Consciousness and the Novel: Connected Essays by David Lodge. Harvard University Press, 320 pages, $24.95.
January 5, 2003        

“Consciousness,” explains the scientist-hero of David Lodge’s Thinks … (2001) to the novelist-heroine, “is the last frontier of scientific inquiry … the biggest white space on the map of human knowledge.” She is fascinated, as Lodge was when he first encountered cognitive science in the mid-1990s. The field was (and is) still new. Until fairly recently, all one could do with consciousness was philosophize about it or psychoanalyze it or represent it in a novel. Better than nothing, of course, but not science.

In the last few decades, however, Chomskian linguistics, neo-Darwinism, evolutionary psychology, brain mapping, advances in neurosurgery, and increased computing power have furnished cognitive scientists with a powerful toolkit. As Steven Pinker wrote in “How the Mind Works” (1997), consciousness has thereby gone from being a mystery – something uncanny, which we don’t expect ever to understand – to being a problem – something we can at least start asking answerable questions about. Questions like: Why might consciousness have evolved? What do our senses tell our brains? Is there a logic of intuition? Can machines behave as foolishly as human beings?

“Consciousness and the Novel” only glances at these questions. It is not a book of popular science but of literary criticism. Lodge has a different set of problems in mind: “how the novel represents consciousness; how this contrasts with the way other narrative media, like film, represent it; how the consciousness, and the unconscious, of a creative writer do their work.” Most other critics would make heavy weather of such topics, but Lodge (as readers of his fiction will readily believe) always scintillates.

How the novel represents consciousness has changed over the three centuries of its existence. Deftly and economically, Lodge describes the historical arc of fictional technique. In the 18th century, either the consciousness of the characters or that of the author was unambiguously dominant. Defoe’s novels, e.g., “Robinson Crusoe” and “Moll Flanders,” are first-person narratives, presented as (and entitled) “histories.” Richardson’s “Pamela” and “Clarissa” are also narrated by their characters, though in the form of letters. In both, the author is so entirely absent that many contemporary readers took them for actual documents. Fielding’s “Joseph Andrews” and “Tom Jones,” by contrast, don’t even pretend to get inside their characters’ minds. The only consciousness on display – a very lively and versatile one – is the omniscient narrator’s.

With Jane Austen something new appeared, at least among novelists writing in English. Lodge calls it “free indirect style”: the narrator speaks the characters’ thoughts, but without quoting them. The substance of the narrative is the consciousness of the characters; but the logistical and epistemological implausibilities of first-person narration and the psychological distance imposed by third-person narration are both avoided. “Emma” is a milestone in this respect. “The story is told almost entirely from [Emma’s] point of view … but during most of the action she is mistaken about the true state of affairs, so that, on first reading, the reader shares at least some of her misapprehensions, and the shock of discovery.” Intimacy and surprise, two of the chief pleasures of novel-reading, were now, for the first time, available together.

Henry James’s novels, especially the later ones, rely heavily on free indirect style. The narration is formally third-person, but the narrator’s consciousness figures not at all. There is even less authorial presence that in Jane Austen – hardly any, in fact – and the characters’ “misapprehensions” are even more fundamental and unsettling.

But consciousness in James’s novels lacked verisimilitude in one respect: it remained linear, consecutive, intact. James, observes Lodge, “would not surrender the coherence and control of the well-formed grammatical sentence.” James Joyce and, to some extent, Virginia Woolf did make that sacrifice. Perceptual bursts, emotional flickerings, linguistic echoes – mental fragments of every type – appear in their prose according to a new associative logic, less immediately intelligible but closer to the grain and tempo of our psychic life.

As both psychoanalysis and cognitive science have shown, consciousness is anything but linear. One of the foundational concepts of psychoanalysis is the unconscious. Analogously, one of the foundational concepts of computer science is parallel processing (in which programs are run simultaneously rather than serially). Emotionally and cognitively, humans are parallel processors. Novelists, Lodge shows, had guessed as much.

The accurate rendering of consciousness through formal innovations was the aim and achievement of modernism, not only in the novel but also in poetry and the visual arts. The next generation of novelists struck out in a different direction, formally speaking. They grew up with the movies, where Joycean verbal play and Woolfian psychological subtlety didn’t cut it. Action and dialogue – speed and surface – were what the new medium emphasized, and Lodge convincingly points out cinematic influences in the styles of Waugh, Hemingway, Henry Green, and others.

Notwithstanding the book’s subtitle, the rest of the essays in “Consciousness and the Novel” are only loosely connected. They do have two things in common: they are all about novelists (Dickens, James, Forster, Waugh, Amis, Updike, Roth, and Lodge), and they are all entertaining and insightful. “Henry James and the Movies” moves back and forth very tellingly between the novels and their recent film versions. None of the films quite measures up, but Lodge is not curmudgeonly about it. “Forster’s Flawed Masterpiece” makes a strong case for “Howards End” as his best work. “Lives in Letters,” on Kingsley Amis’s letters and Martin Amis’s memoir, is wry and affecting. Lodge on Updike on Bech is almost as amusing as Updike on Bech.

So prolific a novelist and academic critic as David Lodge must write literary journalism like this left-handed. Clearly, he’s ambidextrous.