Comrades or Hooligans? Doris Lessing, The Good Terrorist

good-terrorist

There was nothing there about their exploit! Not a word. They were furious. At last Faye found a little paragraph in the Guardian that said some hooligans had blown up the corner of a street in West Rowan Road, Bilstead.

“Hooligans,” said Jocelin, cold and deadly and punishing, her eyes glinting. And she did not say — and there was no need, for it was in all their minds — We’ll show them.

Like the subtitle Hardy chose for Tess of the d’Urbervilles, the title of this book promises challenges to readers’ moral assumptions: if Tess is a “pure woman,” then female purity must not be defined by sexual innocence; if Alice is a “good terrorist,” then there must be a way to reconcile goodness with terrorism — either terrorism itself is sometimes a good thing, or being a terrorist doesn’t necessarily make you a bad person, even if you commit an evil act. Unless, of course, the title is ironic, or descriptive of competence, not virtue, as it is applied, in fact, to one of Alice’s co-conspirators, who “was studying handbooks on how to be a good terrorist.”

I spent most of my time reading The Good Terrorist trying to orient myself in these possibilities. Is the novel at any level about the necessity, the justice, the virtue of terrorism? It certainly does not paint an encouraging picture of modern England: “The relentlessness of it,” Alice thinks, “the fucking shitty awfulness of it.” But though we see plenty of ways in which the “system” is failing, it’s hard to take the “comrades” seriously, with their ideological vagaries, their bumbling incompetence, and their high-flown rhetoric, indistinguishable from parody:

All over the country were these people — networks, to use Comrade Andrew’s word. . . . Unsuspected by the petits bourgeois who were in the thrall of the mental superstructure of fascist-imperialistic Britain, the poor slaves of propaganda, were these watchers, the observers, the people who held all the strings in their hands.

It’s also impossible to take Alice as she would like to be taken: as a revolutionary. Her commitment to the cause is hard to distinguish from her feelings for Jasper, who is not exactly her boyfriend, certainly not her lover, but whom she idolizes and yearns for, whose approval she craves but who actually seems to depend almost entirely on her for money and all domestic arrangements. Her revolutionary zeal is also constantly challenged by her nostalgia for the home and family of her childhood (though one of the novel’s more interesting developments is her realization that maybe things never really were the way she remembered them). How good a terrorist can someone be who steals her mother’s brocade drapes to make her “squat” more cozy, who runs home hoping to make off with the really big soup pot, who can’t bear it when her mother comes down in the world (thanks in large part to her, Alice’s, interference) and ends up in a sad little flat with no one to talk to about books?

So is The Good Terrorist a satire about people who imagine themselves to be both good and terrorists but are really just playing at revolution, for whom épater le bourgeois is more the goal than real political transformation? Is the novel told at Alice’s expense, to expose her as what her mother calls her, a spoiled child? Alice loves to shock her parents, to steal from them and throw rocks at their middle-class suburban windows, but she also runs to them for money (and soup pots) and expects them to stand as references when she applies for permits and loans. She loves to demonstrate and run from the police, but more often she stays behind, transforming the “squat” into as close an approximation as she can of a respectable home. It’s necessary camouflage, she argues to her comrades: keeping up appearances keeps the inspectors and the cops at bay. She’s right, but it’s not easy to tell which goal is, ultimately, the pretense for her.

The house itself is tempting to read symbolically, but of what? Does it stand for England, with its solid foundation but shameful state of disrepair, its squandered capacity to welcome and shelter, its rotting beams at the top that need replacing by stalwart workers? Or is it more specific to the revolution, with its shared spaces regressing into private territories, its pretense of civility barely concealing its buried sewage, its susceptibility to external attack as well as internal rot? Or maybe it’s just the site on which the novel’s conflict between the desire to build up and the forces that tear down is rendered most literally — with a deliberate ambiguity about which side the comrades are on.

I did get mildly interested, by the end, in what kind of terrorist Alice would turn out to be. (I would say that she’s not in fact a “good” one in either sense of the word.) But I didn’t find her a very consistent or believable character: she fluctuates too wildly between cool self-control when dealing with bureaucrats and wild emotional ups and downs in other contexts. I couldn’t piece together, either, a coherent idea about how she ended up where she is when the book begins — not in terms of plot and events, but in terms of motivation. That was one of many things I ultimately found dissatisfying about The Good Terrorist. It seems like a book that could have done something much deeper and more interesting about modern values and political violence. Instead of probing, though, it skipped along the surface, describing in painstaking detail and what sometimes felt like real time what is happening, but not why, not itself entering into the problems its characters are, however superficially or solipsistically, going on (and on) about — and trying, however wrongheadedly and ineffectually, to do something about. I didn’t enjoy Lessing’s writing style, either, which is more an absence of style combined with a failure of selectivity: I really couldn’t see why the book had to include quite what, or quite as much, as it did.

theterroristsThe book I found myself comparing it with is Sjöwall and Wahlöö’s The Terrorists. To my mind, the advantage is all with Sjöwall and Wahlöö. They tell a much tighter story that does a much better job at making us think about what it means to be a “terrorist,” or who we label “terrorists.” Rather than being a book about (wannabe) socialists, it’s a book that is, itself, socialist in its reading of society and especially its analysis of the operations of state power, class, and gender. In Rebecka Lind Sjöwall and Wahlöö also offer us someone who really deserves the label “good terrorist,” and in doing so they draw us effectively into the moral paradoxes that label provokes. If we sympathize with her — if we concede that her act of political violence is understandable in the circumstances, though not necessarily excusable — we have come a lot closer to revolution than is entirely comfortable. Lessing clearly did not have that kind of political goal for her novel,* but what exactly The Good Terrorist offers us instead has not only eluded me but also doesn’t much interest me.


*I don’t believe authors are necessarily authoritative on what their books do or are about, but after mulling over The Good Terrorist for a while on my own I poked around online a bit and came across Lessing’s Paris Review interview, in which she says she thinks it’s “quite a funny book” and that she wanted to “write a story about a group who drifted into bombing, who were incompetent and amateur.” The humor was pretty much lost on me. Would I have read the novel differently if I’d known it was supposed to be funny? Shouldn’t I have been able to tell it was funny?

9 Comments to Comrades or Hooligans? Doris Lessing, The Good Terrorist

  1. April 5, 2015 at 5:26 pm | Permalink

    I want to comment on your last paragraph, the parenthetical comment. There was another such case I ran across where an author in her interview claimed that her novel was light and funny. However, none of the reviews of her books mentioned finding the book humorous. I do believe that the characters were probably funny in the author’s head, but they were not witty on the page, and she did not have the objectivity to notice that. And she showed up in the comments of some of the reviews protesting that the book was not meant to be serious but should be considered a light read. Rather than supposing that what she’d supposed isn’t true, she assumed the readers were just not “getting it.”

    An aside: It is interesting to me is why editors don’t help authors achieve their intention if it is not visible on the page.

    • Rohan's Gravatar Rohan
      April 6, 2015 at 7:02 pm | Permalink

      I do always try to be open to the possibility that I have just been particularly tone deaf in my reading, but it’s hard to think of humor or satire being particularly successful if a reasonably attentive reader doesn’t “get it.”

  2. lawless's Gravatar lawless
    April 6, 2015 at 7:06 pm | Permalink

    Despite how unsuccessful the book is for you, I’m interested in it. But I’d like to read both books.

  3. April 10, 2015 at 1:59 pm | Permalink

    I love many of Lessing’s books, but your discussion of this one (which I haven’t read) reminds me a lot of what I disliked in The Sweetest Dream, which covered similar topics – it seemed her political cynicism got the best of her, and she was trying to be humorous about exposing (yet again!) the hypocrisy and ineptitude of wanna be revolutionaries – because Lessing is such a brilliant writer it saddens me that her understandable political disillusionment led to what I can only feel is a certain meanness.

    • Rohan's Gravatar Rohan
      April 11, 2015 at 8:39 pm | Permalink

      Lessing is so admired that I do think I should probably try something different of hers — maybe The Golden Notebook?

  4. April 11, 2015 at 2:14 pm | Permalink

    Thank you for this post, Professor Maitzen. I, too, recently read Lessing’s The Good Terrorist and found myself comparing it to The Terrorists. To my mind, your last paragraph is spot-on in its comparison of the latter to the former.

    • Rohan's Gravatar Rohan
      April 11, 2015 at 8:40 pm | Permalink

      I’m so grateful to the various people who pointed me towards Sjowall and Wahloo a few years ago. I’ve taught The Terrorists a few times now in my detective fiction class and it always generates some of the best discussion: despite its eventually obvious politics (the book literally ends with ‘Marx’!), it still presents a pretty complex picture, morally and politically.

      • April 12, 2015 at 10:32 am | Permalink

        Oh, yes, I remember that last scene well in The Terrorists. I’ve written a little bit about it here.

        Your “Martin Beck Has a Cold,” published in the Los Angeles Review of Books, I would highly recommend to your readers. It can be found here.

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