David Lodge’s latest novel, Thinks , sees him return to familiar territory. Set in the fictitious University of Gloucester, it tells of Ralph Messenger, womanising cognitive scientist, who sets out to bed Helen Reed, a recently-widowed novelist who arrives on campus to teach a summer writing course.
Written from three viewpoints – Ralph’s dictaphone transcriptions, Helen’s journal, and an all-seeing narrator – it deftly highlights the problem of working out what people are thinking, and of analysing and anticipating their behaviour. Ralph’s initial efforts to seduce Helen are fruitless, but he persists. She instinctively resists, but eventually realises that she’d actually like to be seduced.
The novel is stylish, witty and clever, poking fun at institutionalised academic types, whom Lodge met during his 25 years as a lecturer at the University of Birmingham. The dialogue crackles along, with some very funny exchanges indeed. At a dinner party Laetitia Glover, wife of a colleague, starts sparring with Ralph:
‘"The earth doesn’t belong to us, we belong to the earth," she declared piously. "The Red Indians knew that." "The Red Indians?" said Ralph Messenger. "You mean the guys who would stampede a whole herd of buffalo over a cliff to get themselves steak for dinner?" "I’m quoting a speech made by Chief Seattle in the mid-nineteenth century, when the American Government wanted to buy his tribe’s land," said Laetitia stiffly. "I know that speech," said Ralph. "It was written by a script-writer of an American TV drama-documentary in 1971."’
An affair quickly develops between Ralph and Helen, and intensifies when Carrie, Ralph’s Californian wife, is called home to attend to her sick father. But all is not as it seems. Carrie knows that Ralph is having affairs and accepts the situation, as long as it’s out of sight. Helen, who has become a confidante of Carrie’s, is placed in a morally difficult situation when she begins the affair with Ralph: to whom does she owe the greater loyalty? An extra layer of complexity is added when she discovers that Carrie is also having an affair. And it appears that Helen’s husband also played away before his untimely death.
It is a social comedy, an exploration of relationships and the games we play. All through the novel, there is the conflict between perception and reality, neatly illustrated by the autistic child of one of the university staff, who fails to realise the difference between fictional television characters and real life.
We rarely see the full picture, so we rarely understand fully what is actually happening. The misunderstandings and false starts that result make for a highly entertaining observation of our human frailties and strategies we deploy for dealing with each other.
Characters learn and grow: Ralph moves from a position of unquestioning self-assurance to self-doubt and worry. Helen moves from uncertainty and unhappiness to contentment and fulfilment. Carrie moves are less dramatic, and she ends up more or less where she began.
As with so many of David Lodge’s novels, there is a nod to the world of literary criticism, his other great passion; he has nine works of lit crit to his name, in addition to his novels. And it is never far from the storyline. Helen sets her writing class an exercise of producing a piece in the style of a well-known author, and the results are some very clever pastiches indeed. Another lecturer is still living on the reputation he gained through his first – and only – book, while the world waits for a follow-up. Helen herself has had writer’s block since the death of her husband. The novel’s sub-theme is the business of writing.
Exploring life and death, love and jealousy, secrecy and openness, it attempts to discover exactly what is written in the thought bubbles hovering each character. Family illness, jealousies and life-threatening diseases all subtly pull at the dynamic tension in the novel, arranging and rearranging the relationships like pieces on a chessboard.
And in the end, as the summer term draws to a close, the board is set up for another game. The end is perhaps too quick, with a final ‘where are they now?’ paragraph that neatly ties up all the loose ends – a too-easy solution to an otherwise tightly crafted book. But it clever, thought-provoking and entertaining, and will only cement Lodge’s reputation clever satirist and social commentator.