Thinks, the new paperback from bestselling author David Lodge, is an elegant, dazzling exploration of love, artificial intelligence and the intricacies of the human heart. Here, he talks exclusively to penguin.co.uk about consciousness, deception and the art of the novel.
You’ve written a dozen novels and you’ve taught the novel for forty years. You obviously feel that it is an important art form. Recently VS Naipaul, another distinguished novelist, has gone on record as saying that he thinks the novel is a very tired form and that non-fiction is more important. How do you feel about this?
The death of the novel has been much exaggerated and frequently announced and turns out not to be true. First of all there’s a kind of innate human need for narrative which seems to go very deep into human nature, and the novel is the form of narrative – literary narrative – that the modern world has evolved. In a purely sociological sense I don’t see any decline in interest in either reading or writing fiction, rather the contrary. The other media that tell stories like television or film are very dependent on novels and novelists for their material. I think it’s an inexhaustible art form.
Just at this moment we see an interest in using the techniques of the novel to write about real experience, so-called ‘life writing’, and that’s an interesting development. There’s perhaps a certain loss of confidence in fiction, but that kind of so-called ‘life writing’ still depends on the novel tradition and on that tradition being kept alive. After all, Mr Naipaul has just published another novel so he can’t be completely disillusioned in its possibilities.
Ralph Messenger, the central character in your new novel, Thinks, represents everything that’s hostile to religion and a cosy view of the world; he forwards a scientific, reductive view of human behaviour, but yet comes across as a likeable figure. Was this deliberate?
Some readers absolutely detest Ralph, women particularly, but I was very anxious not to put my thumb in the scales in this novel and to give the characters an equal crack of the whip. I find people tend to read the novel in terms of their own convictions, so people who hate artificial intelligence hate Ralph and people who like artificial intelligence quite like him. Researching the novel made me read a lot of evolutionary theory, which gave a materialist account of the universe and man’s part in it. I found this all pretty persuasive and it’s something that anyone who wants to maintain a religious, or even a humanist position, has to grapple with.
In Nice Work, you thanked various industrialists who helped you research the book. Did you call on the help of scientists in researching Thinks?
I do more research now than I used to. As you go on writing novels you use up your life experience and you have to go out and find material; or you get an idea which seems a good idea in principle but you don’t know anything about the background to it, so you have to go out and research it. Very often the process of research will actually throw up things you hadn’t anticipated. Nice Work was a good example; originally, I wanted to start with a businessman who’d been made redundant and the story would start there. But, I thought I’d better know what kind of work he did, so I got a friend to let me shadow him at work, and that experience was so fascinating that I decided to base the novel around it.
In the case of Thinks there was a bit more book research. I started by reading reviews about two books on consciousness. I’d never heard of either of them and realised there was a big field of interdisciplinary enquiry about the nature of consciousness which had suddenly developed in the nineties. I then made friends with the Professor of Computer Science at Birmingham and picked his brains and those of his colleagues. I went to seminars and gradually tried to soak up the language and the mental climate in which these people lived. It took quite a long time before I felt at all confident of being able to reproduce this milieu which was very, very foreign to me when I started. I imagine that I’ll always have to do this kind of preparation now. In the case of Thinks, I did feel that even if I never write this novel I’m learning an awful lot which I should have learned a long time ago. I had a very anti-science attitude as a student, partly because science was taught so badly at my school, so I was catching up a lot.
Thinks has a very good plot, it seems as if you concentrate more on plot than a lot of contemporary novelists …
The novels do have quite strong narrative lines. I am interested in narrative in storytelling, and that may be because of my critical interest in the novel. There’s always a delicate problem because the more complex your plot, the more you risk losing the reader’s belief. On the other hand, the slighter the plot, the more you risk losing the reader’s interest. What interests the reader is having the questions that the story raises answered and the more questions you can have the better. With Thinks, the more I worked on the book, the more I became interested in the theme of deception, therefore I needed lots of surprises in the plot. I needed the reader to share the characters’ sense of surprise when things they’d assumed turned out not to be true at all.