HarperCollins: 260 pp., $25.95
ANY devoted reader carries in mind specific scenes or images or quotes from books -- not “book learning” consciously recalled, like the opening of the Gettysburg Address, but a clutch of privately meaningful word bombs that re-explode without warning. Among mine is a scene from Doris Lessing’s “The Good Terrorist.” Two female terrorists-in-training are cleaning the gutters of their London squat. One tosses a bird’s nest full of eggs to the sidewalk below, where the eggs splatter and the fetal birds are exposed to die. When her comrade protests, she turns to her in disgust: “They’re birds,” she says.
I wish I could forget this scene and its depressing implications, but it is too potent. There is little in “The Cleft,” Lessing’s 27th novel, that is likely to detonate in the reader decades later, but the same ruthless intelligence is at play. In an author’s note, Lessing explains that this book was sparked by a scientific article postulating that “the basic and primal human stock was probably female” and that males were “a kind of cosmic afterthought.” This raises more questions than it answers, but it works as a basis for a creation myth, for speculation about what might have happened when a female, impregnated by the wind or the waves, gave birth to the first boy.
These first females, the Clefts, named after their genitalia and a nearby rock formation, inhabit some caves along a small, pebbly strip of shoreline. Peaceful and nurturing (the Old Shes are fed by the younger, and female babies are “just born” without anyone doing anything to make them), they have few ambitions. They subsist chiefly on raw fish and maintain a simple mythology based not on ancestor worship but on the tending of the Cleft, which requires regular weeding and occasional human sacrifice: “We are The Cleft, The Cleft is us, and we have always made sure it is kept free of saplings that might grow into trees, free of bushes.”
Into this idyll comes a squalling male infant, with a horrible tube and lumps where its neat little cleft should be. The Clefts take it badly, and the narrator of the novel, a Roman senator from the first century trying to piece together this history from manuscript fragments, advises sensitive readers to skip to Page 29.
Unfortunately, the Monsters keep appearing, and after trying to keep them as pets, the Clefts resolve to leave each new male infant exposed on the Killing Rock, where they surrender deformed offspring to the eagles. But instead of eating the Monsters, the eagles carry them over the cliffs to the valley below, to the care of boys who had earlier managed to escape the slow-moving, fat-bound Clefts. In time, the two genders rediscover each other, begin to mate, then to coexist and finally to form the disharmonious union that is Lessing’s true subject.
Fiction about gender is fundamentally about stereotype and grievance. You might expect some kind of correction -- a breed of Amazons or earth mothers -- from the pen of a famous feminist, but Lessing, at 87, is not about to rewrite that fantasy. Her vision of the Clefts is anti-utopian. Cautious, conservative and lazy, they’d be at home on a beach resort, sleeping off sangrias. The advent of males has made them more peevish than the Old Shes, who take a large part of Cleft culture with them as they die off. The Monsters, renamed Squirts, erect huts, tame fire, hunt big game. The Clefts have more sophisticated language than the Squirts, but use it mostly to scold the males for being careless with the children. In return, the Squirts grumble that their gifts of fresh meat go unappreciated. They have trouble answering the Clefts’ question, “Don’t you care about us?”
Lessing may have identified the perennial discord between men and women, but she doesn’t offer resolution. Nor does the Roman senator, who inserts his own dismal marital history here and there in the narrative. The novel suggests that there can be no complete understanding between such different creatures, no union that lasts longer than a romp in a mud hut. Instead, over time, the Clefts and Squirts develop a shared refrain: “How few we are, how easily we die.” They will never live together in the harmony the Old Shes knew, but they can get on with the business of filling wombs. •