It probably takes a special kind of writer to produce as many campus novels as David Lodge has done over the years. A campus novel, come to think of it, is quite a non-ambitious institution. Of course there are always ways to infuse it with grave, heavy issues (see Coetzee’s Disgrace), but generally it seems more like a detour than a specialty. If you take writers of some eminence and recognition, you will notice that many have tried it, some succeeded, but few have displayed Lodge’s level of sheer commitment. Yet sticking to the well-trusted way of writing about what you know best, in Thinks… (published in 2001) David Lodge produced another work of intelligent, intellectual entertainment.
Considering the genre’s rules and limitations, you are in no position to complain about the fact that the plot looks more or less transparent several chapters into the novel. You have the University of Gloucester. You have Ralph Messenger, a promiscuous cognitive scientist. You have Helen Reed, a bereaved novelist (still grieving over the sudden death of her husband) who needs a distraction and thus comes to Gloucester to teach a course in creative writing. You certainly know the rest. Still, Lodge has clearly mastered the conservative restraints of campus ways to an extent where he can make even the clichéd and all-too-familiar struggle between sciences and arts work. His dialogues are witty and smart, and there’s enough practical cynicism in the novel’s characters to steer clear of cheap romance traps and give the whole thing this very necessary modern edge.
According to Dryden, the two main goals of literature are to instruct and delight. Lodge has a go at both. The former goal is achieved through the numerous (and sometimes quite overbearing) arguments about consciousness, and the latter through the rather intricate, sexed-up plot. This plot may lack the freshness and immediacy of, say, Lucky Jim, and may sometimes look like it came from an academic novel workshop, but it is still gripping enough – mainly due to the ever-present problem of choice as well as this constant moral ambiguity that seems to never leave Lodge’s characters alone.
There’s always something deeply satisfying about a menu having the same dish you enjoyed last time. And Thinks… is certainly that kind of dish. And even if David Lodge does spice it up with a great deal of satire, sex and stream of consciousness, you still feel drawn to the novel’s last paragraph. In which we learn that Helen Reed came to write a new book called Crying Is A Puzzler. ‘So old-fashioned in form (wrote one reviewer) as to be almost experimental’. I would rephrase it for Thinks…: the book is so experimental in form (for a campus novel, that is) as to be almost old-fashioned. It’s a good book. Its only sin is that it doesn’t try to be anything more.