Arts & Life


For nearly 60 years, Doris Lessing has been writing some of the most daring and important fiction in English. And as she approaches her 88th birthday, Alan Cheuse says she's still producing fascinating work. In her new novel, "The Cleft," Lessing ponders the origins of human life and her own anatomy.

ALAN CHEUSE: "The Cleft" means what you think it does and more. Here, Lessing presents us with a radical retelling of the story of the evolution of the human race. In her version, the Eves rather than the Adams are the founders with the males following after. Lessing's narrator is an aging Roman senator and historian. He is working with a large packet of ancient scrolls and fragments of scrolls, loose and disordered scraps of paper, old scripts that were, as he puts it, the first receptacles of the transfer of the mouth to ear mode of the first histories.

Using this material, the historian takes us back to a wave-washed island Eden replete with caves and a horde of sea lion-plump females. These women have descended, who knows how many millennia before the story opens, from creatures that came up out of the sea. They call themselves the clefts, a tribe that, as far back as their memory would have it, gives birth to females only. Impregnated, as they understand it, by a fertilizing wind or a wave that carried fertility in its substance.

We can't know, our narrator assures us, just how much time passes before something even more extraordinary occurs. The clefts start giving birth now and then to male offspring, or as they call them, because of their protruding genitalia, defective monsters or squirts.

Lessing, as bold as any writer of our time, goes on to describe the first act of sexual intercourse, the formation of families, the discovery of essential emotions, the use of fire, of play, the first murder, and the first nagging wife.

As speculative and outrageous as it is, this novel convinces us in the way that all fine art convinces. Creationists beware. Your mother is no chimp. Instead, she is, as Faulkner's character Vardimon once put it, a fish.

(Soundbite of music)

NORRIS: The novel is "The Cleft" by Doris Lessing. Our reviewer Alan Cheuse teaches writing at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia. He's also editor of the new anthology, "Seeing Ourselves: Great Stories of America's Past."

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