Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Doris Lessing's THE FIFTH CHILD

Reading less like a full novel than an actual, allegory-heavy sketch or precis for one, The Fifth Child may not have been the best choice for my first reading of speculative-fictioneer-in-disguise and Nobel laureate Doris Lessing.

The story of an old-fashioned couple living against the grain of their times (the swinging 60s and early 70s) by buying an enormous Victorian house and planning to have as many children as possible, The Fifth Child is told in an abstract third person omniscient narrative style in which the modern rule of "show, don't tell" is not so much broken as completely ignored. There are very few actual scenes and little dialogue; everything is skimmed through, summarized, at least until the birth of the titular child, the monstrous Ben.

Ben is a hard character to read for most of this very short novel, in that one is constantly trying to read between the lines and diagnose him. Is he somewhere along the autism spectrum? Is he genetically damaged somehow? Finally the narrative reveals that he's meant as some kind of genetic throwback, a chance freak with mostly Neanderthal or other early hominid traits, powerfully built, powerfully hungry, full of rage and incomprehension and inability to cope with the mid-century world of extreme suburban London and an out-of-step large family in their grand hotel of a house.

At any rate, his arrival upsets everything. Before he's even reached his terrible twos he's a puppy and kitty killer and David and Harriet's extended family, heretofore known to gather en masse and at length at the big house for holidays, start drifting away even before the nuclear family itself starts breaking down.

As it explores this theme of extreme alienation from one's offspring, The Fifth Child thus felt, after I had so recently subjected myself to, been awed by, and weirdly enjoyed The Flame Alphabet, a lesser companion volume to that book. I'm not sure if that means Ben Marcus is a better writer than Lessing, since I've only read one book from each writer, but if pressed, at this point I would have to rank Marcus much higher in my esteem.

As I said, this novel felt more like an abstract for a much longer one, and thus was somewhat unsatisfying. Dramatic events are robbed of their power by being presented after the fact and second hand; conversations are summarized rather than shared; even internal states are alluded to more than explored. Perhaps I was simply in the mood for more of a big sprawling social novel like most people would have written; perhaps this compactness is Lessing's genius and I am simply not equipped to appreciate it. I don't have the answer right now. I'm going to give her another chance. Suggestions on what to read to actually appreciate her are welcome; I've never been disappointed by a Nobel laureate before, you guys. It feels weird.


  1. The Golden Notebook. :-)

    1. Thank you, O Anonymous commenter! I'll take a look at that!


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