Thinks . . .

Thinks . . .

by David Lodge

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780142000861
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 08/28/2002
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 352
Sales rank: 869,742
Product dimensions: 5.12(w) x 7.70(h) x 0.77(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

David Lodge is the author of twelve novels and a novella, including the Booker Prize finalists Small World and Nice Work. He is also the author of many works of literary criticism, including The Art of Fiction and Consciousness and the Novel.

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

A smart, seductive novel of ideas...Lodge is at the top of his game. (The Atlantic Monthly)

Reading Group Guide

INTRODUCTION

The different kinds of mental pictures we form of the mind at work would seem extraordinarily difficult material for a novel. But the British writer David Lodge is no ordinary novelist, and a plot depicting turf wars over the meaning of consciousness proves richly entertaining in his eleventh novel, Thinks.... Much as Elmore Leonard is king of the contemporary hard-boiled mystery, Lodge has established himself as master of the academic novel. Though both authors could be described as genre writers, they display a wicked sense of humor and elude the predictability of formulaic writing. Well-versed in literary theory and a gifted mimic of other writers, Lodge also is known for his skill in wrapping readers in a story that is simultaneously funny, gripping, and thought-provoking.

Thinks... is energized by a class of values within the confines of the University of Gloucester, where a cognitive scientist, Ralph Messenger, and a humanist, visiting creative-writing instructor and novelist Helen Reed, square off over fundamental questions of human consciousness: What is it? How do we understand it? Whose discipline has the proper tools for exploring it? Ralphwho impatiently dismisses those like Helen who think these questions may be unanswerable as "mysterians"asserts that "the brain is more like a parallel computer...running lots of programs simultaneously" (p. 38). This view of the mind leads to puzzles about how the self grows to recognize itself as a self and whether machines are capable of self-awareness. When Ralph explains to Helen that some autistic people have extraordinary abilities in a particular field, leading them to be labeled with the now discarded term idiots savants, Helen suggests with a hint of sarcasm, "Computers are a bit like that, aren't they?" (p. 240).

The struggle between traditional humanist understanding and modern scientific methoda rivalry dating at least to the beginning of the Enlightenmentaffects the answers to such questions about consciousness, but Lodge invests the battle with the personal charms and foibles of his protagonists. Ralph Messenger, known to most of his colleagues as "Ralph," but as "Messenger" to his family and intimate friends, is a gregarious family man, beloved father, and serial adulterer who never hesitates to proposition any attractive female in striking distance. He believes in the explanatory power of the scientific method and is fond of lacing his seduction patterespecially with an audience as literate and intelligent as Helenwith learned references to sociobiological triggers for sex. Helen, in turn, observes rather judgmentally that the scientists working for Ralph at his well-financed Centre for Cognitive Science "have decided that consciousness is a 'problem' which has to be 'solved' " (p. 61).

For her part, Helen is trying to solve the problem of bereavement. Following the recent death of her husband, she considers the invitation to teach a course at Gloucester an opportunity to carry on her professional life and make a new start. Both Helen and Ralph keep extensive journalsRalph tapes stream-of-consciousness ramblings as part of one of his experiments, while Helen writes a more conventional diary. Interspersed among the characters' e-mail is the voice of the novel's omniscient narrator. The result is a layering of competing perspectives on the same events. While Helen wrestles with her Catholic conscience over her affair with Ralph, Ralph sees metaphysics and religion as the result of Homo sapiens becoming "the first and only living being in evolutionary history to discover he was mortal" (p. 101). The characters' differing views of morality raise the question of how one's beliefs are connected to one's conduct: Do belief systems or rigorous analytical thinking correlate with the quality of one's character?

Thinks... is far more than a bawdy tale of romantic couplings punctuated with smart dialogue on mind, matter, and the nature of consciousness. In this novel Lodge shows himself conversant with the twentieth-century debate over the nature of mind; the book is influenced by a number of philosophical works, from Gilbert Ryle's milestone Concept of Mind (1949), which attacked the Western dualistic notion of the "ghost in the machine," to Thomas Nagel's 1974 article "What Is It Like to Be a Bat?" In one of the novel's funniest sections, Ralph tells Helen about Nagel's thought experiment as well as his conclusion that there is simply no way to know what the experience of being a different creature would be like. Undaunted, Helen tries out Nagel's question as a prompt in her creative-writing class. The results are hilarious: We are treated to parodic first-person bat narratives in the manners of Martin Amis, Salman Rushdie, and Samuel Beckett. If we cannot know the experience, we can at least imagine it, though it is doubtful that the results will meet the criteria for scientific rigor. Ralph himself recognizes a conundrum for proponents of strictly scientific knowledge: The scientific enterprise requires imaginative ability. Describing his theory that the puzzle of consciousness is more likely to be solved by a computer than by a human being, he acknowledges, "The question is, will we recognize it when we see it?" (p. 229). If not by an act of imagination, how?


ABOUT DAVID LODGE

David Lodge was born in London and received a Catholic education before attending University College, London, from 1952 to 1955. His first novel, The Picturegoers, was published in 1960. He wrote his master's thesis on Catholic fiction and was a professor for nearly thirty years at the University of Birmingham, retiring in 1987.

Lodge has also written widely on literary theory, showing himself both deeply engaged with and amused by poststructuralist, feminist, reader-response, Marxist, and psychoanalytic theories of the text. Language and Fiction (1966) established Lodge as an influential critic, and his other works of criticism include Working with Structuralism(1981) and After Bakhtin: Essays on Fiction and Criticism (1990). Lodge's eleven novels have earned numerous awards, including the Hawthornden Prize for Changing Places (1975) and the Whitbread Book of the Year for How Far Can You Go?(1980). Small World (1984) and Nice Work (1988) were shortlisted for the Booker Prize. For his service to literature he was awarded the distinction of Commander of the British Empire in 1988.


DISCUSSION QUESTIONS
  • Why does Helen sometimes think she struggles with Ralph for her soul?
     
  • To what extent does Ralph's theory of T.F.T., or "tit for tat" (p. 51), explain the behavior of the characters in Thinks...?
     
  • Why does the author include the essays about the items on the Karinthy mural? (pp. 49-55, 90-96, 154-65)
     
  • Why doesn't Carrie want to lose Ralph? Why does Ralph want to stay married to Carrie?
     
  • Why does the author have Ralph learn about Carrie's affair from reading Helen's journal without her permission?
     
  • Why does Ralph imagine cartoon "thinks" bubbles floating over his conversations with Ludmila and Helen? (p. 220, p. 252)
     
  • Does the novel endorse Helen's belief that the privacy of our thoughts is essential to selfhood and civilization? Are Helen's actions consistent with her belief in privacy?
     
  • After her experiences at the University of Gloucester, why does Helen write a new book called Crying Is a Puzzler?
     
  • Why is Ralph "perceptibly less assertive, more subdued, more middle-aged" at the end of the novel? (p. 340)
     
  • Does the author intend us to feel more sympathy for novelists or cognitive scientists?

  • FOR FURTHER REFLECTION
  • Are the arguments for the existence of the soul or against it more convincing?
     
  • Is complete self-disclosure a good thing, or do individuals need substantial areas of privacy?
     
  • Can marital infidelity ever be justified?

  • RELATED TITLES

    Kingsley Amis, Lucky Jim (1954)
    This satiric novel about post-World War II university life in England, which tears into the country's calcified class structure, has been a major influence on all academic novels since.

    Rebecca Goldstein, The Mind-Body Problem: A Novel (1983)
    A graduate student in philosophy at Princeton marries a famous mathematics professor, only to discover that she has multiplied her difficulties in reconciling the intellectual and practical sides of her life.

    James Hynes, The Lecturer's Tale (2001)
    Clearly influenced by David Lodge, Hynes's novel follows the exploits of an adjunct college instructor who suddenly gains magical powers and turns his university upside down.

    Richard Russo, Straight Man (1997)
    William Henry Devereaux Jr. is the beleaguered chair of a small university's English department. When he cannot get next year's budget from his unreliable dean, he resorts to the desperate measure of threatening to kill a duck on live television.

    Jane Smiley, Moo (1997)
    The academic hijinks in this novel have a distinctly allegorical flavor: What can it mean when a large group of experimental livestock languishes in obscurity at the center of a Midwestern research university?

    Customer Reviews

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    Thinks... 3.6 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 8 reviews.
    RussBriz on LibraryThing 8 months ago
    More like an advertorial for quasi scientific mind theory. Merged with an unlikely male fantasy. Easy to read though and enjoyable if you like English University soap.
    TimBazzett on LibraryThing 8 months ago
    David Lodge's book, THINKS..., is a puzzler. (Okay, I'm stealing this comment from a Darwin quote found in the book: "Crying is a puzzler.") I remember being captivated by his DEAF SENTENCE, a later book I read a year or two ago, but this one was quite different. I mean it's good, but I had trouble at times wading through the pseudo-scientific jargon, and kept wishing he'd get back to the "story-part," about the affair between Ralph Messenger and Helen Reed. But it is all connected, so I suppose I shouldn't fault Lodge for including all that stuff about cognitive science and consciousness. The narrative felt a bit slowed down by all the information about this obscure science, but then really picked up steam in the last hundred pages or so when Ralph became concerned that he could have a terminal illness. I kept thinking, "No! Don't kill the messenger!" Although the truth is, Ralph Messenger was not a very likeable or sympathetic protagonist. The female lead, Helen Reed, was eminently more likeable. But the truth is, Lodge is perhaps one of the most skillful living practitioners of the art of fiction, and, despite Messenger's reprehensible and rather predatory behavior toward women, this was another darn good read.I was surprised to note in his acknowledgements page that Lodge was inspired to write this book by an article written by John Cornwell, a name I knew from reading Cornwell's memoir, SEMINARY BOY - an excellent and absorbing look at the Catholic Church's 'priest factories' in the 1950s. Since Helen Reed is a lapsed Catholic still clinging to fragments of her faith, learning of Cornwell's influence provides an intersting twist. Or maybe that's just me. In any case, THINKS... is a fascinating look at all the nooks and crannies of what it means to be a thinking human being.
    Philogos on LibraryThing 8 months ago
    This is a well written book, written as two diaries and a third person narration (also, I nearly forgot, some amusing pastiche of current writing), it is the story of high jinks and adultery in an imaginary university in Gloucestershire.The two main characters present an interesting contrast - a professor of machine intelligence (or therabouts) and a novelist teaching a writing course. Their different points of view are well articulated and the slightly seedy social scene is amusingly described.In the end, it is the ending that lets one down with all the bits tied down, every punishment fitting every crime - although some may be a touch draconian - and a rather facile endorsement of the idea that what's sauce for the goose...
    ehines on LibraryThing 11 months ago
    This is a really fine book. All of the humor and observation of his more satirical efforts (e.g. Small World) with a greater intellectual seriousness and a more charitable spirit.
    anandrajan on LibraryThing 11 months ago
    A total riot of a novel which nevertheless manages to sneak in quite a bit on the mind-body problem.
    vixen666 on LibraryThing 11 months ago
    Is ok, but not that impressive. Seems to be an overlong creative writing challenge, such as that prescribed by the "heroine" for her class. Someone tried to show off a little too much.
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    Guest More than 1 year ago
    The story revolves around two main protagonists - one an Expert in Artificial Intelligence and the other a literature teacher and author.... The former experiments with the process of "recording and accepting" one thoughts without any form of editing or alteration... and it is this idea that makes the reader think .. while and after reading .."Thinks"