The University of Gloucester, whose campus boasts wide open spaces and even an artificial lake but whose buildings look rather drab and unspectacular in the harsh February weather, caters for all sorts of tastes and needs. Apart from the English Department, she is particularly intrigued by the department specialising in Cognitive Science, and by its head, 50 year-old Ralph Messenger, to whom she is introduced at some social function very soon during her stay. From the moment she sets eyes on him, Helen feels curiously attracted by Messenger, but she soon learns about his reputation as a womaniser. Helen has not had sex since her husband's death, and, due to her Catholic upbringing, which she has been unable and, to a lesser degree, also unwilling to cast off completely, she tries to thrust aside any thoughts concerning an illicit affair or a one-night stand with Messenger, who is married with four children. In due course, she also meets his wife Carrie, an American coming from a rich background, and their children — Emily, her 17 year-old daughter by her first marriage; Simon and Mark, two teenage boys; and 8 year-old Hope, a girl. The Messengers live in a beautiful house near the University but they also have a country retreat in the Cotswolds (quite close to Gloucester) called 'Horseshoes', where they have a large redwood hot tub in their back garden. Before long Helen is invited to join them for a Sunday in the country, and she gladly accepts to avoid another dreary and empty weekend.
Right from the start, Ralph Messenger's philandering is painfully obvious to Helen. At one of the first social gatherings she attends, she happens to see Messenger and the wife of the Head of the School of English, Marianne Richmond, kissing passionately in the kitchen. (At that point of time she does not know that there is not more to it than meets the eye, that they are just playing some sort of secret game.) One weekend quite early during her stay, after they have been in the hot water outside and with Carrie already in the house, Messenger plants a firm kiss on Helen's lips. From the secret journal he is keeping, we know that Messenger fancies her. Helen does not actually resist the kiss, but afterwards she tells him unmistakably that she is not going to have an affair with him because, among other things, she strongly disapproves of adultery. From Helen's own journal, however, we learn that she is sexually aroused by his presence and by just thinking of him. Messenger, who does not know anything about Helen's real feelings, thinks that he has made his pass at her prematurely and, by doing so, has spoiled any future liaison with her.
Meanwhile, Helen tries to focus on her work. The students she has to teach are a small, friendly and ambitious group who meet on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons. Her class is to a large extent about their work in progress, mainly novels which they started during the preceding term. When Sandra Pickering, one of the students, belatedly submits some chapters from the novel she is writing, Helen immediately recognizes one of the male characters as having been modelled on her late husband Martin. As Helen herself has based a character in her novel The Eye of the Storm on Martin, she is about to accuse Sandra Pickering of plagiarism when, to her dismay, she finds out that the girl used to work for the BBC some years ago, that she knew Martin, and that she actually had an affair with him. (Sandra knows, and writes about, intimate details such as what he preferred doing immediately after sex.) Gradually it dawns upon Helen that her husband must have had a whole succession of young lovers, with everyone except herself knowing everything, or at least suspecting a lot, about it, while she herself, only mildly promiscuous during her student days, was never unfaithful to him. At this point Helen decides to never again shed a tear for him and get on with her own life instead. In this new light, not even Messenger's advances seem so monstrous any more.
She makes another discovery which almost turns her view of the world upside down. On a free afternoon, she escapes the stifling atmosphere of the campus to explore the surrounding countryside. Seated over lunch in a pub in the small town of Ledbury, she witnesses — a silly coincidence? — an intimate kiss between Carrie Messenger and Nicholas Beck, "silver-haired Professor of Fine Art", who is said to be a celibate gay — a rumour which he does not do anything about because it serves as the perfect cover-up for his affair with Carrie Messenger, whom officially he only helps select fine antiques for the Messengers' two houses. An embarrassing encounter at the pub follows, with all three of them keeping up appearances and being polite and reserved. Later, however, during a duck race (a fund-raising event with plastic ducks "racing" down a small river), Carrie confides in Helen: She knows all (or almost everything) about her husband's flings and, by taking a lover herself, tries to get back at him. Ralph Messenger, she is quite sure, does not know anything about her affair. Also, Carrie tells her that she screwed around a lot while she was studying at UC Berkeley, but only with faculty, never with other students.
As spring finally comes and the end of term is rapidly approaching, some more unforeseen events happen, all of which involve Ralph Messenger in one way or another ("Troubles never come singly"):
A final breach of confidence committed by Ralph Messenger makes it much easier for Helen to leave him and go back to London. Also, for the first time, it inadvertently triggers some emotion in Messenger, albeit a negative one: jealousy. When he is waiting for Helen in her maisonette, he cannot resist the temptation to turn on her laptop and read parts of her journal. This is how he learns about his own wife's infidelity. When Helen enters her apartment, his jealousy gets the better of him so that he cannot hide the fact that he has invaded her privacy. (Originally, he suggested that they should exchange their respective journals, as each of them would profit from reading the other's, but Helen categorically refused.)
Ralph Messenger does have to be operated on after all, but the surgery is successful. However, he somewhat ages and, in the process, loses his reputation as a woman-chaser. In 1999, he publishes a new book entitled Machine Living and in due course is awarded a CBE. He never confronts Carrie with her affair and remains married to her. Helen Reed returns to London and resumes writing. Some time later she meets a new partner, but she does not move in with him (or he with her). In the following year she publishes Crying is a Puzzler, a novel about life on campus quite similar to that of the University of Gloucester.
Similar to, for example, Julian Barnes' England, England (1998), Thinks ... is a highly philosophical text full of food for thought. The intellectual discussion in the novel centres around the question of consciousness. The detailed views of consciousness that Ralph Messenger puts forth, while some are controversial, will be familiar to the contemporary cognitive scientist. On becoming acquainted with Messenger, Helen Reed, who holds the traditional — and seemingly almost old-fashioned — views that consciousness is the business of the humanities, in particular of the novel and of literary criticism; and that there is and should be a clear-cut Cartesian dualism between mind and body, this Helen Reed is confronted by the new (or even not-so-new) trend of considering the mind a mere function of the body. Characteristically, Helen's residual knowledge of, and belief in, Roman Catholicism prevents her from taking a real plunge into Messenger's world of values, where science is the universal problem-solver and where religion and also politics are considered as a curse to humankind. It obviously depends completely whose side you are on whether you consider attempts by renowned scientists at constructing robots as a complete waste of time or as paving the way for a better future society. Morality, especially conventional morals, have no place in this new view of the world and have long been discarded; sex has been reconsidered as having mainly recreational value. (At one point Messenger mentions the new principle: T.F.T. — Tit for Tat.) Charles Darwin is still believed to be the trigger of this trend that, advocates of this theory hope, will revolutionise future societies.
As far as David Lodge's narrative is concerned, quite a number of elements prevalent in his earlier novels can again be identified: Helen's Catholic upbringing, with her parents still believers in the Catholic faith (reminiscent of The British Museum Is Falling Down and How Far Can You Go?); the campus novel, with a lot of intellectual discussion and a lot of sex going on (in particular Changing Places); pastiche (the narrative technique itself and, in particular, the essays written by Helen Reed's students on "What Is It Like to Be a Bat?"). He also reintroduces one character from an earlier novel: Robyn Penrose appears in Nice Work (1988) as Dr Robyn Penrose, temporary Lecturer in English. Now she is Professor Robyn Penrose, Head of Communications and Cultural Studies at Walsall University, and gives a lecture on "Interrogating the Subject".
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