Monday, July 27, 2009


Yesterday I took a break from Rogues' Gallery, Michael Gross's mildly muckraking book about the Metropolitan Museum*, and read Briefing for a Descent into Hell by Doris Lessing. Inhaled it, I should say, all 300-some pages in a single sitting. This is an extraordinary book. Packed with provocative ideas and at the same time compulsively un-put-downable, which is a rare combination. It's hard to know how to boil it down in a way that makes any sense ... Is it science fiction? Is it a denunciation of the deficiencies of the mental-health-care system? An exploration of madness and modern society, the madness of modern society? All of the above? As always, I refer you to the experts for scholarly analysis. From me you get awe. The unscholarly report that this novel blew me away.

Lessing terms it "inner-space fiction." It's set mostly in the mind of a middle-aged college professor who has landed in a psychiatric hospital in the midst of a full-blown breakdown featuring total amnesia about himself and his life. We go with him on a mind-blowing journey -- from a shipwreck, to a seemingly interminable "round and around and around and around" helpless swirl on the high seas aboard a flimsy raft, to the ruins of an ancient coastal city populated by warring cannibalistic dog-people and monkeys, to rides on the back of a mysterious huge bird, to inside a brilliant shining shimmering disk of universal consciousness, to the vastness of space and a solar perspective, to the Hell of the title (which Hell is of course contemporary Britain, contemporary being 1969, for this is one of Lessing's earliest novels), to World War II Yugoslavia in the woods with the Red partisans, and back, finally, to the mental hospital, a course of shock treatments and a return to "normalcy." Which arrives as the tragic quashing of all hope and potential.

Potential, especially squandered potential, the individual's and the human race's, is the ultimate theme of this deeply affecting novel. We humans are so stunted, so cut off from all that we could be, we have so misused and distorted the possibilities inherent in existence on the Earth, that we are effectively a lesser species than the one we ought to have evolved to be. The species that we still could, still might become, for yes a tiny glimmer of hope peeks through here and there. On page 262, the main character concludes from his time in the woods with the Yugoslav partisans that
any human being anywhere will blossom into a hundred unexpected talents and capacities simply by being given the opportunity to use them.
Lessing is always an interesting writer. I adored The Golden Notebook when I read it at age 18, finding it a stirring feminist story, though I'd probably react quite differently to it now, especially its anti-Soviet aspects. I loved The Fifth Child and its many-years-later sequel Ben in the World, both of which are disturbing tales about an, mmm, odd boy. Her politics I find unfortunate, hewing to what is for her generation the typical former-communist-now-liberal-anti-communist line, but at least she, a white born and raised in South Africa, did begin her fiction career writing against apartheid, so props to her for that. In any case, as I've professed on several occasions, I don't require political perfection in fiction as long as it doesn't offend me.

Lessing has made several forays into science fiction, of which Briefing was I guess a precursor. Now I'm interested in reading more of those books, starting, perhaps, with The Four Gated City. Especially since the loathsome Harold Bloom had this to say in reference especially to Lessing's sci-fi books when she won the Nobel Prize in 2007: "This is pure political correctness." Ah Harold, Harold, your vile surly there-is-no-literature-except-that-written-by-dead-white-men snarls are always a sure signpost toward what I should be reading.

Briefing for a Descent into Hell reminded me a little of a novel I read years ago and often recommend to friends: The Kin of Ata Are Waiting for You by Dorothy Bryant. It is the story of a bad man, a violent, self-involved, sexist man, who is in a terrible car accident and wakes up in a strange, different world, a gentle, caring, communal society whose mores are informed in large part by its inhabitants' collective dreams. Alice Walker has reportedly called this "one of my favorite books in all the world." Bryant's book ends on a more optimistic note than Lessing's, with the protagonist retaining the lessons of his inner-space adventure. I found Lessing's, though, albeit in the final analysis more pessimistic, more interesting as literature.

*Not that you asked, but no I'm not loving Rogues' Gallery. The writing is less than scintillating. It's of the "he bought this, then he bought that, then he donated this, then he refused to donate that, then he stole this, then he was sued, then he gave it back" variety. Here's a sample sentence, about J.P. Morgan from page 95:
But in 1911, he did send several paintings, including a Rubens, from his London home to the museum and gave it the loan of a van der Weyden Annunciation, a Cellini bronze, and a Vivarini panel and also gave as gifts six tapestries depicting the life of the Lord; portraits of Queen Elizabeth I and of a British admiral and his wife; an Assyrian sword, two knives, and a lance; a prehistoric flint knife and a funeral dagger; more paintings by Carolus-Duran, Memling, Terborch, David, and Holbein, among others; another Rubens, this time a panel; a coffer, a cross, and an ivory plaque; antiquities from the Roman emperor Hadrian's villa; a Limoges clasp and various pieces of gold.
See why I had to take a break and read a novel? I'll keep slogging through because I'm interested in the information in Gross's book, but a slog it is, I'm sorry to report.