Friday, December 4, 2015

Ben, In the World by Doris Lessing

"He couldn't manage an aeroplane, he couldn't manage luggage, what's he going to do in a place where people don't speak English?"
"I've thought of everything, Reet."  And he detailed his plan.
The same day I brought Nobel Prize winner Doris Lessing's The Fifth Child back to one public library I borrowed the sequel from another, eager to see what happened to Ben, the monstrous child introduced in the 1988 novel.  Ben, In the World was published in 2000; I read the public library's first edition of the Harper Collins hardcover.

The tone of Ben, In the World is very different from that of The Fifth Child.  The 1988 novel was a kind of horror story, primarily confined to a single setting, full of claustrophobic menace--at any moment Ben might commit some atrocity, and even when he wasn't killing a pet or attacking a sibling, you could feel the fear and psychological damage suffered by his middle-class family's members as his mere presence ruined their happy lives and strained their formerly warm and loving relationships with each other.  Ben, in the World is a sort of sad sack Candide thing about the downtrodden and income inequality, stuff you can read in any newspaper or magazine any day of the week, in which Ben travels around Europe and Latin America associating with various criminals who take advantage of him and prostitutes who sympathize with and help him.  There is also a pretty conventional animal rights angle and one conventional but effective comic scene which I thought the highlight of the book.

In The Fifth Child the story, while its narration was a detached third person, was more or less told from the point of view of Ben's family.  Ben was a mysterious, menacing "other," a force (perhaps evil, perhaps just alien) which wrecked people's happy lives.  This sequel is told (again, albeit somewhat coldly and distantly) from the point of view of Ben and the poor people who love him.  In this telling Ben is a stranger in a strange land, a lost soul in an evil world; Ben is the victim, and the world the villain, unlike in the first volume, in which Ben was the menace who shook the world of his family, shattering everybody's peace of mind.  The Fifth Child was about a family and its harrowing story, Ben, In the World is about the world and how crummy (middle-class) people are, and is full of the bourgeoisie-exploiting-the-proletariat stuff and laments that it is money that makes the world go round that you might expect from a former member of the British Communist Party.

The start of the novel reminded me of horror and science fiction stories in which we see the world through the monster's eyes, briefly inhabit its alien values and desires. (I'm thinking of A. E. van Vogt's "Black Destroyer" and "Vault of the Beast" specifically, but it is a pretty common device.)  Ben stalks through London, in fear of everybody, driven by hunger so that he catches birds and eats them raw, animated by a hatred for his brother Paul, so that when he sees Paul in a park he has to restrain his manic lust to murder him.  But then the novel shifts its focus to other characters.  In The Fifth Child those who observed Ben, middle-class people, did so with fear; in Ben, in the World there are several lower-class characters, mostly women, who sympathize with and help Ben.

One such character is Rita, a seventeen-year-old prostitute.  She likes Ben because of the violent way he has sex with her, ripping away her clothes and entering her from behind before she can provide affirmative consent.  "This experience--a rape, that was what it amounted to--ought to be making her feel angry...but she had been thrilled by that double rape...the teeth in her neck...the grunt like a roar."  In The Fifth Child Ben was repeatedly compared by characters to a goblin, troll or gnome; in Ben, In the World he is again and again described by people as a "yeti."  When he is naked, women notice how unnaturally hairy his back and thighs are.  Less cryptozoologically, his behavior, his barks and roars, his fondness for raw meat, liken him to an animal.  When Rita describes her experiences with Ben she relates that " hadn't been like being with a man, more like an animal.  'You know, like dogs.'"

Ben is stupid and ignorant, and easy prey for manipulative characters who apparently represent the middle class.  When doing casual work, building contractors and Polish college students cheat Ben of his wages or just pick his pocket.  Rita's pimp, a former thief who gets in a bind when he invests in the stock market, becomes a millionaire by sending Ben to France on a risky mission as a drug mule.  The pimp even joins the aristocracy by purchasing a title!  (Lessing spends lots of time describing secondaty characters' backstories, mostly how they came from broken families living in poverty and took up petty crime or prostitution, and on how their lives proceed after their connection with Ben ends.  The book, as the title hints, is about "the world" as much as it is about Ben.)

The most entertaining part of the book is the tense and comic sequence covering Ben's trip to France with the massive shipment of hard drugs.  Ben is so childlike, so ignorant and stupid, he doesn't even know what he is doing, and almost queers the deal--other characters have to strive to keep him on course.

Once on the coast of France, Ben, who can barely communicate in English much less French, and who hates the bright seaside sun, is at a loss (Rita and her pimp didn't arrange for their patsy to return to England.)  Then an American film-maker spots him and decides to make Ben the star of a movie about a primitive race of jungle dwellers!  He takes Ben to Brazil, where Ben meets another seventeen-year-old prostitute, Teresa, a peasant whose family left their village because of some dustbowl thing and moved to the favelas of Rio.  Teresa is beautiful, and made money and met the movie guy turning tricks at a hotel.  Much to Ben's frustration Teresa won't have sex with him, but Teresa does take Ben under her protection.

And Ben does need protection!  An American mad scientist learns of Ben, the genetic throwback, and, like in E. T. and the recent tedious remake of E. T. with the interminable train crash scene, Ben is seized so experiments can be conducted on him but then rescued by Teresa and her new boyfriend, a guy from an abandoned village like hers.  It is easy to rescue Ben because the mad scientist doesn't put a guard on Ben.  Ben is in a cage, in a filthy room full of monkeys and cats and dogs who are being experimented on, a scene which reminds the reader of the "institution" from The Fifth Child.    

One of the more interesting aspects of the novel is its skepticism or even hostility to science; Lessing compares science to a religion, and portrays not only fanatics like the American scientist but a disillusioned worshipper in Teresa, who once held science and scientists in awe but then sees the way they treat animals and Ben in pursuit of their faith.

Another good thing Lessing does with Teresa is portray her relationship with her new boyfriend.  Not only is their love sort of touching, but the way Teresa's self-appointed role as guardian of Ben interferes and inhibits this new relationship is a subtle reminder of how Ben ruined the once happy relationship of his parents back in England.

Teresa and her love interest take Ben to the Andes, where there are rock paintings of people much like Ben.  I thought maybe Lessing was going to give Ben a happy ending and have him discover a lost tribe of people like himself.  (This kind of thing happened in Michael Bishop's Ancient of Days.)  Instead Ben throws himself off a cliff to his death.  Teresa and company decide this is for the best, and the book's final line is Teresa's teary confession: "...we are pleased that he is dead and we don't have to think about him."

Ben, In the World is well-written and has plenty of good scenes so I don't hesitate to recommend it, but it was not really what I was hoping for.  The Fifth Child was an atmospheric, mysterious, tense work about people that I could identify with who were in trouble; Ben, In the World is a brightly lit satire primarily concerned with banal hot button issues.

I'll definitely read more Lessing, probably Briefing for a Descent Into Hell or one of the Canopus in Argos books next.  We'll see what the area libraries have to offer.

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