Daily Archives: January 27, 2011

BEN, IN THE WORLD / Doris Lessing

BEN, IN THE WORLD

Doris Lessing. 2000 (178 pgs)

The sequel to THE FIFTH CHILD

First Ten Pages =  5.62% of total book

First Sentence:  “ ‘How old are you?’ ”

Prevailing Narrative Voice:  Close third person. Shifting POV from various characters but always regarding Ben. There is the sense that when it isn’t from Ben’s POV, the others are attempting to see through his eyes or figure out how they can use him to their own advantage.

What the reader learns in the first paragraphs:  Ben is an unusual man. He is from a different age (hence the irony of the first sentence). At the unemployment office, Ben has a difficult time convincing the clerk he is eighteen years old, in his strange clothing and appearing middle aged. He is extremely uncomfortable and the clerk mistakes Ben’s forced grin as some sort of mockery. Ben’s physical description is more animal than human, yet his voice and accent are “posh.”

What the reader learns in the first ten pages:  Through various perspectives, including Ben, the unemployment clerk, a cat and Mrs Biggs, the kindly, elderly woman who has taken Ben in, the reader learns that Ben is an anomaly – human, yet a throwback to something ape or dog-like. With his broad facial features, squat body with huge chest, furry body and his propensity to experience the physical world through smell, sound and the warning sensations of fear and anxiety, Ben is incapable of getting along in the real world. His upper class family has abandoned him and he is constantly robbed or swindled. He prowls grocery market aisles for food stalking for meat and terrifying the shopkeepers. If not for Mrs Biggs (and her highly suspicious cat) Ben would steal. And yet Ben knows he is eighteen because every Christmas since he was fifteen, he has added another year to his age.

Language: BEN, IN THE WORLD is the sequel Doris Lessing’s THE FIFTH CHILD. Ben is a simple man, who uses simple thoughts and words. He constantly tries to negotiate his survival in the unnatural world of cars, offices, elevators, and machines. Lessing uses a direct and unadorned storytelling style, as if this is the type of story people will tell in small groups and around campfires, the reader not knowing how much is possible or true. Most sentences are declarative statements of fact or biased observation. The reader is conscious of a storyteller speaking very closely in their ear. While the shifting character POV relays the story from their own experience, judgment and sensitivity, the unifying effect that Ben seems to have is that he constantly elicits curiosity and wonder. The various voices contribute to a worldview about this strange “manimal,” and each character echoes their need to sympathize or capitalize on him.

Setting: This sequel covers a much larger territory than its predecessor, THE FIFTH CHILD. Ben’s journey takes him literally into the world, specifically deeper into London and then Marseille, Brazil and in the mountains of the Andes where he discovers where he comes from and who his people are. The world in general serves to be a scary and imposing place for Ben. The reader is familiar with the world to which Ben has no affinity or ease. Presented to the reader from Ben’s perspective, the world is oppressive and confusing, while from others, things like taxis, airplanes, grocery stores are every day occurrences.

Character:  Ben is handicapped. Not to a wheelchair or by mental illness, but by elements of the western world. He is the extreme in us and held up to the reader for an examination of self. Ben is the universal child of parents who cannot cope. Ben is part of every man who feels out of sorts in his environment. Ben is the natural world – the extinct world – calling for recognition.

Structure (Rhythm, Tension):  The rhythm is simple and short. Lessing often returns to short declarations of fact to tell the substantive aspects of the plot, which lend an air of impending unease. There is considerable tension caused by common occurrences in these first ten pages – that to the twentieth century reader would seem unusual. Lessing uses this confusion to indicate the mental state and incapability of her main character to cope with the most obvious situations. As the story progresses beyond the first ten pages it becomes more and more difficult for the reader to anticipate a happy ending. Metaphorically, Ben’s being in the world is a statement that there is very little room for the natural world in the world in which we have fashioned.

Intention: Perhaps Lessing is reminding us that we are animals regardless how sophisticated we seem. Ben is the hero. He is put upon and rescued by a number of people who take pity on him or see a way to profit from his differences. Even though he is robbed and set upon by petty thieves, it is Hollywood and “The Cages” of laboratory science that strike the most dissonant chords in Ben’s forced venture into the world.

Thematic Preamble: This story wears its theme on its sleeve. Its dark perception of human nature is made upfront and is not subtle. The author does not make the reader dig deeply beyond the events at hand to find subtle meanings. Even so, where Ben is handicapped by the world he lives in, he has the animal capability to kill a man by crushing him in his arms, a power he must put down in order to survive.

Foreshadowing, Plot & Expectations beyond page ten:  This is my first time reading a Nobel Laureate Doris Lessing book and one of her last (Lessing died in 2010). With my initial reading I was not impressed by the simplicity of Ben’s story and how there seemed little room for the reader’s participation. I wondered if it was because I was reading part two without having read part one. I realized, however, that Lessing is telling Ben’s story from Ben’s core. The writing style explains the events. The reader can only observe characters trying to help Ben and failing, while others succeed at taking advantage of him. While the writing seems simple and childlike, the overall effect forces the reader to ask how one copes in this cynical world.

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