Book of the Month: The Good Terrorist by Doris Lessing
In 1985, Doris Lessing was shortlisted for the Booker Prize for her compelling contemporary satire. Find out more about the novel here.
Its 1980s setting might seem dated, but Doris Lessing’s caustic satire – our Book of the Month for May – still reads as a bracing antidote to political righteousnes
When it was published in 1985, The Good Terrorist seemed, to many of Doris Lessing’s admirers, a surprising book for her to have written. She had only recently completed her Canopus in Argos series of five science-fiction novels, published between 1979 and 1983. These were intellectually capacious novels of ideas, set in imaginary worlds and spanning future centuries. Now, here was a work of social realism, focusing on a particular, closely observed part of London, fixed in the early 1980s. It was also a surprising turn politically. Lessing had long been thought of as a writer of the Left; in The Good Terrorist, a group of left-wing political radicals is the target of her caustic satire: was this a novel of political renunciation?
The book, the third of Lessing’s works to be shortlisted for the Booker Prize, opens with Alice and Jasper – middle-class, university-educated, would-be revolutionaries in their mid-30s – arriving at a large, abandoned house, somewhere in London. Earmarked for demolition, the house is already a squat, inhabited by an assortment of dropouts, but with plenty of room for anyone else who can put up with the primitive living conditions. The local council have tried to render it uninhabitable. The electricity has been cut off, the lavatories filled with cement. There is no hot water. It is squalid beyond belief (and Lessing certainly does not flinch from exact description of the primitive sanitary arrangements).
Alice, the book’s central character – you might say, its anti-heroine – has a head full of radical political slogans, just like her fellow squatters, and is equally forthright in denouncing all the habits of the ‘fascists’ who run British society. ‘I am a revolutionary,’ she solemnly tells anyone prepared to listen. She is dogmatic and naïve, but the novel requires us to understand her delusions. She is convinced that everything is rotten in 1980s Britain, that everything will be right after the collapse of this damned society. All unhappiness is the fault of the system. Faye, one of her housemates, is psychiatrically ill and attempts suicide. Of course, it is the because of capitalism. Alice is sure that, come the revolution, ‘there would be no more people like Faye … No more people damaged by life’.
Alice and her comrades have started up a new political party, the Communist Centre Union, which has a few tens of members. ‘These mass parties, they lose touch with the people.’ Jasper and one of the other squatters, Bert, go off to Ireland, to try to offer their revolutionary services to the IRA (always mentioned with a kind of reverence by the ‘comrades’). Inevitably, when they do manage a meeting with someone who might be connected to the IRA, he turns them away with cold condescension. Still, when they need a raison d’être, they always have Mrs Thatcher, in her sixth year in power when the novel was published. She is the convenient incarnation of all that they hate. She even makes a fleeting appearance in the novel, when Alice and her friends travel to a demonstration outside a new university, somewhere in provincial England, which she is visiting. Briefly, they glimpse her arriving, and are roused to ecstatic fury.
The Good Terrorist is compelling because we do not just watch Alice as she makes her unlikely home, we share her hopes and her plans. The novel’s achievement is to see almost everything through her eyes— John Mullan
However, in one important way Alice is different from the rest of them: she is a homemaker. She wants to transform the dilapidated house into a decent, even pleasant, place to live. She has a talent for getting things done and mended, and a hausfrau’s instinct for orderliness. As soon as she has taken up residence, she begins her work of domestic improvement. She persuades the young woman at the local council to let them get the squat licensed. She finds a hippy-ish local handyman, Philip, to unblock the lavatories and fix the electrical wiring. He moves into the house himself, and soon she has him at work mending the roof and installing a second-hand boiler.
Alice’s daily efforts to make the house habitable are described in curiously gripping detail. She is an urban Robinson Crusoe, picking out items from skips, scrounging and purloining whatever the house – which itself becomes a kind of character in the book – might need. She may take refuge in impossible political ideals, but she is canny in the ways of the world, and her fellow squatters come to depend on her shrewdness. As Bert’s partner Pat, the most worldly of them, says, she is ‘a wonder’ at human psychology. When she visits the offices of the Electricity Board to try to get their supply turned on, she knows at a glance which frosty functionary to avoid, and which weaker spirit might be wheedled round. It is Alice who is best at dealing with the police, deploying her bourgeois self-confidence to telling effect.
The Good Terrorist is compelling because we do not just watch Alice as she makes her unlikely home, we share her hopes and her plans. The novel’s achievement is to see almost everything through her eyes. The narrative shares her perceptions. Lessing’s creation of this character and our immersion in her thought processes is the novel’s triumph. Lessing may be mocking many of the left-wing pieties and self-delusions that she knew from her own youthful political activities, but she brings alive the contradictions of Alice’s consciousness. We even rely on some of her judgments: Alice is sharp-eyed about her comrades, even whilst she supposedly shares their political ideals. Our understanding of the shallowness of these soi disant revolutionaries comes largely through her unspoken insights.
She even half-knows the truth about Jasper, on whom she dotes, but who is selfish, unaffectionate, and probably quite stupid. Lessing makes us intrigued about the reasons for Alice’s devotion to him. She longs for him to impress others with his radical fervour and takes pride in his dependence on her. Yet she also knows that this dependence is born of inertia. Though she and he are a couple, theirs is a sexless relationship. She realises that he is gay (though she hardly has a word for it) and that he will sometimes disappear for a few days – ‘go on one of his things’, as she puts it to herself – in pursuit of sexual gratification. She has to try hard not to think about what he might have been up to ‘when he was like that’. Lessing catches perfectly Alice’s evasive prissiness when it comes to sexuality. Some aspects of the alternative lifestyle are not ones that she likes to contemplate. ‘People had to have all this sex, she knew that; they had to have it with surprising people and in sometimes surprising ways’.
Everyone comes to depend on Alice. She cooks for the dogma-spouting men whose revolutionary urges need sustaining with regular meals. She has an extraordinary soup, ‘her speciality, brought to perfection in years of communal living’, with which, like Jesus with the loaves and fishes, she can feed any number of fellow radicals. She is good at looking after people, and we begin to see the complexity of the novel’s provocative title. She has turned her back on the life that her parents wanted for her (and that they did their best to make possible), yet she is still the homely girl that her upbringing made her. ‘At home Alice was a good girl, a good daughter, as she had always enjoyed being’.
Next door to me at that particular time … was a house stuffed full of squatters and revolutionaries. So I saw them quite a lot. But what was really interesting about this was they never stopped talking about money— Doris Lessing
Through Alice’s head run an odd and entirely believable mixture of emotions. She despises her mother’s supposedly bourgeois values, whilst lapsing into pleasurable memories of fresh coffee in her spacious kitchen. She hates ‘bloody filthy accumulating middle-class creeps’, yet keeps returning in her head to consoling memories of her impeccably middle-class childhood. She is appalled when she finds that, out of financial necessity, her mother has sold the family home and moved into a small flat in a much less appealing part of town. For this was her original and true home. Having seen it sold off, ‘her heart whimpered and hurt her’.
Alice, the home-maker, is imitating as well as renouncing her mother, Dorothy. Just occasionally, she can even hear herself sounding like her mother. The set-piece encounters between her and Dorothy are the only places in the book where Alice has to hear (or rather, has to try very hard not to hear) the truth about her own life choices. Dorothy, wearily lucid, at once tolerant and scornful of her daughter, is another great creation. It slowly becomes clear that she is not the reactionary that Alice would like to paint her, but a former idealist, once left-wing herself, who has grown utterly impatient with political self-righteousness. Sometimes, she feels like a spokeswoman for the author.
When I interviewed Doris Lessing in 2007, she recalled how one particular aspect of the novel was based on her own observations.
‘Next door to me at that particular time, just down, across the road was a house stuffed full of squatters and revolutionaries. So I saw them quite a lot. But what was really interesting about this was they never stopped talking about money. They might be revolutionaries, but money, this is what they talked about. How to get the next payment from somewhere. So that was really hilarious.’
Scorning bourgeois society, the main characters in Lessing’s novel are indeed money-obsessed. The insufficiently radical Philip, who has not had the benefit of higher education, does attempt to get paid work, but Alice’s other housemates scorn the very thought of getting jobs. They all collect their social security and hope for other kinds of opportunist gain. Alice steals from her parents; Jasper steals from Alice.
Meanwhile, upstairs, a new resident, a cold-eyed girl called Jocelin, is ‘studying handbooks on how to be a good terrorist’ (the one time in the novel that the title phrase is actually used). It becomes clear that she is teaching herself how to make a bomb, and that the outcome of her self-tuition will also be disastrous climax of the narrative. We are to see where absolute conviction can lead. True to her invention, Lessing shows Alice flinching from violence, yet still imperturbably explaining it away.
In her later comments on the novel, Doris Lessing talked of it belonging to its specific time. It is true that the particular politics that it depicts is distant from us now. Equally, the London of abandoned houses and alternative communities that it describes belongs to ancient history. But every age has its new forms of political righteousness and Lessing’s is still a bracing antidote to these. It is not a renunciation of all Lessing’s former political ideals, but a matchless depiction of the psychology of idealism, and the ways in which it can topple into intolerance and self-deception.
John Mullan is Lord Northcliffe Professor of Modern English Literature at University College London; he was a judge of the Booker Prize in 2009