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.
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Shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1985, Doris Lessing’s satire pits radical ideology against a bourgeois upbringing, and explores the contradictions and self-deception at the heart of political idealism
Whether you’re new to the book or have read it and would like to explore it more deeply, here is our comprehensive guide.
In 1980s London, a loose-knit group of political vagabonds form an ill-defined and volatile underground. Drifting from one cause to the next, they occupy abandoned houses, demonstrate and picket, devise strategies to fit situations that may or may not arise. But, within this world, one small group of men and women – whose deepest conviction seems to rest in a sense of their own largely untested radicalism – is moving inexorably toward active terrorism.
Alice is a 36-year-old graduate, with a degree in politics and economics. Entitled and jobless, she considers herself a ‘revolutionary’, fighting against ‘facist imperialism’, despite being born to upper-middle-class parents in an affluent area of London. Alice is an organiser who ensures the smooth running of the commune she lives in, acting as its mother. Through this, she feels a sense of belonging.
Jasper and Alice met in a commune in their early twenties. Ever since, Jasper has been Alice’s love interest and the two appear, on the surface, to be in a relationship together. Yet Jasper is secretly gay and treats Alice with nothing but contempt. Alice shrugs off this side of Jasper as simply ‘his emotional life’. Despite Jasper’s mistreatment of Alice, she mothers him and he continues to follow in her wake, mainly to accrue financial handouts from her unwitting parents.
‘Using a spectrum of left-wing characters, she focuses on the kinds of personal instability that would be drawn to – and solaced by – a terrorist stance.
‘The main focus is on the pathology of ideological “purity” –on how a “good” person like Alice, who is instinctively kind whenever one of her blind spots is not in operation, can arrive at an almost bland acceptance of random violence. The implied political message – as idiosyncratic as the quirky feminism of the Canopus series – seems to be that we don’t really choose our political preferences; rather, they choose – and then control – us. The self-deluding Alice is not an easy character to spend time with, but her story is an extraordinary tour de force – a psychological portrait that’s realistic with a vengeance. Altogether, this is a book which is strong as a diagnostic study of political motivation – and stronger still as an uncannily authentic character-study.’
Patrick Langley, The Quietus:
‘The realist mode is therefore part of the novel’s satirical point. Lessing views her band of zealots and layabouts through the sober lens of the traditional English novel – itself a product of the bourgeois culture the group so murderously loathe – to emphasise an irony: that this radical community is just a reflection, however warped, of the traditional, middle-class family unit. Despite having once been an active member of the British Communist Party, Lessing portrays her characters as bumbling, self-involved amateurs who can barely boil eggs, let alone organise a revolution. A contemporary reviewer of the book chastised Lessing for failing to offer a clear opinion on “whether Alice and her friends are the salt of the earth or its scum”. But precisely her point is they’re neither. Or they’re both. They’re people, in other words.’
Jane Rogers, The Guardian:
‘There is nothing exotic about The Good Terrorist. It is a novel in unsparing close-up, featuring a cast of damaged and disaffected characters, living in squalor in a very real London. It is a witty and furious book, angry at human stupidity and destructiveness, both within the system and without. It shows us people who commit an evil act and it shows how that evil springs out of our own society. It connects us to it, while condemning it. It makes any kind of complacency impossible.’
Denis Donoghue, The New York Times:
‘In her novels and stories, Mrs Lessing is alert to the capacity of some people to live, for a moment, a decade or a lifetime, inside an idea; and live there with insistence enough to make the idea stand for the world. She knows, too, the cruelty practiced by people who live within an idea and deceive themselves into taking it for a conviction. In The Good Terrorist she gives Alice a small idea and forces her to live in it. The idea is simply to hate the middle classes.’
‘Lessing writes about the parts other novelists cannot reach… totally absorbing, subtly observed, complicated and stimulating.’
‘Hugely enjoyable. Lessing has a wit, indignation and a narrative agility which leave few left-wing sacred cows unscathed.’
‘Humorous, ironic and sharp… Lessing’s portrait of this confused band of comrades is masterly and meticulously truthful.’
The Good Terrorist was published in 1985, at a time when the political landscape in both the UK and abroad was turbulent. The IRA was an active threat and the Soviet Union was crumbling, while Margaret Thatcher led the UK government. Is it fair to call the book a product of the Thatcher era? Could The Good Terrorist have been written at another time?
While deeply political, much of The Good Terrorist is a character study, at the heart which is Alice Mellings. She is an organiser at the centre of the commune, and a person of many contradictions. Alice thinks of herself as a revolutionary and anti-capitalist, yet is still utterly reliant on handouts from her parents. What point is the author trying to make through Alice’s flaws? Is she simply human?
When Alice and Jasper first visit the squat, its inhabitants are living in squalor, without power or water. Alice soon tries to turn the squat into a home, cooking and cleaning for everyone there. While reading, did you see any irony her role in the house? Or did you simply see a character looking for purpose and a sense of belonging?
Alice’s parents feature heavily in the novel, though now divorced. Alice oscillates between loving and hating her mother, while swindling significant sums of money from her father. Do you see any significance in the relationship Alice has with her parents? What impact did her upbringing have on who she is now and the path she has chosen?
Writing in The Guardian in 2005, Jane Rogers said ‘The key to Alice’s character is her perverted relationship with her mother.’ She says the novel is ‘as unsparing and incisive about motherhood as it is about the extreme left’. Alice displays maternal behaviour towards several characters. In their final confrontation, Alice’s mother tells her ‘It turned out you spent your life exactly as I did. Cooking and nannying for other people. An all-purpose female drudge.’ To what extent did you read it as a book about motherhood and society’s expectations of women?
At one point in the novel, Alice takes a trip to her father’s home and throws a rock through the window. Discuss her actions and the intent behind them (page 130).
Much of The Good Terrorist explores where the personal becomes political. Does Lessing’s depiction of the political landscape succeed in showing how the micro becomes the macro - the lives of individuals converging, to become something much more powerful and dangerous?
When Doris Lessing was awarded the Nobel Prize in 2007, Swedish writer Per Wästberg, called The Good Terrorist ‘an in-depth account of the extreme left-wing squatting culture that sponges off female self-sacrifice’. In your reading of the novel, did you feel it was patriarchal? If so, how does this translate, in the now, nearly 40 years after it was published?
The group spend time attending marches and man picket lines. Does Lessing succeed in capturing the resentment towards the British middle class – the ‘bloody filthy accumulating middle-class creeps’, (page 193) – of the time? And why does it seem so difficult for the revolutionaries to bring about any significant changes through their campaigning? Contrast and compare with the reality during the 1980s.
Many reviewers and critics commented on Lessing’s choice of title and how it could be construed as an oxymoron. Discuss the intent here – is Alice a terrorist, who has goodness at heart? Or simply failing at being any sort of revolutionary?
The Good Terrorist has been called a satire, yet some disagreed with this idea. The academic Robert E. Kuehn stated that Lessing ‘has no sense of humour, and instead of lashing [the characters] with the satirist’s whip, she treats them with unremitting and belittling irony’. Discuss whether you think the book can be construed as satirical and if that was Lessing’s intention.
While focusing on difficult subject matter, the novel and plot have been called slow-moving, culminating in the violent end events. With this, does Lessing succeed in humanising terrorists, or those who resort to terrorism? Did you feel any compassion in the novel’s conclusion towards the group?
In his essay on the book for the Booker Prizes website, John Mullan writes: ‘It is true that the particular politics that [the novel] depicts are 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.’ Do you see any parallels between the events and the ideologies of the novel and any modern events or movements?
The Paris Review: Doris Lessing, The Art of Fiction No. 102
The Guardian: Review, Dark Times
NY Times: Alice, The Radical Homemaker
The New Yorker: On Doris Lessing and Not Saying Thank You