Last Saturday Ursula Le Guin lambasted Doris Lessing's new novel The Cleft in the Guardian Review as 'a parable of slobbering walrus-women', and went on to conclude:
'I can't accept it. It is incomplete; it is deeply arbitrary; and I see in it little but a reworking of a tiresome science-fiction cliché - a hive of mindless females is awakened and elevated (to the low degree of which the female is capable) by the wondrous shock of masculinity. A tale of Sleeping Beauties - only they aren't even beautiful. They're a lot of slobbering walruses, till the Prince comes along.'
I couldn't agree more. The Cleft has been gently handled by the literary media thus far - no doubt Lessing's age and venerable back catalogue have had something to do with that - and quietly accepted as a pleasantly eccentric exercise in myth-making. Interviews and marketing pieces have chosen to focus on her earlier work, or on the work to come. The Cleft's tiresome narrative and its ridiculous and even hurtful take on gender relations have been politely ignored. A few pieces have gestured at the novel's 'controversial' approach to women and men but have made no real attempt to explicate the ways in which it is controversial. So let me be blatant: its controversial because it's reactive and ultra-conservative; because it peddles stereotypes as archetypes and because it takes a position so violently (and fashionably) anti-feminist that it must make any woman (and any man) boil.
We begin with a boneless framing narrative - a nameless Roman scholar, apparently living in the age of Nero, sits himself down to translate and analyse a number of written fragments which purport to recount the beginnings of human civilisation. He first opens, however, by observing a contemporary spat between lovers that 'seems to [him] to sum up a truth in the relations between men and women': his slave, Lalla berates her young lover for being careless with his oxon and, when he ignores her, launches into a tirade of hysterical nagging. They fight; he goes about his business; she cries helplessly; later they have sex. This domestic tiff inspires our Roman to finally write the disturbing 'history' of the foundation of human life - the microcosm of Lalla and her lover becomes the mythical macrocosm of the beginning of time. And the promised 'truth' about the relations between men and women? Women nag and nurture, men explore and discover; they have lots of procreational sex.
Human life began with the 'clefts', an exclusively female species of humanoid that crawled out the sea 'ages ago' (we are told that all this happened 'ages ago - no one knows when' at least twenty times in the course of the narrative) and propagated parthenogenically. That is: they spontaneously gave birth to girl-babies at intervals, exposing the deformed or sickly ones and raising the healthy ones to adulthood but in a disinterested, passive sort of way. Indeed, these females didn't do much at all really. They clung to the familiar shoreline, inhabiting a short stretch of rocky beach and a couple of caves; they ate fish and seaweed; they lolloped in and out of the sea; every now and then they sacrificed one of their number to 'The Cleft', the nearby rock formation that resembled their genitalia but without much explanation. They had no names, formed no interpersonal relationships and expected nothing from life but to eat, swim and sleep. Importantly, and as the Roman historian keeps reminding us with irritating frequency, they had no sense of urgency (because they had no sense of time) and they had no sense of adventure (because nothing changed or needed to be changed.)
Suddenly, however, this watery feminine 'idyll' (bah!) was shattered by the birth of a 'squirt' - a child with a penis. The first male. Initially, the clefts think the boy is a deformed girl and simply put him out to be eaten by eagles. But more 'squirts' arrive, and more, until they begin to feel a kind of despair, their first taste of panic. Next they try keeping a couple as experimental samples, castrating them in order to make them females. But this is soon abandoned - the male babies scream and demand in ways that female babies don't. Exposure becomes the norm again. Then? A miracle. The huge eagles that ate the first 'squirts' begin carrying the unwanted babies away, away from the shoreline and inland. Who knows why?
Somehow though one baby, two babies and then three survive into childhood (apparently by suckling from an unlikely doe) and, helped by their innate ingenuity, make it into early adulthood. Before long (again our Roman reiterates that it was 'ages ago') there is a whole colony of rescued males in the valley near the sea - they begin building huts, making tools, hunting and creating language. In other words they begin to 'develop'. 'Male', in Lessing's book, is synonymous with progress. Eventually, clefts also find their way into the valley (again, by some sort of divine providence and impulse), where they mate with the males, give birth to the first human children and set up house. They cook, clean and breast feed, while the men hunt and do manly things, like chase each other up and down the river, or make fire, or invent boats.
Up until to this point there are no characters as such and no one has a name; individualism is something the males introduce to the clefts not vice-a-versa. Apparently, personality comes naturally to them, while the females only gain theirs by association. Even when names - Maire, Astre, Maronna and Horsa - do begin to appear, however, one thing remains the same: men are catalysts, brave and adventurous, while women are passive and nurturing. If it weren't for the 'squirts' we'd all still be languishing, in the sun, on our favourite rock.
Hrumph! I say. What is all of this? Like Le Guin, I can't quite believe what I'm reading. Is this Lessing's Genesis? This parable in which anatomy is destiny and gender is binary? It is nothing more than a novelisation of the outdated concepts behind the Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus series. And message aside, where is the plot and the drama? Where is the narrative thrust or the character investment? The answer is: nowhere. The beginning of human life really was incremental and slow, I'm sure, but a myth-making novel about gradual behavioural change? Without even a description of the landscape? I don't know if it could ever have worked, but certainly it doesn't work with such a sad 'message' at its heart.
In the event that you are looking for a vigorous thematic approach to questions of gender in fiction, especially speculative fiction, I would start by looking here. The Tiptree Award Anthology 3, which I reviewed this week for Strange Horizons, is where discussion of gender is really at.
One other thing that inspired my literary wrath today:
- The comments to this post on the Guardian book blog, which begin in a light-hearted spirit but quickly devolve into name calling and ill-conceived statements like:
'Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and magic realism in general, is for the most part completely rubbish.'
'Read half of Great Expectations but found it incredibly irritating and boring so I've written off Dickens.'
or, my personal favourite...
What a big load of self-indulgent nonsense. You're unhappy, I get it. Now shut up about it!
Which to me suggests that either a) the commenter hasn't actually read Woolf, or b) they haven't really thought about what they have read, or c) they have allowed the stereotype of Woolf as suicidal waif to cloud their reading.
How is it that so many readers are willing to stand up and say, categorically, that a great, enduring writer is bad? Not just that they personally don't get along with the novel, play or poem in question, but that the novel, play or poem is a waste of time and effort. Or that the author's entire output is piss poor? Surely this is just ill-thoughtout, spur of the moment bravado? I hope so.