David Lodge

 

Thinks

 

Well, here we go again on another Lodge ride. Here he uses so many standard tricks, such as parodying other writers (The British Museum Is Falling Down) that you could almost say he was parodying himself: university setting (Small World, Nice Work, Changing Places); a writer as persona (Therapy); an incorporated lecture (everything) - this time on consciousness, particularly as it relates to cognitive science and Artificial Intelligence; altering perspectives (Therapy); altering styles (Changing Places, How Far Can You Go), particularly diarising (Paradise News, Therapy), lapsed Catholics (several), explaining/defending his writing technique to the reader as part of the text (most overtly in How Far Can You Go), oh, and, of course, fornication and/or adultery (everything). Maybe itís a conscious thing and trainspotters like myself are supposed to pick the deliberate references to all his other novels along the way: Robyn Penrose drops in; Keirkegaard is mentioned; Catholic birth control gets a cameo (although thatís pretty endemic) etc.

 

Should I complain about a writer as capable as Lodge simply doing his own thing? Maybe I could even see it as refining something over time, steadily incorporating effective aspects from his armoury to create steadily better variations on a theme. As ever heís researched his topic thoroughly and made it palatable. There are passages of his bravely[1] incisive honesty Ė as when he really gets down to the bones of what Helen (his lapsed catholic novelist/academic lead character) wanted out of her childrenís catholic education: a mild and conveniently temporary faith, and enough bible knowledge to appreciate such a rich store of literary allusion Ė something she probably couldnít admit to herself at the time. His settings generally feel authentic Ė he has the sense to depict the sort of places heís actually been, or to get good advice (although there was an atypical clanger when a Ph.D. studentís robot bumps into a wall and he exclaims, ďMust be a problem with the programming.Ē Strewth, is that the sort of perceptive comment youíd expect from a professional scientist, or an ageing literary don?). Moreover his novels are tailor made to be discussed: glancing at the opening paragraph in this review, give me 2500 words on similarities and differences in this and any other of his books; here he gives Helen some perfect lines to lift to explain why a novelist (himself) would construct a book in a certain way. There are many pleasures in reading him.

 

That being said, however, the novel as a whole felt a bit hollow[2]. I suspect its greatest weakness is the great morass of sex and talk about sex that you have to trawl through along the way. Extra-marital sex isnít quite the utter redemption/salvation it is of Out of the Shelter, Therapy and Paradise News Ė for a change bonking is not the climax and unequivocally happy resolution, and while Helenís affair does initially appear to do her a power of good (for Lodge, like James Bond, thereís nothing as healing as a good illicit encounter, only the former expects us to take him seriously), thereís no future in it, and she actually begins to look quite foolish. However there are just too many pages devoted to the bedroom for Lodge to be merely offering mature analysis of an interesting topic without being overly coy. At some point it becomes gratuitous, just as Tom Clancy will gratuitously throw in car chases and flying bullets to distract us from his lack of insight. Itís not quite erotic literature, but itís definitely voyeuristic Ė sort of a gossip novel, not getting carried away with detailing pulsating members and the like, but relishing just whoís doing what to whom for just a bit too long and a bit too frequently. Thereís also that absurd playboy myth underlying Thinks Ė that everyone out there is going at it hammer and tongs: Iím sure that Lodge has never got over a sense of resentment that he didnít get as much as he could have because of his religious upbringing, that he missed out while everyone else didnít, so he paints worlds where illicit sex is ubiquitous, paramount and generally wonderful. Thereís also something of the feel of Dangerous Liaisons in the attitude to sex as Ďtheí only game that really matters.

 

And I really thought Lodge would be over this by now Ė Iím reminded the fool chiding King Lear, something about how he couldnít be old because heís clearly not yet wise. When is he going to get this sex thing into perspective? Itís not nothing, but itís not everything either. A while ago Lodge did pick that his local bishop may not have had all the answers, but doesnít appear to have lost faith in the philosophy of something as juvenile (and stupid) as Pretty Woman[3]. The writer of Ecclesiastes gave it a fair burl, but did eventually work out that among other things sex wasnít the ultimate place to find meaning. Thereís actually a deal more maturity in the ruminations of the younger Nick Hornby in High Fidelity, whoís woken up to the fact that there are pros and cons to having affairs[4] Ė or being monogamous. Lodge does at least seem to be self-aware enough to realise that sex does seem to dominate to an obsessive degree so, through mouthpiece Helen, he offers a defence. When she is questioned about the sex in her novels she explains that of course the frequency and deviancy is exaggerated, but more standard monogamous relationships just arenít interesting enough for the reader. This lame defence really isnít worthy of a writer who:

a)      has the skills to write about a range of issues, characters and experience without needing to fall back on titillation Ė as if itís the only possible subject that can sustain interest (he might as well endorse Clancy as writing the only readable fiction Ė readers canít cope unless thereís a bomb about to go off somewhere and some macho posturing and biffo every few pages);

b)      has literally read hundreds of good novels where sexual intercourse isnít relevent;

c)       has read many others that donít shy away for a moment from dealing powerfully with issues of fidelity and sexuality, without crossing the line into prurience (Lodge, in contrast, rushes over the line and can only manage to drift back again now and then).

 

The irony for me (and I suspect many others) is that what is inadequately explained as a concession to entertain readers actually makes the novel more tedious. I donít read Lodge for seedy revelations, and I suppose if that was what I was after I could find better elsewhere anyway. He can write with passion, humour, insight and wit Ė but you have to endure a lot of other stuff to get there in this book.

 

Whether or not the titillation bores or stimulates, he uses another trick more than usual to keep us turning the pages. Instead of a single effective change of style (such as to a transcript of a film documentary, or to a play script, or to another characterís perspective Ė all examples heís used to good effect elsewhere) Thinks works more like a pop video clip in constantly changing perspective and style, even to inserting dozens of parody vignettes. Itís a very transparent technique to keep interest and, again, not one I think Lodge needs to revert to (much like his least satisfying effort, The British Museum is Falling Down, which again relies on literati in-jokes). Moreover the plot has more twists than usual, although in one of these I should acknowledge a similarity to High Fidelity, where likewise sudden unexpected proximity to death does force someone having an affair to wake up to the impoverishment of the dividend given the relative value of what theyíre risking/losing. Despite the twists there is a disappointing predictability: we know that Helen and Messenger will have an affair; we know that Messenger will look at Helenís diary Ė and it would have been much nicer if we didnít.

 

So, a bit of a blast for one of my favourite writers Ė Iím more aggrieved I suppose because I hope for more Ė definitely more than just playing with styles almost as a student exercise (not just the vignettes) and thinking lashings of sex can cover paucity of substance.

 

October 2003



[1] Although Lodge must have missed Keirkegaardís preface to Fear and Trembling, where, while he acknowledges the courage of doubt in, for example, Hegelís work, he is at pains to highlight the greater courage and virtue of faith. For Lodge only characters who doubt are admirable, and ones with faith are increasingly condescendingly (or scathingly) dismissed Ė a strange thing from someone youíd think knew about the contrary example of Keirkegaard himself Ė neither a fool nor a coward.

[2] Maybe itís because heís really gone with his loss of faith, but canít find even a passionate atheist like Messenger inspiring. If you reduce, for example, Jesusí life and teaching to mere handy poetic allusions they lose all potency. Why bother with Mary and Martha, to use an example from the book, if they were simply gullible scrubbers taken in by a cheap fraud. Lodge loves his literature, but if Donne, Keirkegaard, Milton, or even St. John are to ultimately be dismissed as superstitious fools, thereís not so much profundity in the classic tradition. If literature is merely a game, as it feels like in this book, and the only wisdom is that faith is stupidity, how can the book be anything but hollow?

 

Yet Ecclesiastes, for example, has much about loss of faith, but remains potent. I think thatís because itís more consistent. Lodge wants to keep the intensity of the importance and meaning in literature while teaching that it really only ever refers to itself.

[3] Nor does he seem to have grown past the youthful rebellion/resentment phase to be able to appreciate that maybe the local bishop did actually have a point or two as well.

[4] Although to be fair he does powerfully undermine the myth of the sublimity of an affair in a striking example in How Far Can You Go?