Carnal Knowledge

Peter Green is the former fiction critic of the London Daily Telegraph

For 40 years (his first novel, "The Picturegoers," was published in 1960 when he was still a student), David Lodge has been chronicling the changing scene in Britain--social, moral, religious, academic and, lately, industrial--with lethal and relentless accuracy. At the same time, he has always taken care to make his satirical sniping palatable by a mischievous sense of the ridiculous and a never-failing interest in sexual high jinks, often in combination. He has also dexterously exploited his Catholicism, as both a moral fulcrum and a target for humanist mirth. "How Far Can You Go?" (1980), nervously retitled "Souls and Bodies" in the United States, managed to blend a serious look at the disastrous impact of Vatican II on Catholic marital relationships with a hilarious vision of the traditional Catholic metaphysic--"grace, penance, relics, indulgences and all the rest of it"--as a glorified snakes and ladders board game with salvation as its object and every sinful snake a quick slither down to varieties of damnation.

Catholicism, of course, has always given him a feisty edge not available to his nearest American equivalent, John Updike, whose equal addiction to plots dependent on middle-class adultery has had to make do with the less satisfying solipsisms of individual Protestant guilt. It has been fascinating to watch Lodge's steady dilution, with intellectual advancement, financial success and post-Vatican II changes, of his original moral stance. But one thing has never changed about his moral compass, and that is his basic attitude to marriage and the family. It's surprising, and significant, how often his providential fictional plotting eventually reconciles what one might have thought badly mismatched spouses. This, after all, is the scriptwriter who gave his producer fits by wanting to wind up a recent TV adaptation of Dickens' "Martin Chuzzlewit" with no less than three weddings. Divorce is a snake on this novelist's salvation board to be avoided, clearly, at all costs.

Here another factor kicks in: literary intertextuality. As an undergraduate, Lodge spent much time on such late Shakespearean plays as "The Tempest," with their marvelous pattern of forgiveness, reconciliation and closure, most often through marriage. He then became a successful professor of English literature, not only embracing New Criticism in the '60s, Structuralism in the '70s and Mikhail Bakhtin in the '80s but also parlaying critical theory into the makeup of his novels, along with a mass of allusions (for example, "Orlando Furioso" and the Grail legend in "Small World") and the occasional spot-on parody, of which the best has to be his wonderful takeoff of Molly Bloom's final soliloquy in "Ulysses" at the end of "The British Museum Is Falling Down" (1965), with Joyce's reiterated and affirmative "yes" replaced by a characteristically dubious "perhaps."

Despite such intellectual and literary gymnastics, not to mention his artificially tidy plots, Lodge is at heart as traditional a realist as Fielding or Dickens, with the kind of generous imagination guaranteed to win, and retain, loyal readers. His characters, too, have kept pace nicely with his career. In the early days he went for penurious duffel-coated Catholic students, haunted by sex and joblessness. Success brought a lighter mood: Lodge's academics began to travel to international conferences, get visiting appointments in America, have extramarital affairs--most famously in "Changing Places" (1975), in which two of them temporarily swap not only jobs, but also campus riots and wives. Now, in "Thinks ... ," we find a professor of artificial intelligence and cognitive science at the (fictitious, to date) University of Gloucester, who retreats for weekends to a country cottage equipped with an outdoor redwood hot tub imported ("at enormous expense," he announces proudly) from California, and whose wife can, at one day's notice, without turning a hair, book herself a business-class flight from the U.K. to Los Angeles and back.

Ralph Messenger, the professor in question, is in pursuit, with equal enthusiasm, of the enigma of human consciousness and any attractive woman in sight (Private Eye has nicknamed him "the Media Dong"). He looks like a Roman emperor, knows his facts dangerously well (woolly aficionados of primitive environmentalism get very short shrift from him) and doesn't believe in the possibility of conducting a rational argument with a religious believer. At the same time the theories of cognitive science he advances (and of which we hear a good deal) seem to concern themselves exclusively with the operation of neural circuits in the brain, which sounded to me suspiciously like Marshall McLuhan's "The Medium Is the Message" updated for the computer age, and equally fallacious. I agree with Helen Reed, the nice widowed novelist brought to Messenger's university at short notice to teach a creative writing course: "The more I hear at this conference, the more convinced I become that cognitive science is light years away from replicating the real nature of thought," and I suspect in his heart of hearts Lodge shares that opinion.

Certainly his cognitive scientists, whose theoretical models are ludicrously wide of real life, and whose numbers include a devotee of child pornography, don't encourage belief in their ability to solve the great enigma. Indeed, most of the characters in "Thinks ... " are busily engaged in activities remote from artificial intelligence, most notably covert affairs with one another. Even Helen and Ralph, after a protracted, and most enjoyable, battle of wits (echoes of Beatrice and Benedick in Shakespeare's "Much Ado About Nothing"), end up, equally enjoyably, in bed together.

But since this is a David Lodge novel, along with the literary allusions (Henry James' "The Golden Bowl" is used to alert the reader to adultery in Gloucester), there come the moral humdingers. A lump discovered on Ralph's liver sparks unexpected feelings of guilt (the literary key here is Graham Greene's "The End of the Affair"). Private sexual knowledge in a novel-in-progress by one of her students suggests that Helen's belief in her late husband's fidelity may be a chimera. Messy emotions subvert the rationalists' arguments: Darwin's complaint that "crying is a puzzler" is deployed with devastating effect.

This is perhaps Lodge's best, certainly his subtlest, novel to date. It would have been easy--too easy--to make Messenger a two-dimensional bastard; instead, he's presented as a warmhearted, outgoing and in some ways surprisingly sympathetic character; a good family man, a researcher hungry for knowledge. His stream-of-consciousness recordings of his thoughts are both funny and self-revelatory (Helen's journal is just self-revelatory). We care about these people to a surprising extent: As so often happens with Lodge, the characters have broken loose from the puppet master. The Catholicism this time is muted, but it's there all right, and I don't think I'm giving anything away that I shouldn't when I reveal that the author's ongoing obsession with family values is still very much in evidence when it comes to winding up his thought-provoking and compulsively readable narrative.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World