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This review will contain spoilers, although there’s not really much to be spoiled by way of plot.

 

Those of us who prefer non-fiction to fiction often think of literature as an exercise in circumlocution. Why reveal truths through the murky medium of story-telling when the exactitude of non-fiction can be so much more fitting? And yet, a picture can tell a thousand words and fiction can paint the prettiest picture of all. In light of that, is it fiction or non-fiction that is mere circumlocution?

 

It is with that thought that I wish to review Doris Lessing’s book the Cleft for which she received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2007. I find her most interesting because the Nobel Prize is rarely awarded to writers of speculative fiction (what most people refer to as ‘science fiction + fantasy’, but which is slightly broader than that). In fact, none of the great foundational authors of science fiction or fantasy have received a Nobel Prize that I know of, including James Joyce – whom one might consider to write ‘literature’ in its classic sense. I think I may even recall hearing that she is the only SF writer to have received the prize. So, as a big fan of both literary and trash SF, I thought it would be particularly interesting to read her work.

 

The Cleft, to describe it briefly, looks back at the beginnings of humanity with the provocative thought – what if it was women (and not men) who were the original stock of mankind? It tells the lost story of mankind’s origins from the point of view of an Ancient Roman historian piecing together fragments of oral history he has discovered. It begins with the Cleft, a society of women who procreate without the help of men, producing only female babies. These females lounge about the beach around their cave (the Cleft). Their existence is peaceful, without change or rhythm. Each women has her allotted place in society – with each having no name but each cave has its own Fisher, its own Weaver etc etc. They don’t leave their beach or cave and explore, because they feel no need to. And then, suddenly male babies begin to be born into that society and they are cast out on the Killing Rock for the elements to kill them. By the intervention of some Eagles, the babies are saved to form a separate male colony (the Squirts). The crux of the story is the meeting of these two separate societies. The peaceful, languid society of the Cleft is torn into disarray and conflict with the emergence of the Squirts. And that, is where the blurb ends.

 

Whilst that doesn’t sound too odd for a science fiction novel (I seem to recall an Arthur C Clarke with a similar premise) what is unique is Lessing’s choice of writing style. Instead of a straightforward narrator-style novel, with characters speaking and interacting the book takes the form of a mythical tale told by a historian. Thus, the historian relates the story of the meeting of the Clefts and the Monsters (the males), with only two characters ever being named. Lessing consciously attempts to eschew either plot or character development to further this illusion. Characters are barely introduced (for the proto-humans have no concept of identity, as yet) and only two characters are ever named.

 

What is the point of literature? I think to even to attempt to answer this question is to make a fundamental mistake. Is it to tell a fascinating story, to provoke interesting thoughts, to evoke our strongest emotions? In truth, it is all of these things for each work of literature does it in different ways. Unfortunately, the Cleft does none of these things. In my opinion, as a work of literature or as a work of speculative fiction this book falls utterly flat.

 

An excellent work of fiction might draw us in with its nuanced characters. Like the lawyer’s eloquent argument, the opening characters’ personalities are each described in turn; the author sets them up like carefully placed dominoes and then as the plot unfolds we watch them fall in an unexpected or expected manner. Of course, the Cleft cannot do that as it has neither a strong plot nor strong characters. An excellent work of fiction might instead evoke strong emotions to make us feel as the characters felt, to feel the world beneath our metaphorical feet. But by describing her world through a historian’s eyes, Lessing robs us of that ability. We do not see the Cleft’s fear of the unknown through their eyes, but we are told that the historian has inferred it from their actions or from his manuscript.

 

So, therefore, Lessing must rely upon provoking the reader to philosophise with new and intriguing ideas or possibilities. We are invited to ask, “what would a uni-gender society look like?”. When we are told, we are lead to rejoin – “but what if males were introduced to that society?”. And in abandoning the standard tools of a novelist – a plot and characters, Lessing must rely solely upon the tools afforded to her by speculative fiction. As a fan of speculative fiction writing, I must say that she fails spectacularly.

 

If one of the purposes of literature is to reveal the truth about the human condition, then that truth must be unveiled through the believability of the story. This is not necessarily realism – for example, the Lord of the Rings and the Narnia series are equally unrealistic but both create believable worlds. And as we watch the plot unfurl and watch the characters develop, we learn several truths. In the Lord of the Rings as Frodo and Sam trek through Mordor we see the power of friendship. We see that it is only by their friendship contrasted against the base treachery of the orcs could they have prevailed. In the end, we see that Sauron failed because he expected his enemies to be as ruthless as him, as loving of force as him and he failed to guard against acts of selflessness like throwing away a Ring of Power.

 

In Narnia (which I have not read), the tale is one of Christian redemption. It asks us to presume that there exists an all-powerful entity (the Lion) and that he has revealed himself to Narnia in the past and asked them to trust in him. And, flowing from that initial presumption, we overlook what would otherwise be grossly stupid acts by the heroes because within the confines of this hypothetical world, it makes sense to have faith that a giant lion will always save the day. Through this work of fiction, C S Lewis describes the boundaries of what is and is not possible in a world created by a loving God and by allegory describes the boundaries of what he sees our world as being.

 

If literature is a mirror to the human soul, the lens of that mirror is the believability of the story. By deliberately avoiding a strong plot or a strong characterisation, Lessing fails to create that necessary believability. The truths she purports to unveil become more like bald assertions. As the female’s society begins to unravel, we don’t see this as a logical consequence of the initial premise. If we had learned that there was a Cleft named A, who gradually became more protective of the male society then it would be inevitable that when the leaders of the Clefts decided to invade and kill the males that A and her followers would rebel and cause conflict within the Cleft society. Instead, we learn that A is mysteriously driven to the male society. And then, once there, she mysteriously has urges to procreate with every single male. We learn later that A is joined by other females who feel the same urges. There is no feeling of closeness between A and any of the males (whom she does not name) nor any feelings of protectiveness for this community she leads. If either had existed, the plot would become that much more believable.

 

Instead, I felt the entire book was Lessing asserting her prejudices against me.

 

The female’s society is a languid society where they laze on the beach. They don’t ever bother to explore. Why? Because.

Assertion: Females are stupid and unimaginative. They need us men to do the exploring for them.

 

Once the females meet men, they are driven to orgasmic orgies.

Assertion: Females need men, they exist only to please us and to procreate with us

 

The assertions are not all one-way. Whilst the men are depicted as more naturally violent (causing the first death) the females also reciprocate with violence. Thus, it is asserted that without men women would not be violent but that men introduce conflict into their lives. But please, could we at least have some nuance? I think the sheer over-simplicity of this book can be summarised through one simple example. The Cleft refers not only to the cave, but also to female genetalia. The Squirt’s name also refers to their genetalia. That is as subtle as Lessing gets in this book.

 

I think the entire book could have been redeemed by a few simple changes. If Lessing had reworked this as a mythical story a la Tolkein’s Silmarillion, the implausibilities would have been easier to ignore. Instead, by opting to tell the tale through the lens of a historian, Lessing forces us to ground ourselves in the modern world and it loses the magic that SF seeks so hard to preserve. And whilst such a redemption might absolve the literary aspects of the book, I’m afraid it fails to redeem the grossly outdated sexist elements.

 

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One Comment

  1. I agree 🙂


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