Is anyone really in there?

A cerebral novel about consciousness explores faith and fiction

Can you imagine a novelist thinking of characters in a book whose thoughts are being considered by a critic who's thinking of a review for newspaper readers to think about?

David Lodge can.

His new novel about the nature of consciousness spins on such quandaries. It's called "Thinks...," but that's the only cute thing about it.

In the university setting Lodge satirizes so well, this anti-love story concentrates on the mind, the brain, and the mystery of thought - "the last frontier of scientific enquiry."

Playing the role of Dr. Frankenstein, Ralph Messenger directs the Holt Belling Center for Cognitive Science at the University of Glouster. His large Roman head often appears on public television shows about "the Mind-Body Problem." But in private, he doesn't mind what problems his body gets into. Brilliant, pompous, unfettered by modesty or morality, he's worked out an agreement with his wife that he won't carry on with any women she might run into.

When Helen Reed arrives on campus, however, even that meager vow seems untenable. Still grieving the death of her husband, she's decided to fill a period of writer's block by teaching a graduate seminar on narrative fiction.

Messenger notices her immediately and revs up his intellectual charm. A quiet author of "traditional novels," she's awed by the brain-shaped Center for Cognitive Science, complete with its mural of classic thought problems. The remnants of her Roman Catholic faith seem gossamer next to Messenger's confidence in the material nature of consciousness.

When she weakly objects, "But your self, your spirit, your soul...?" he answers, "Those are just ways of talking about certain kinds of brain activity." During the next four months, Helen and Messenger continue this debate over meals, in hot tubs, and finally in bed.

We read of their intellectual jousting and sexual antics in a series of brilliantly constructed chapters from different points of view: Helen types a journal on her computer to collect and synthesize her thoughts; Messenger rambles his exploits and crude fantasies into a tape recorder to produce "a specimen of raw data"; Lodge narrates some episodes in the third person; Helen's students supply clever writing samples in the styles of famous writers.

The effect is a kind of intellectual and moral vertigo, alternately witty and unpleasant. Far from "solving" the mystery of consciousness, Lodge refracts this baffling issue in a fun-house of irony. (In a comic bit of metafiction, one of the graduate students plagiarizes details from Helen's novel based on her own life.)

"Thinks..." is a dazzling production that constantly shakes the ground on which the consciousness debate takes place. Messenger's arguments sound "horribly plausible," but his depraved life seems to stem from his materialistic view. On the other hand, Helen's quaint faith in "the ghost in the machine" can't protect her from being repeatedly shocked and manipulated.

Falling into his lecturing mode as he shows Helen around his impressive computer lab, Messenger says, "That's the problem of consciousness in a nutshell: How to give an objective, third-person account of a subjective, first-person phenomenon." Without missing a beat, Helen replies, "Oh, but novelists have been doing that for the last two hundred years."

With no use for fiction (except the lies he tells his wife), Messenger has run up against an apparently inscrutable mystery: "We never know for certain what another person is really thinking." Craftily, Lodge constructs this novel in a series of private voices that tempt us to think we do know for certain what these people are thinking - and they're usually thinking about committing adultery. At one point, poor Helen is overwhelmed by the ubiquity of betrayal among her acquaintances, a discovery that only weakens her own resolve.

When a health crisis interrupts Messenger's antics, several lives are thrown off balance in a way that calls into question the rules of faith and fiction.

In "Thinks...," the self, the spirit, the soul - whatever they are - elude the lens of the doctor, the algorithms of the programmer, the imagination of the novelist, and even the touch of a lover. It may not be possible to capture the ghost in the machine, but Lodge has spotted footprints in the dust, and it's chilling.

Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor. Send e-mail comments to charlesr@csmonitor.com.

***

'So everything's a machine?'

'Everything that processes information, yes.'

'I think that's a horrifying idea.'

He shrugs, and smiles. 'You're a machine that's been programmed by culture not to recognize that it's a machine.'

There's something horribly plausible about Ralph's argument.

- From 'Thinks...'

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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