Friday, November 25, 2011

There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.

Some kind of flower. Royal Botanical Gardens, Hobart. October 2011.

The efficiency of the Tasmanian library system delivered a little experiment this week, with two Doris Lessing novels arriving back to back for me to pick up. Interestingly, the one I read first was her first (from 1950), while the second was one of her last (from 2001). This afforded me the opportunity to compare and contrast the artist at the very beginning of her career against one in her older years.

The Grass Is Singing was her first novel, and takes place in South Africa and Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) during the 1940s in a period of a very particular racial politics between the minority white population against the majority blacks in the then British Colony. The process of decolonisation just around the corner, but the tensions inherent in such a process is omnipresent in the narrative.

Yet The Grass Is Singing is more than a (pre-) Post-Colonial novel. It is also the bleak analysis of failed marriage, the neurotic sexuality of Africa’s European population, the role of white women in a black country and the barely concealed fear of the latent black power that underwrote the white colonial experience of the ‘dark continent’. In this sense, the decline of a farm and a marriage is something of a metaphor for the entire white presence in Africa.

One can imagine the impact this book – from a female author no less – had upon release! I won’t go into it in any more depth, but I suspect that you know how it ends. This is an extremely well constructed psychological study of incredible force. The fact that it was Lessing’s debut makes it all the more remarkable.

Highly recommended.

The above review makes a nice segue into the following. You might recall that I gave a middling review to Lessing's "contemporary gothic horror" The Fifth Child. Ben in the World is the sequel that follows the titular ‘horror child’ into adulthood. This novel was written when Lessing was 82. I thought that it might be interesting to contrast the debut against the (well) seasoned novelist.

...Wrong move.

Roy Jones Junior. Robert De Niro. Evander Holyfield. Ricky Ponting. Muhammad Ali. It’s hard when the greats lose their powers for all the world to see.

I really wanted to like this novel, only the premise is flawed, the plot is almost non-existent and meandering and the whole novel degenerates into a barely believable sub-par Days of Our Lives conclusion. Moreover, the book is filled with empty caricatures. There’s far too much telling and not enough showing, and ultimately the whole thing is really unworthy of the term ‘literature’. That it comes out of the mind of an obviously great artist like Lessing makes the whole thing more tragic.

Seriously, there is not one but TWO "hookers with a heart of gold", multiple “evil scientists” and a crude caricature of a central character that renders the exploration of alienation as something that is as superficial as it is laughably simplistic. It is also incredibly poorly written. Really, the quality of prose on offer here is not even near ‘third-rate’.

Like Roy Jones Junior et al, you get angry that those around Lessing would let her diminish her reputation by publishing this book.

Please do yourself and Doris a favour and steer well clear of this one.


Tom said...

i feel the same about all of Chrichton's later books. Not that he's a great literary talent, but in his early career he could spin a good yarn

Kris said...

I guess if the money keeps coming in...