David Lodge’s Thinks . . .

Posted: December 29, 2008 in adult literature, binary opposites, David Lodge, gender, variation

Lodge, David.  Thinks . . . . 2001.  New York and London: Penguin, 2002.

This novel is so elegantly and intricately built on its alternating focalizations that I’m tempted to identify it as a meta-alternating narrative–an novel in which the structure of alternating narratives is so completely linked to and expressive of its meanings that it reads like a textbook case of how and especially why to deploy this sort of fictional construction.  There are two alternating protagonists, each with a separate style of communication.  Ralph is a cognitive scientist who embarks at the novel’s beginning on an experiment of recording all his thoughts as they pass through his head, first via a tape recorder and then by using voice-recognition software; Helen is a widowed novelist who keeps a written diary of what happens when she comes to his red-brick campus for a term to be a writer-in-residence.

So everything is impeccably binary-oppositional: he is male, she female; he a scientist with not much imagination and a faith in reason and logic, she an artist who thinks in imaginative terms and in the context of a knowledge of literature (Henry James figures significantly); he a sexual predator and enjoyer of all things sensual, a lover of the body who believes there is nothing beyond the physical world science describer, and she an inhibited and isolated thinker. prone to distance herself form bodily urges  The novel’s title emphasizes the focus on what they think of each other and how they understand (or, often, don’t understand) each other beyond their actual encounters: it refers to the convention  used in old comic books  of using the word “Thinks . . .” to identify the contents of a speech balloon as a characters’ unspoken thoughts.  And it’s metafictional, then, that their styles of recording their thoughts also represent thematic alternatives: the formless free flow of a mind letting go of the demands of logic or audience for him, the organized staging of events in complete sentences of grammatically correct writing for her.  His experiment as a scientist is to try to capture exactly how thought happens, to be in the moment as thinking happens, to capture the almost-physical reality of undigested thought; her task as a novelist and diarist is to reorganize and shape events into a satisfying story that is inevitably then, at a remove form the immediate.

The novel operates, then, as a sort of intellectual dispute between differing and apparently opposite ways of handling one’s experiences and one’s thoughts about them–for it’s very much a novel of ideas, and filled with theories of cognition and such, and with descriptions of a series of paintings that represent differing theories of how consciousness operates.  Helen has an idea that novelists get to heart of how emotions operate–express a shared truth about how people feel and think about feelings; and yet also believes in the sanctity of personality, a oneness unique to each individual.  He believes that consciousness is a natural phenomenon explorable scientifically, but is constantly finding what looks like evidence of a uniqueness theoretically impossible, and can’t fight a suspicion that nothing actually exists but his own thoughts–that his consciousness is the entire extent of reality.  Both, then, believe in what they believe about consciousness and also in the opposite of what they believe about it.

In between the recordings of Ralph’s thoughts and Helen’s diary are passages which describe conversations between them and with others from an outsider’s point of view, in the present tense and offered without any insights into what any of the characters are thinking,.  This, too, is commented upon metafictionally in the novel itself: at one point, Helen talks about “the kind [of fiction] that doesn’t attempt to represent consciousness at all.  The kind that stays on the surface, just describing behaviour and appearances, reporting what people say to each other, but never telling the reader what the characters are thinking, never using interior monologue or free indirect style to let us overhear their private thoughts” (62-3).  In addition, there are assignments written by Helen’s students in response to her request for them to write in the styles of well-known novelists–another way of getting at the question of “style” or “personality” or the possibility of something human existing beyond what scientific explorations can uncover.  The e-mail correspondence between Ralph and Helen included at one point reveals another way of communicating differences in style.

The novel’s major concerns are the isolation of consciousness (and the corollary of that,  the sanctity of its privacy), and also, the extent to which it is unique–the question I suggested earlier about whether or not there is such a thing as personality, as being human in a way that transcends what science can understand or emulate.

The issue of isolation and privacy emerges especially in terms of questions about secrets. Ralph offends Helen by reading her diary without her permission, and thereby finding out about his wife’s affair with another man.  Helen, weirdly and hilariously, recognizes her husbands habitual behavior during sex in a piece of writing submitted by one of her female students, and thus comes to learn that he, too, had affairs before he died.  Both find out something that changes their sense of everything from thoughts recorded on paper.  It’s unclear whether that’s good or bad–mostly it just shows how little we know of what happens outside our immediate perceptions, how possible it is for us to be wrong about the thoughts and actions of others, and how successfully writing can give us insight into this other beyond our ken.  In that sense, at least, this novel is on the novelist’s side of the dispute between Helen and Ralph: writing can give us unexpected insight into others that can hep us to better understand ourselves.  Even so, Helen has to acknowledge that her writer;s insight into personality has not been working in terms of her husband–and Ralph has to acknowledge that his own personal and scientific knowledge of sexual opportunism has not prepared him to expect similar behavior in his own wife.   both have been overconfident about the extent of their knowledge of how other people operate.

These parallel secrets also suggest an interesting kind binary-oppositional variation going on throughout, so that the novel expresses yet another key aspect that makes the book meta-alternating: the characters’ experience versions of variations of similar events, and thus can confront those events and deal with them in ways that reveal their similarities and differences from each other and that thus add to the commentary on the binaries that are the thematic core of the novel. Thus, near the beginning, both masturbate for differing and revealing reasons in adjacent sections–and similar pairing occur throughout.   Also, readers know the secret thoughts of both of them, the ones they believe they have hidden form each other, so that we know how she tries to deceive him or he her about why they are where they happen to be at a certain time, etc., and also, how the other one misunderstood that behavior.  It’s the standard soap opera ploy of letting reader/viewers in on the secrets and thus privy to a wider knowledge of every event than any of the characters actually involved in it.  It forces us to stand back from any one of the characters’ point of view, to be thoughtful about everything we know instead of just accepting one character’s version of events–and also, to worry about how a secret known to us but unknown to one of the characters will affect that character.

Thinks . . . is a novel of ideas, and one that doesn’t ever get very far away from its ideas.  The characters aren’t especially deep or complicated or convincing, the plot is constrained by its need to support the intellectual binary oppositions it’s most centrally interested in.  That doesn’t mean it isn’t an entertaining novel, because it is, or often a wickedly funny one, because it is.  But it does suggest how much and how centrally it involves a debate between alternative and therefore, how thematically involved the alternating narratives and the focus on how different people see or think about things differently are.   Even the university campus–two separate facilities with an empty space between–is described as (and literally referred to by one of the characters as) an allegory of the Two Cultures, arts and science; and Ralph’s building is in the shape of a brain, with two hemispheres divided from each other.

Thinks . . . is far more obviously and completely focussed on its binary oppositionality than most adult novels with alternating narratives are–in that way, it;s more like children’s versions of this form.  But then, its degree of thoughtfulness and its intellectual rigour about the implications of its alternations easily distinguishes it from the children’s novels, as does its conclusion, which keeps the alternating focalizers as separate and isolated from each other as they always were.


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