Like our own middle-England John Updike, David Lodge has for three decades charted the aspirations and sexual conquests of the academic egos of this green and pleasant land as they come down from their ivory towers and settle on campus. His latest fling takes us to "the last frontier of scientific inquiry": the study of artificial intelligence and the problems of consciousness.
Abandoning the jet-set crew of the academic conference, Lodge lands us back on home turf at a "not-so-new greenfield university". But as in his earlier novels, he continues with another clever and vigorous dialogue of opposites: the campus is "an architectural allegory of the Two Cultures", with a gulf yet to be filled between the sciences and the humanities.
At glosu.ac.uk, Ralph Messenger is the big cheese of the Holt Belling Centre for Cognitive Science, a media don working on the trendy subject of consciousness, the "biggest game in town". In Private Eye , he is known as "Media Dong" for his extracurricular exploits; he has also fronted a television programme on the mind-body problem and been chided as the "master of the scientific sound-bite". Visiting for a semester and taking on the mantle of writer-in-residence is Helen Reed, a recently bereaved novelist who becomes the target of Ralph's attentions. Their two psychologies, conscious and unconscious, are deftly revealed through their tapes and diaries.
Ralph reveals himself to a state-of-the-art, voice-activated computer, while Helen writes a diary (the only writing she has done since her husband's death) and, in one chapter, a series of emails. Everything is covered: from whether computers will be be able to suffer hangovers to whether the soul is intangible and whether animals have consciousness. Along the way, we are treated to some clever versions of philosopher Thomas Nagel's famous essay, "What is it like to be a bat?", as written by (among others) "Irv*ne W*lsh", "S*m**l B*ck*tt" and one "S*lm*n R*shd**": "What kind of question is that, sir?... How I come to be hanging from the coat hook of a toilet in the first-class cabin of this Air India jumbo jet is a long story." It is all entertaining fun as Lodge plays with ideas of artificial life to suit his own comic ends.
Consciousness is a perfect peg for a novelist with a natural affinity with scientists who are trying to design computers that think like human beings. A science that lays claim to understanding the self -"the biggest white space on the map of human knowledge" -is bound to appeal to a parodist of literary theory, which for so long eschewed talking of the personal aesthetic response. But it is a pity that, having absorbed recent scientific work in artificial intelligence, Lodge makes little use of its impenetrable language. The jargon of AI is ripe for the picking, but it is AI's philosophical nature and its potential for paradox that appeals to Lodge.
In an interview at the Modern Language Association's annual meeting in 1998, Lodge defined the novelist as "basically anarchic in terms of organisations. His job is to look for contradictions and subvert professional mystiques and so on". His chief theory of comedy and bathos in the novel is that "we never know for certain what another person is really thinking. Even if they choose to tell us, we can never know whether they're telling the truth, or the whole truth". This is reflected in the prize-winning design of the dome of the Holt Belling Centre: it represents the twin hemispheres of the brain, all in mirrored glass, which "you can see out of but not into".
Sometimes the "ding-dong" arguments between Helen and Ralph feel like a docu-soap about intellectuals, yet Lodge understands how to play on our natural curiosity to know what another person is thinking without giving away our own thoughts. When Ralph proposes to swap his tapes for Helen's diaries -a sexual game with a potential scientific objective -her answer is a polite "no". So, ever the inquisitive and controlling scientist, Ralph steals a glance, but does not like what he reads and ignores the betrayal he stumbles upon.
At the end, consciousness remains a puzzle. Neither Ralph's boffins in the "Mind/ Body Shop", the scientists listed in the novel's acknowledgements nor Lodge offer satisfying answers. Ralph returns to his wife, Helen returns to London, and Lodge, one feels, returns to the drawing board.
Readers are likely to think they have been here before, which is all part of the enjoyable familiarity of a good Lodge. A randy and bullying don is out to notch up another hapless heroine who capitulates (on her own terms, of course), and events -a lump on Ralph's liver, a child-porn scandal and a conference -conspire in leading to an entertaining climax. Perhaps the Human Genome Project or the "evo-psychos" of evolutionary biology will provide material for Lodge's next sexual and psychological foray.
Helen Davies is editorial assistant, The THES .
Author - David Lodge
ISBN - 0 346 44502 6
Publisher - Secker and Warburg
Price - £16.99
Pages - 341