very exciting this wordless snogging we do at parties, ever since that pre-Christmas party at the Glovers' when we were both drunk and now we do it every time we meet though we never talk about it, it's understood between us that we have to find an opportunity to do it, it's a kind of game . . . a dangerous one but that's what makes it exciting . . . Marianne managed it very deftly last night asking me to help her take out the dirty dishes as if to get me off Laetitia Glover's back but I saw Carrie looking a little surprised at how readily I obeyed and someone, Annabelle Riverdale, said jokingly to her, 'I see you have him well-trained . . .' I wonder if Marianne is really up for it? No, I think not, I think she just likes to fantasize that we're lovers, Jasper is a dry stick she probably needs something to fantasize about when he's poking her, and if I ever said anything when we snogged, even just 'Darling,' alarm bells would ring, she would shrink back and put a stop to it because it would become serious, not just a game . . . just as well, too close to home.
Another pause another blank . . . the Olympus Pearlcorder—wonder why it's called that? Surely not because it's to record your pearls of wisdom, too corny to be true, but what else could it mean? I go back to my desk sit down in my swivel chair look at the window filled with blank grey sky how I hate the fucking English climate, imagine what it would be like in Boston now crisp cold clear air brilliant blue sky snow on the ground dazzling in the sunshine, or better still Pasadena, oranges and lemons on the bough in the back garden or rather yard as they call it even if it's several acres like Daddy Thurlow's spread at Palm Springs . . . Shall I check my Email? No, the idea was not to do any work, not to do any task which would impose its own structure on the stream of consciousness, if a stream is what it is, more like a sewer in your case Carrie said once . . . Because it's easy to simulate human thought when it's task-oriented, directed towards a goal, like winning a chess game or solving a mathematical problem, but how to build the randomness the unpredictability of ordinary non-specialized thought, idle thought, how to build that into the architecture is a real problem for AI, which this exercise might conceivably help to solve . . .
I could go after her now pretend to bump into her or say I just happened to see you from my office window, I thought you looked lonely . . . No, don't say that, people don't like to be told they . . . Just saw you passing, then, thought perhaps you might like a cup of coffee, we didn't really have much chance to talk last night . . . why not? [recording stops]
It's 11.03. I went out intending to catch her up but she'd disappeared into thin air, I wandered round the campus for half an hour nearly, not a sign of her anywhere, not in the shop not by the lake, the Library isn't open till this afternoon, she might have gone into one of the halls I suppose to have coffee with one of her students but it doesn't seem very likely, she probably went back to her house but I didn't feel like knocking on her door, even supposing I could find out which house it is, to ask her back here for coffee, it was supposed to be a spontaneous or accidental thing, and I was beginning to feel rather silly especially as it started to rain again so I came back here just in time to take a call from Carrie asking me to pick up some milk from a garage on my way to Horseshoes. She said don't be late for lunch I said what is it, she said roast pork with apple rings, I said will there be crackling, she said of course, I said in that case I certainly won't be late . . . Carrie does the best crackling I've ever tasted, crisp and succulent, I feel the saliva sluicing round my mouth at the very thought of it. And after lunch, she said, Polo and Sock want you to take them out on their mountain bikes. I said I was hoping the kids might amuse themselves this afternoon and you and I might retire for a little nap. 'No chance' she said, and put the phone down, but she sounded amused rather than pissed off. Should be OK for tonight then . . . It's because she said no last night that I want her . . . it's the only thing that really makes me, when she says no . . . otherwise I don't think much about fucking her, I mean in advance, but if it comes into my head to suggest it and she says no for some reason then I can't rest till I've had her . . . Sad really, but that's life. Or men. Or me.
Meet the Author
David Lodge is the author of ten previous novels, a trilogy of plays and a novella. He has also written stage plays screenplays and numerous works of literary criticism. His books have been translated into twenty-five languages. He is Honorary Professor of Modern English Literature at the University of Birmingham, where he taught for many years, and lives in that city. David Lodge’s books have sold over 2.5 million copies.
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