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1590 words

The youngish one

6 March 2013

Richard Johnstone reviews Doris Lessing’s The Good Terrorist


Doris Lessing at the Cologne Literature Festival in 2006. Elke Wetzig

Doris Lessing at the Cologne Literature Festival in 2006. Elke Wetzig

The Good Terrorist
By Doris Lessing | Fourth Estate | $17.99

IT IS tempting, if a bit frivolous, to wonder whether Doris Lessing, winner of the 2007 Nobel Prize for Literature, watched the occasional episode of The Young Ones during the early 1980s, and whether the experience influenced her at all in the writing of her 1985 novel The Good Terrorist. The timing, at least, is right. The BBC broadcast the first episode of The Young Ones in 1982. The series ran for three years and, more than anything else on television, it brought the newer, alternative, post-Python comedy to a mainstream audience. The Young Ones was in-yer-face before the expression in-yer-face came to be applied routinely as an adjective; it was violent and shocking and completely over-the-top, and very funny.

Andy McSmith, in his sharp-eyed chronicle of the 1980s in Britain, No Such Thing as Society (2010), points to the way in which the characters in The Young Ones behaved “like a dysfunctional family.” There was “a father figure whose plans for self-betterment never worked, a put-upon housewife and two uncontrollable egocentric teenagers,” but this “family” was in fact made up of four students from “Scumbag College,” trapped together in a shared house. “The mother figure,” notes McSmith, “was a depressed hippie named Neil… forever preparing meals of lentil stew.” The Young Ones took Monty Python-like outbursts of furious irrationality and made them the dominant theme. Moments of connection or affection between characters were occasionally and briefly glimpsed, only to be ruthlessly squashed, often literally, by collapsing walls or exploding objects or other self-inflicted disasters.

What strikes a viewer now is the sheer, unfocused anger of it all. Whether it is in the flamboyant tantrums of the self-styled anarchist-cum-revolutionary Rick (Rick Mayall), who manages to be anarchic but never revolutionary, or in the brilliantly portrayed passive aggression of Neil (Nigel Planer), these embodiments of rage are all contained within the framework of a parodic family, a framework its members resent but cannot bear to break away from, not least because they have nowhere else to go. It is all very eighties. The traditional family seemed, to many people, to have outlasted its natural span, but it wasn’t at all clear what, if anything, was going to replace it.

Lessing’s The Good Terrorist, which is being reissued, along with others of Lessing’s works, by Fourth Estate, also focuses on a shared house and on a dysfunctional, cobbled-together family, whose members span the full range from ineffectual revolutionary to passive-aggressive housemother and who are, to a man and a woman, very, very angry. The housemother is Alice, her name redolent of childhood and innocence, of Alice in Wonderland, alice bands, and “they’re changing guard at Buckingham Palace/ Christopher Robin went down with Alice.” Alice lives in a wonderland of her own making, in which she combines an almost supernatural perceptiveness about some things with a wilful obtuseness about others. “You just don’t understand,” says Alice’s mother with weary exasperation, as she tries for the hundredth time to force some admission from her daughter of the leading part Alice has played in the downward spiral of her mother’s life.

Alice, we are told in the first few pages, is “full of the energy of hate,” though we never quite discover the cause of this hatred, other than a childhood and a family life gone wrong. She is thirty-six, a forensically precise choice of age on Lessing’s part. She is young enough (just) to be seen as youthful, depending on who is looking and on how Alice is feeling on the day, but older by far than the housemates among whom she lives; “nearly all were under thirty.” She is surviving on borrowed credibility; it won’t be long before the childlike Alice is too old for the part she is playing. Among the more youthful housemates is Jasper, Alice’s partner in a kind of revolutionary mariage blanc. (Alice is not interested in sex, and anyway Jasper prefers men.) Like Alice, Jasper is angry. In one resonant episode, Alice imagines him at the scene of a picket, “as she had seen him so often, his pale face distorted with a look of abstracted and dedicated hate.”

It’s a hate directed at the general “shittiness” of everything, an expression of the need to sweep away all the filth. Shit, indeed, is almost a character in the novel, appearing in several set pieces that remain, even in these unshockable times, difficult to read with complete equanimity. When Alice first enters the house, planning to move with Jasper in to one of the spare rooms, she discovers that the council has blocked the cisterns with cement, and that the top floor is being used by the existing occupants as a toilet.  The smell is overpowering. Alice, almost single-handedly, carries the buckets of waste down the stairs and buries the contents in the garden, before organising for the plumbing and other services to be restored. When you’re plotting the overthrow of the existing order (Britain “is ready for the bulldozers of history”), Alice reasons, it is best not to draw too much attention to yourselves.

In exploring the origins of terrorism and the impulse to tear everything down, to sweep away this “shitty life,” Lessing suggests the ways in which these young and youngish comrades are trying to recreate something that has, in its earlier incarnations, deeply disappointed them: to create a more effective, more successful version of family life than the ones they experienced as children. Lessing is not so unsubtle as to trace the actions of all terrorists and revolutionaries back to an unhappy childhood, but she does show how the urge to destroy is as much, if not more, about trying to recapture a lost ideal as it is about creating a new one. And so Alice gradually turns the filthy squat into a family home, to the point where it becomes an iteration of its former self, from a time when a real family lived there. Not only does she bury the shit in the garden, she cleans the floors, dresses the windows (with curtains stolen from her mother), and places flowers artistically in the kitchen.

Like Neil in The Young Ones, Alice also cooks endless soups and stews for the household. The comrades go along with Alice’s domestic efforts and even help out from time to time. They appreciate the hot water and the flushing toilets. But all this comfort and domesticity has its downside; it is a seductive lure, one that could deflect them away from revolutionary action. “This business of having a nice clean house and a roof over our heads is beginning to define us,” worries one cadre. Meanwhile, Alice chats with a neighbour over the fence, in a conscious approximation of suburban normality. Lessing acutely conveys an Alice who is acting and not acting; she is impersonating a suburban housewife, without being able to acknowledge how close her own idea of her ideal self is to the part she is playing.

“I think it’s quite a funny book,” Lessing volunteers, seemingly as an afterthought, in an interview with the Paris Review conducted in 1988. The interviewer’s reaction is recorded in the transcript. “Really?” he says, the question mark suggesting that “funny” may not, for him, have been the first word that sprang to mind. Yet the novel is, in a way, a comedy of manners, in which the characters self-consciously play parts, act out the revolution, make up stories about themselves, and put on voices. Alice, almost uniquely among her comrades, usually speaks with her own voice; it is “basic BBC correct, flavourless.” But even Alice sometimes adopts her “meeting voice,” which she has learned is “necessary to hold her own.” Meanwhile, the unbalanced Faye, the only one of the group who has actually read anything very much (she’s “particularly well up on Althusser”) speaks with a bewildering variety of voices. “What accent was that?” Alice asks herself at one point, as Faye gets into her histrionic stride.

Roberta, Faye’s lover, also uses a made-up voice, this one “modelled on Coronation Street, probably.” The dim-witted Bert, who leads Jasper into several humiliating encounters as they try to offer their services to the IRA and then to the Soviet Union, has adopted a working-class accent, but Alice is not fooled. “Alice could hear in it at some moments the posh tones of some public school.” Slowly but surely these apparently harmless revolutionaries, busily playing vocal dress-ups and being angry, find themselves travelling down the road towards irrevocable action, with Alice, half-perceptive and half-blind, trailing along behind them.

Since The Good Terrorist was first published, the IRA has come to the table and the Soviet Union has long collapsed, and the word terrorism is now more closely associated with other kinds of anger than that expressed by Alice and her friends. Yet despite these geopolitical shifts and the passing of the decades, it remains one of the essential guides to the meaning and motivations of modern terrorism, a study in the potentially explosive mixture of anger, frustration and human frailty. •

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