The Cleft by Doris May Lessing
Reviewed by Julie Phillips
Doris Lessing begins The Cleft with an epigraph from the poet Robert Graves: "Man does, woman is." This is the kind of oracular essentialism that has taken a beating in the past 40 years, yet Lessing appears to agree with it. Men, she writes in a brief foreword, "lack the solidity of women, who seem to have been endowed with a natural harmony with the ways of the world....Men in comparison are unstable, and erratic. Is Nature trying something out?"
One of Lessing's many talents is describing women at odds with the ways of the world; but in her new novel, she herself is trying something out. The Cleft claims to be a fable of our prehistoric past. In this unknown time, a group of seal-like females live communally and incuriously beside the sea, near a rock formation called The Cleft. The females are also called Clefts, and they give birth to baby females.
Then one of them spontaneously produces a "monster": a child with a different apparatus. Later, more are born, and the aberrant newcomers become known, improbably, as Squirts. The Squirts' arrival changes things. The Clefts begin to feel a "squirming emotional discomfort, unrest, discontent: the start of awareness of themselves, their lives." They become no longer "we" but "I," individual; suddenly everyone's mind is "full of like, unlike; same, other; full of differences." Meanwhile, all this "prehistory" is being reconstructed by the storyteller, a Roman, pre-Christian historian. His narrative intervention adds more layers of difference: between writer and subject, present and past, knowledge and speculation. "How do we know what they knew, and how?"
Speculating about prehistoric societies is a quicksand in which brave writers may easily founder. While Lessing's thoughts on time and narrative in The Cleft are fascinating, her view of male and female is bafflingly banal. The men hunt and explore. The women nag and clean house. Her exploration of difference gets bogged down in the most unimaginative of real-life contrasts. Aside from one hero and a sort of queen, the novel (unlike the myths we know) contains no individual people at all.
If The Cleft is about any forgotten age, it might be the 20th century, with its obscure lessons in sex roles and the flimsy logic behind them. The discovery of difference (we're told that children's "I'll show you mine if you show me yours" games are essential to understanding the Clefts and Squirts) is followed by the adolescent discovery of sex. (The first Cleft to have intercourse is gangraped and murdered, but fortunately the men learn better.) Then come the child care and the complaining.
If this seems like ancient history, Lessing (who is 87) has warned that it may not be. In an interview in the Washington Post last fall, she remarked that the current truce between the sexes is a fragile one. "Quite a few people think it wouldn't take very much to return to a few warrior bands, with a few breeding women....Our society is dependent on some precarious mechanisms, and they are very dicey. They can easily collapse." Now that's a fascinating statement. But it's hard to believe Clefts and Squirts can provide the answers.
Julie Phillips is the author of James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award. She lives in the Netherlands.