A Review of Ben, in the World
Born in Persia and raised in Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), Doris Lessing made her literary debut in 1950 with a novel about interracial tensions in Africa entitled The Grass Is Singing. Since then, Lessing has delivered more than 30 major works of fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and drama, most notably her massive experimental novel, The Golden Notebook, published in 1962. A common theme threading through her oeuvre, as Lessing herself noted in her 1994 autobiography, Walking in the Shade, is a rejection of "the human condition," which means to "be trapped by circumstances."
Nowhere did she probe the dark contradictions of the human condition more deeply than in The Fifth Child, a short novel about Ben Lovatt, a Neanderthal-like genetic throwback born to "normal" parents in modern-day England. Ben is marked as an outcast from the day of his birth because of his monstrous appearance. "He did not look like a baby at all. He had a heavy-shouldered hunched look, as if he were crouching there as he lay. His forehead sloped from his eyebrows to his crown." Then there is the matter of Ben's equally bestial behavior. He terrorizes siblings and kills family pets. He is automatically assumed to be a demon seed and a scourge to society. Although slight, the novel was a taut springboard for Lessing's most pressing concernsthe insurmountable differences between men and women, the bind between the individual and greater society, and how society both celebrates and castigates "the other."
In Ben, in the World, Lessing again takes up the narrative of Ben's life and unsentimentally depicts his education in the ways of the wider world. At 18 he has grown into a werewolf of sorts, hirsute and homeless, renounced by his family. He barks when happy, grunts when annoyed, and dines on small birds. Gainful employment, let alone romance, has proven a challenge. Ironically, Ben winds up with more caretakers as an adult, including Rita, a prostitute who thrills to his animal ways in bed. But although she means well, Rita is the first in a series of people who manipulate Ben for selfish purposes. Construction foremen rely on him for heavy lifting, then cheat him out of his wages; Rita's pimp gives him money and then uses him to smuggle dope to France; a fledgling filmmaker drags Ben into a movie about prehistoric creatures, then cruelly promises to reunite him with similar-looking people. By the novel's end, Ben predictably flees a group of frenzied scientists.
Lessing's genius here is to embody the otherness of Ben's point of view without condescending to him. In unadorned prose, she dramatizes Ben as he wrestles with his animal nature, his need to inflict harm as well as his desire to repress that impulse. In his travels, she writes, Ben "looked hard at faces for that surprised stare that might turn out to be dangerous."
Ben's humanity stands out in sharp relief. Like his caretakers, who congratulate themselves on shepherding him through the world, Ben gets lonely and hungry, and he misses his family. In the end, like them, he commits desperate acts because he feels the sorrow of consciousness, "the knowledge of his aloneness."
In The Fifth Child, Ben, like the monster of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, reflects the hubris of his creators; in this sequel he becomes, like Edgar Rice Burroughs's Tarzan, a "perpetual exile." And as with Burroughs's apeman, Ben's tragedy is that his caretakers are too busy exploiting him to realize they can learn from his predicament. Thanks to Lessing's deep understanding of Ben's world, however, it will be difficult for readers to make a similar oversight.
About the Author
Doris Lessing was born to British parents in Persia in 1919 and moved with her family to Southern Rhodesia when she was five years old. She went to England in 1949 and has lived there ever since. She is the author of more than 30 booksnovels, short stories, reportage, poems, and playsand is considered among the most important writers of the postwar era.
Read an Excerpt
Ben, In the World
'How old are you?'
This reply did not come at once because Ben was afraid of what he knew was going to happen now, which was that the young man behind the glass protecting him from the public set down his biro on the form he was filling in, and then, with a look on his face that Ben knew only too well, inspected his client. He was allowing himself amusement that was impatient, but it was not quite derision. He was seeing a short, stout, or at least heavily built man he was wearing a jacket too big for him who must be at least forty. And that face! It was a broad face, with strongly delineated features, a mouth stretched in a grin what did he think was so bloody funny? a broad nose with flaring nostrils, eyes that were greenish, with sandy lashes, under bristly sandy brows. He had a short neat pointed beard that didn't fit with the face. His hair was yellow and seemed like his grin to shock and annoy, long, and falling forward in a slope, and in stifflocks on either side, as if trying to caricature a fashionable cut. To cap it all, he was using a posh voice; was he taking the mickey? The clerk was going in for this minute inspection because he was discommoded by Ben to the point of feeling angry. He sounded peevish when he said, 'You can't be eighteen. Come on, what's your real age?'
Ben was silent. He was on the alert, every little bit of him, knowing there was danger. He wished he had not come to this place, which could close its walls around him. He was listening to the noises from outside, for reassurance from his normality. Some pigeons were conversing in a plane tree on the pavement, and he was with them, thinking how they sat gripping twigs with pink claws that he could feel tightening around his own finger; they were contented, with the sun on their backs. Inside here, were sounds that he could not understand until he had isolated each one. Meanwhile the young man in front of him was waiting, his hand holding the biro and fiddling it between his fingers. A telephone rang just beside him. On either side of him were several young men and women with that glass in front of them. Some used instruments that clicked and chattered, some stared at screens where words appeared and went. Each of these noisy machines Ben knew was probably hostile to him. Now he moved slightly to one side, to get rid of the reflections on the glass that were bothering him, and preventing him from properly seeing this person who was angry with him.
'Yes. I am eighteen,' he said.
He knew he was. When he had gone to find his mother, three winters ago he did not stay because his hated brother Paul had come in she had written in large words on a piece of card:
Your name is Ben Lovatt.
Your mother's name is Harriet Lovatt.
Your father's name is David Lovatt.
You have four brothers and sisters, Luke, Helen, Jane, and Paul. They are older than you.
You are fifteen years old.
On the other side of the card had been:
You were born ..............
Your home address is ............
This card had afflicted Ben with such a despair of rage that he took it from his mother, and ran out of the house. He scribbled over the name Paul, first. Then, the other siblings. Then, the card falling to the floor and picked up showing the reverse side, he scribbled with his black biro over all the words there, leaving only a wild mess of lines.
That number, fifteen, kept coming up in questions that were always so he felt being put to him. 'How old are you?' Knowing it was so important, he remembered it, and when the year turned around at Christmas, which no one could miss, he added a year. Now I am sixteen. Now I am seventeen. Now, because a third winter has gone, I am eighteen.
'OK, then, when were you born?'
With every day since he had scribbled with that angry black pen all over the back of the card he had understood better what a mistake he had made. And he had destroyed the whole card, in a culminating fit of rage, because now it was useless. He knew his name. He knew 'Harriet' and 'David' and did not care about his brothers and sisters who wished he was dead.
He did not remember when he was born.
Listening, as he did, to every sound, he heard how the noises in that office were suddenly louder, because in a line of people waiting outside one of the glass panels, a woman had begun shouting at the clerk who was interviewing her, and because of this anger released into the air, all the lines began moving and shuffling, and other people were muttering, and then said aloud, like a barking, short angry words like Bastards, Shits and these were words that Ben knew very well, and he was afraid of them. He felt the cold of fear moving down from the back of his neck to his spine.
The man behind him was impatient, and said, 'I haven't got all day if you have.'
'When were you born? What date?'
'I don't know,' said Ben.
And now the clerk put an end to it, postponing the problem, with, 'Go and find your birth certificate. Go to the Records Office. That'll settle it. You don't know your last employer. You don't have an address. You don't know your date of birth.'
With these words his eyes left Ben's face, and he nodded at the man behind to come forward, displacing Ben, who went straight out of that office, feeling as if all the hairs of his body, the hairs on his head, were standing straight up, he was so trapped and afraid. Outside was a pavement, with people, a little street, full of cars, and under the plane tree where the pigeons were moving about, cooing and complacent, a bench. He sat on it at the other end from a young woman who gave him a glance, but then another, frowned, and went off, looking back at him with that look on her face which Ben knew and expected. She was not afraid of him, but thought that she might be soon. Her body was all haste and apprehension, like one escaping. She went into a shop, glancing back... Ben, In the World. Copyright © by Doris Lessing. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.