Books June 2001

New and Noteworthy

Elegant novels of ideas, sparkling summer reading, travels with Dame Agatha

Thinks ... by David Lodge
Viking, 352 pages, $24.95

Neuroscience, as Tom Wolfe pointed out in his essay "Sorry, But Your Soul Just Died," is at this moment "the strategic high ground" not only in the academic world but well beyond it. Recent discoveries about the human brain, which show its workings to bear an unnerving resemblance to those of an analog computer, have thrown age-old ideas about the nature of human identity into question. Who are we? Do we really have a self, a soul, free will?

David Lodge, the extraordinarily clever and accomplished author of comic masterpieces such as Changing Places, Small World, and Nice Work, has always been a deft anatomist of intellectual trends. He, like Wolfe, clearly takes seriously the philosophical challenges posed by neuroscience, and in this book he has concocted a smart, seductive novel of ideas. The setting is a university in the west of England. Helen Reed, the author of several exquisitely sensitive, feminine novels, holds old-fashioned notions about consciousness: as a teacher of writing and literature, she makes a specialty of Henry James, and as a lapsed Catholic, she holds a residual, rather vague faith in the immortal soul. Her opposite number, who bears the Jamesian name of Ralph Messenger, is a cutting-edge, media-savvy cognitive scientist, confident, unsentimental, and extremely male. The self, spirit, soul, as far as he is concerned, "are just ways of talking about certain kinds of brain activity." "You're a machine," he tells Helen, "that's been programmed ... not to recognize that it's a machine."

From the archives:

"Right, Here Goes" (April 1996)
A review of David Lodge's Therapy by Scott Stossel.

What starts out as an intellectual friendship between the recently widowed Helen and the long-married Messenger soon heats up. The cheerfully amoral Messenger suggests an affair; Helen, still mourning her husband and encumbered with scruples about sleeping with married men, demurs. She is shocked by Messenger's skeptical interpretation of moral behavior. The uneasy sexual equilibrium is shattered when Helen makes a series of discoveries that disturb her complacent views. Liberated from guilt, she throws herself into passion and self-gratification—perfectly illustrating, in the process, Messenger's model of human motivation. But events take a turn she had not anticipated, and she must readjust her ideas about love, marriage, and self-interest all over again.

Lodge is one of the most readable writers now at work. In Thinks... he shows himself to be at the top of his form: his smooth gift for narrative has never been more in evidence; neither has his easy way with the theoretical, or his mastery of (as he once wrote of the late Kingsley Amis) "that combination of surprise and logicality that is the heart of comedy."

—Brooke Allen

Empire Falls by Richard Russo
Knopf, 512 pages, $25.95

ichard Russo first made his reputation with a series of blue-collar novels that suggested a more antic and expansive Raymond Carver. But by the time he published Straight Man, in 1997, Russo was clearly interested in breaking new ground, and that foray into academic farce showed off his comic timing and sneaky construction to superb effect. Now comes Empire Falls, the author's most ambitious work to date. The title refers to a down-at-heel town in contemporary Maine whose pulp mills and shirt factory have long since fallen silent, leaving the population to eke out a living along the economic margins—in bars, doughnut shops, greasy spoons. Russo attends to both the mighty (the plutocratic Whiting clan) and the meek (everybody else). Yet the focus of this post-industrial panorama is Miles Roby, the manager of the Empire Grill, who seems to preside serenely over the collapse of his personal and professional lives. His wife has left him for the local fitness-club mogul, and his restaurant, leased unto eternity from the rapacious Francine Whiting, is on its last legs. Miles, however, is a pathologically nice guy. And Russo gets the maximum mileage out of his protagonist's passivity, making it a source of laughter and melancholic recognition: "One of the odd things about middle age, he concluded, was the strange decisions a man discovers he's made by not really making them, like allowing friends to drift away through simple neglect." It may be that the author, a master of sweet-and-sour narrative, has allowed Miles's good nature to grow a little too sugary. And at just over 500 pages the novel feels overstuffed. Still, we sense that the protagonist's lengthy fuse will lead, sooner or later, to an explosion—and when it finally comes, Russo's slow-burn strategies prove to be smart ones after all.

—James Marcus

Never Change by Elizabeth Berg
Pocket Books, 214 pages, $23.95

he pain of loss and longing suffuses this story of Myra Lipinski, childless and unmarried at fifty-one. "You know people like me," she begins. "I'm the one ... that everybody liked and no one wanted to be with." The only child of emotionally remote Polish immigrants, Myra has been a loner all her life. At fifteen she decided to become a nurse, so that she could "offer comfort, especially when that comfort was so sorely needed, so sure to be taken." As one of her patients later says, "There's nothing worse than having all this stuff you want to give away and then not being able to find anyone to take it."

Now Myra is a visiting nurse in Boston. She drives an expensive car, cooks comfort food, buys herself birthday presents "the price of which must exceed $150," and dotes on her dog. She accepts what she calls her destiny. Then her high school classmate Chip Reardon, "every girl's dream boy," "the handsome star athlete with a good head on his shoulders," comes under Myra's care. She had a crush on Chip in high school, "a full-time longing" that seems scarcely to have abated since. "Now I can have him," she thinks.

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