Doris Lessing, Ben, in the World (Flamingo 2000)
I read quite a lot of Doris Lessing in my late twenties and early 30s. I guess I was reading what Wikipedia calls her Communist phase (the Martha Quest books), with maybe a bit of her psychological phase in The Golden Notebook (of which my main memory is a long passage where the main character mediates on the meaning of tears). I haven’t read any of her science fictional writing – until now.
Ben, in the World defies categorisation. As far as I can tell, it doesn’t even matter that it’s a sequel to another book (The Fifth Child, 1988). It starts from a ‘what if?’ premise: what if a genetic throwback to an earlier species of human was to arrive in our times? how would we cope with this person? and how would the person cope with us?
What Doris Lessing does with these questions is brilliant. Ben, the main character, is physically powerful and capable of inflicting great harm. He is eighteen years old, estranged from his family of origin, and has learned to control his violent impulses, but his weird appearance and different thought processes make him dreadfully vulnerable. When he can earn money he is cheated or robbed. His sexuality makes him simultaneously a subject of pity and terror, and I’m weirdly grateful to feminist Doris Lessing for giving him one woman who understands and doesn’t drive him away.
Ben makes a kind of life for himself thanks to the kindness of people on society’s fringes, people who can understand to some extent his profound difference. But there’s never any doubt that he’s heading for disaster. It’s a miracle of story-telling that when the inevitable happens it’s deeply satisfying, and preceded by an unexpected moment of exhilaration. What might sound from my synopsis like a cerebral exercise becomes a rich tangential celebration of what it is to be human.
And now, because it’s November:
Sonnet 2: After reading Doris Lessing’s
Ben, in the World
‘Just a little bit of finger
bone,’ he said, ‘ can tell the whole
of what a person’s been.’ Let’s linger
on that thought: it’s not the soul,
a spirit that outlives the body
it ignores. No, what that shoddy
view of science cannot own
is: no one can exist alone.
That finger bone stripped by the condors
touched when alive what cheeks, what lips,
or pointed, waggled at what quips,
or painted on a wall what wonders?
The finger’s owner wept what tears
and heard the music of what spheres?