21 DECEMBER 1974, Page 21


Future imperfect

Peter Ackroyd

The Memoirs of a Survivor, Doris Lessing (Octagon Press £2.95) The Men from P./.G. and ROBOT. Harry Harrison (Faber and Faber £1.95) Miss Lessing's book has been generally well received, and it is not difficult to see why. It is set in the future, the only spot where critics can ever feel at home, and it has traces of that bland but imposing style which literary undergraduates call Kafka-esque. It is not, of course, it isn't even Lessing-esque. It is a freak, an elegy, a mystic entertainment.

The memoirs come from a period of future shock, in which old forms of social organisation have been replaced by gangs and tribes who know the value of everything and the price of nothing. This new world is divided into an ineffective bureaucracy known as "the Talkers" and itinerant children who have returned to such old-world pranks as cannibalism. The survivor (all. we discover about her is that she is temale and middle-aged) has been left with Emily Cartwright, a young girl who has been deposited along with her pet Hugo, who is somehow both cat and dog and is presumably meant to be allegorical. The private and public worlds of the survivor become inter-connected in a looking-glass house which she finds behind one white wall of her flat. Certain childhood scenes in the uncivilisation of Emily are glimpsed in an implicit parallel to that decline of human history which is manifested on the 'real' side of the wall. The 'unreal' (mystics always insist upon quotation marks in these cases) house is a jumble of all cultures and epochs, and its slow decay becomes proof positive of that sense of an ending which is invading all things.

This may sound too mystical to be interesting, but Miss Lessing's prose saves the novel from floating off. In less enlightened times, it would have been called the feminine style, that thin wash of detail and nuance with a sheen which reflects the shifting surfaces of a new world. It is also a prose with a certain interior: "It was amazing how determined, how stubborn, how self-renewing, were the attempts to lead an ordinary life," and with the kind of intelligence which can convey a more general point within a particular mood or grievance: "And then 'life' would begin, life as it ought to be, as it had been promised — by whom? When? Where? To everybody on this earth." It has to be admitted at this point, though, that the whole is not nearly as good as these parts. The book is written in a reflective narrative style which is not tied to the conventional laws of plot, and it can include too many disparate elements for its own good; the novel is in constant danger of falling apart into a number of self-contained images and units.

Miss Lessing becomes so involved in the shifts and nuances of a world which is rapidly drifting into the occult that she loses her indispensable sense of realism: perhaps it is not so much realism as credibility, since without it even the most bizarre fantasy will founder upon general disbelief. The looking-glass land is, for example, too contrived to be taken as seriously as Miss Lessing intends, and the whole mystery ot Emily's arrival is left in an unsatisfying state of suspension, Her vision of future shock is similarly artificial, and the central weakness of this book is that its locale is far too predictable: the barter, the communal living, the non-verbal communication have been part of the stockin-trade of academics like Steiner and McLuhan for longer than most of us care to remember.

But to say all this is not to deny the power of her writing when she abandons pop-sociology

and returns to her vision of 'time' coming to an end. It is not often that the romanticising of contemporary mystics can be interesting, but Miss Lessing achieves this when she opens her narrative out into a world which is not the world, and into a time which is not Our time.