In the Disintegrating City

The Memoirs of a Survivor

by Doris Lessing
Knopf, 213 pp., $6.95

The Grass Is Singing

by Doris Lessing
Crowell, 288 pp., $7.95

Doris Lessing
Doris Lessing; drawing by David Levine

Since her first novel, brought over in manuscript from South Africa and running into six editions, Doris Lessing has written prolifically in a variety of manners, though not always better than in that first African story, Wit, grace, conciseness have never been her strong points; but she has shown a remarkable alertness to current and about-to-be-current concerns, and incorporated them into her books: a communist and then an ex-communist, a feminist before it was obligatory to be one, a radical Laingian in her view of psychological health and ill-health, and at present in favor with the “counterculture” because of her interest in mystical and extrasensory states of consciousness.

In all these concerns she has been shrewd, compassionate, and essentially consistent; she has explicitly wanted to mirror the times she has lived through and she has done so—though all this, of course, is not identical with art or the writing of good novels. Leaden dialogue, faceless characters, and the grinding of worthy ideological axes have all occasionally marred the slacker novels that followed the first. The short stories have necessarily kept more shape and vitality: she wrote one about a dog in Africa that was cool, beautiful, and (like the dog) free of any ulterior concerns. Skilled, conscientious, her writing can sometimes give illumination, and when that fails she describes that illumination, and tells us what a good thing it is. Perhaps some of our novelists will be seen to be victims of their chosen form, as Victorian artists of the academic painting? One slice of life is enough; a plateful too much.

The phantasmagorical, science-fiction element that has crept into Doris Lessing’s recent work is therefore, I think, a gain for her. The very flatfootedness of her style becomes an asset in embodying a strange or exotic theme; she is at her best when her narrative realism is used in the service of an imaginative vision. The themes in this new novel are not quite so bold or complex as those of Briefing for a Descent into Hell: the idea of breakdown, both of mechanized Western culture and of adult, mechanical personality, is familiar and very close to us.

The Memoirs of a Survivor extends two parallel metaphors for these, drawing them closer and closer as the book accelerates toward its end. On the one hand is the world of outside, of society, the City metaphor: a decaying and threatened city some time in the near future, public services cut off, air poisoned, looted buildings standing empty. Normality continues its crazy, straight-faced ritual of government announcements, newspapers, appearances maintained; meanwhile people grow a few potatoes here and there on vacant lots, stew weeds for soup; firewood is scavenged for heating and cooking; anachronistic electrical gadgets traded in for a bowl or a broom. Only the young people, impatient of their elders, take the situation for granted and cope with it, some…

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