Literature and science battle for supremacy in this three-pronged academic satire from Lodge (Home Truths, 2000, etc.) that gets in many a good jab before running out of steam.
Ralph Messenger is king of the roost at the fictitious University of Gloucester—an artificial-feeling, remote grouping of modern buildings and insecure faculty clustered around a man-made lake—where he directs the Center for Cognitive Science. Lodge tells his story from three alternating directions: the first is through Messenger, dictating stream-of-consciousness diary entries and musings into a tape recorder; the second is comprised of selections from the journal of Helen Reed, a recently widowed, popular midlist novelist who’s come to teach a writing seminar; and the third is through omniscient narrator. From these triangulated points of view, we follow Messenger’s wandering, carnal eye as he reminisces about his sexual conquests (unbeknownst, he believes, to his wife), recalls his numerous media appearances, and focuses in on the vulnerable-seeming Reed. Coming as they do straight from the horse’s mouth, Messenger’s recordings are the most nakedly revealing parts.But while their style is considerably more restrained, Reed’s entries ultimately prove to be the more interesting. The embarrassment she feels at her growing attraction to the arrogant, priapic Messenger (compounded by her fast friendship with his wife) is exactingly detailed and more resonant in the end than Messenger’s satirical antics. Lodge’s fractured approach works both for and against him by allowing the reader the obvious advantage of observing a tumultuous, secretive relationship from multiple angles—but it also sets the stage for a deeper story that never quite materializes. Lodge gets good mileage out of a series of writing exercises Reed assigns to her students where they write in the style of a well-known British author; they’re mostly beside the point, but Lodge’s carbon-copy imitations of people like Salman Rushdie and Martin Amis are priceless nonetheless.
As engrossing as Lodge’s skillful structuring and bawdy badinage is, this time out he promises more than he ultimately delivers.