Helen Reed, a novelist, newly widowed, moves to the University of Gloucester for a semester to teach creative writing. There she meets Ralph Messenger, professor of cognitive science. Their relationship is set within a web of complex professional and family connections, most of which focus on variations of adultery. Everyone has a secret. Helen learns by reading the novel-in-progress of one of her students that the student had had an affair with her husband.

Ralph, awkwardly involved with a Czech grad student who is trying to blackmail him, is regularly unfaithful to his wife, who is in turn having an affair. Another scientist is addicted to on-line child pornography. Helen and Ralph eventually become lovers, until Ralph is found to have a lump on his liver (which later turns out not to be cancer) and then betrays Helen by reading her private journals. She then returns to London and he remains with his wife.


As in much of David Lodge’s work, the comic plot is used to explore philosophical questions, in this case about the nature of consciousness and the problem of knowing others’ minds. The title comes from the cartoonists’ strategy for revealing characters’ hidden thoughts: "all the time hovering over our conversation, like ’Thinks’ bubbles in a cartoon, [are] our respective speculations" (220). Lodge presents the impossibility of gaining direct access to the subjectivity of others, our efforts to do so nonetheless, and the perils of actually succeeding.

Ralph the (atheist) scientist and Helen the (Catholic) novelist approach the problem from opposite positions, but both use the same method to articulate their own thoughts: Helen keeps a detailed written journal on her computer and Ralph habitually records a stream of consciousness into his voice recognition program. Much of the novel consists of these texts, of the characters’ thoughts articulated and downloaded onto the page with comparative immediacy. Lodge plays with his role as novelist, the apparent access he gives us to the thoughts of Helen and Ralph undercut by reminders that this access is both mediated and fictional.

Lodge cleverly illuminates the relationship between the psychological and the somatic, the machine-like characteristics of the mind, and the affinities between, and limitations of, science’s and literary theory’s constructivist approaches to subjectivity. Perhaps most haunting, though, is the question of privacy. The secrets in this novel are largely ones that need to be kept. When Ralph reads Helen’s journal, gaining illicit access to her recorded consciousness, their relationship is irredeemably destroyed. When Ralph’s colleague’s collection of pornography is discovered (inevitably, because, as Ralph observes, "you can never completely remove data from a hard disk, short of destroying it" [296]), he is so ashamed that he commits suicide.

Consciousness, once articulated into language, or downloaded, is no longer private or unmediated, and so, Helen would argue, no longer quite fits the definition of consciousness. Thinking is made up, she says, either of "first-person phenomena forever inaccessible to the third-person discourse of science, or . . . regular patterns of neurological activity which only become problematic when we translate them into verbal language" (317).

Narrative, whether a novelist’s fiction or a researcher’s faithful record, is our nearest approximation to making other minds transparent. It is an effort at once imperfect, risky, and essential (especially in health care, as Ralph discovers in the investigation of his hepatic cyst).



Place Published

New York



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