Of Woman Born
By Doris Lessing
HarperCollins. 260 pp. $25.95
Doris Lessing is a legend. The author of nearly 50 books, she has earned her reputation as a notable prose stylist and a writer whose work defies categorization. Several of her novels are numbered among the modern classics; she has reputedly been considered for the Nobel Prize in literature.
These facts only make The Cleft more mystifying. Because it is not merely a flawed novel or a failed novel. It is an actively bad novel.
The Cleft is a braided narrative, in which a Roman historian of Nero's time tells the story of an earlier, mythic period. Almost all narratives commence with a change; in this case, that inciting incident is the birth of a male baby into a species of parthenogenic, semi-aquatic women. The babe is presumed deformed and exposed upon a rock to die. But soon, more male infants follow (the males are referred to as "Squirts," the females "Clefts," for obvious reasons). After predictable phases of denial, anger, mutilation, murder and reconciliation, the human race as we know it is born.
This seems a promising setup for an exploration of the founding of society, even for a sly satire. I found myself comparing this novel to Kurt Vonnegut's superior Galapagos, to which it forms a sort of mirror-image, and hoping throughout that I was simply missing the point and that some justification would emerge "Rashomon"-like from the narrative's fragments. Instead, The Cleft delivered a moral message, an uncomplicated binary that reduces gender roles and relations to exactly the level of childishness implied by identifying most characters by the shape of their genitals.
Lessing appears to have drawn her background from Elaine Morgan's notorious pseudoscientific tome, The Descent of Woman (1972), which argues that human evolution was shaped by a seal-like return to the sea. Crackpot theories can make for great fiction, but in this case they have produced a novel as static and circular as the placid, bovine society that Lessing assigns to the Clefts. She portrays the denizens of her early matriarchy as Victorian caricatures: passive, incurious, interested in nothing except filling their wombs and maintaining the status quo -- except for occasional bouts of bloodlust. The males, on the other hand, are curious, inventive, exploratory, irresponsible.
Representatives of both sexes are equally thick, however. The exception is the Roman historian, a thoughtful older man married lovelessly to a younger woman. He could have been a finely drawn character, providing a needed counterpoint to the pseudo-history. But, alas, he too quickly descends to the level of parody.
Additionally, the historical sections of the book are told in an unconvincing manner. I suspect they were meant to have an air of fable, as of antique retold tales too misty to be recalled accurately. Instead, they seem thick and meandering, a kind of narrative oatmeal, and the societies constructed are so naive that they too lack energy. The women in their coastal caves expose the first male babies, mutilate the next few, expose a few more. Eventually, inexplicably, eagles begin to carry the male infants to a nearby valley, where an equally inexplicable friendly doe raises them.
For some reason, the females lose the ability to have babies without male assistance and begin making forays over the dividing mountain to get pregnant. There is a thematic and mystical cleft along the mountain pass, a volcanic vent of sorts, which seems intended to represent the female mysteries, the male attraction to and fear of them, and their eventual shattering as a result of random masculine violence. Unfortunately, since all of this occurs without emotional weight, it fails to provoke insight.
Critic John Clute has said, tongue-in-cheek, that novels have a "real year," which is to say that no matter when a book purports to be set, there are always clues to when it's really set. And this novel is so firmly crystallized in post-WWII social roles of the Valium-housewife-and-unavailable-working-stiff variety that it feels more native to 1954 than to 2007.
The last third or so focuses on two characters, one male and one female, who have inscrutably Celtic or Anglo-Saxon names -- Maronna and Horsa -- for this ostensibly Roman narrative. These two may in fact represent several persons, lines of descent wherein a series of leaders bear the same name. (This is another one of those places where something that should have been brilliant and a bit unnerving wound up feeling pointless.) These two, and their tribes, come into conflict over the sort of things that couples would fight over in a stereotypical 1950s sitcom: The woman thinks the man does not take care with the children, the man can't see what all the fuss is about. The men are shortsighted and careless; the women are able to predict disaster but curiously unable to do anything more useful than lie about on rocks and catch fish.
In the end, these two great leaders come to an epiphany that boils down to "we have nothing in common, but we need each other." Which was not the poignant insight into human nature that this reader, at least, was hoping for. ·
Elizabeth Bear is the author of "Carnival" and other novels.