Brain Teasers - in David Lodge's Twelfth Novel, British Academics Dip into Hot Tubs and Streams of Consciousness

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Linda Simon is professor of English at Skidmore College. The author of Genuine Reality: A Life of William James (Harcourt Brace, 1998), Of Virtue Rare (1982), Thornton Wilder: His World (1979), and The Biography of Alice B. Toklas (1977), she edited William James Remembered (1996) and Gertrude Stein Remembered (1994).

David Lodge, whose career as a novelist began in 1960 with the publication of The Picturegoers, earned his reputation for witty irreverence and sly satire with Changing Places: A Tale of Two Campuses (1975) and its sequel, Small World (1984), novels that are at once send-ups of academic pretensions and serious explorations of American and British culture. Critics have called Lodge an exhilarating and exuberant writer, and he demonstrates those talents in his latest work, Thinks.... But for all his humor and playfulness, Lodge is never vacuous. If his characters are sometimes wistful, bumbling, ineffectual, or irritating, they also are articulate and reflective. They confront important questions about religious faith, literature, and knowledge; good lives and good deaths; mortality and morality.

Although Lodge has been a full-time writer since 1987, he spent much of his career in academia on both sides of the Atlantic. In 1964, he studied American literature at Brown University and then spent the summer in San Francisco; in 1969, at the height of campus unrest, he served as a visiting associate professor at the University of California at Berkeley. Those experiences afforded him a perspective on American college life that made its way into two of his most popular novels. In Changing Places: A Tale of Two Campuses, Morris Zapp, professor of literature at the State University of Euphoria (aka Berkeley), exchanges positions with his counterpart, Philip Swallow, at the University of Rummidge in the British Midlands. The two colleges could not be more different: political and feminist rebellions are rocking Euphoria State, while Vietnam, Prague, and women's liberation make little impact on dreary Rummidge. The two men are contrasts as well: Zapp, who aspires to write the definitive book on Jane Austen, is an extrovert, pouncing on every opportunity for self-advancement; Swallow is quiet, cautious, and reticent. What they share are failing marriages and stalled careers--and a desire to change their lives when they change landscapes.

Transformations occur in unexpected ways: Zapp reassesses the meaning of his life and gradually succumbs to the "creeping English disease of being nice," while Swallow manages to lose so many inhibitions that he sleeps with Zapp's grown daughter, goes to a strip club, has an affair with Zapp's present wife, and ends up arrested and jailed when he is caught in a student protest. More than a reflection on academic types, however, Changing Places considers differences in styles of political engagement, social responsibility, and moral values in American and British culture.

In Small World: An Academic Romance, we encounter Zapp and Swallow ten years later: Swallow is the head of his English department; Zapp, divorced from his wife, has given up both womanizing and his Jane Austen project. Converted to post-structuralism, Zapp no longer believes in "the possibility of interpretation" or fixed meanings of language. Both men are part of the roaming population of academics who travel around the world from conference to conference in search of more than intellectual stimulation: romantic trysts, perhaps, a bit of tourism, and certainly fame. In the case of Lodge's cadre of academics, the coveted grail (Arthurian legend informs the plot, along with allusions to Chaucer, T.S. Eliot, and Keats) comes in the form of the UNESCO Chair of Literature, with its tax-free stipend of $100,000, requiring the holder to do nothing more than think.

Small World satirizes the pretensions of the conference circuit and critical stances such as deconstruction and post-structuralism, which Lodge sees as essentially dehumanizing. …