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Book Review: The Good Terrorist, by Doris Lessing

A den mother to revolutionaries slides down the slippery slope to terrorism.


The Good Terrorist

Knopf, 1985, 375 pages



In contemporary London, a loose-knit group of political vagabonds drifts from one cause to the next, picketing and strategizing for hypothetical situations. But within this world, one particular small commune is moving inexorably toward active terrorism.

At its center is Alice Mellings, a brilliant organizer who knows how to cope with almost anything, except the vacuum of her own life. Always reliable, she makes herself indispensable to the commune, earning a precious sense of belonging by denying her own sense of self.

But now, suddenly, the stakes are rising. Some in the group appear to have ties to insurgents in Northern Ireland and even to Soviets who are "recruiting." A small bomb set off on a deserted street leads to ideas that are dangerously ambitious, and there is a "professional" who is eager to meet with Alice and discuss her future with his organization.




This book, with its very, very 80s Britishness, featuring a certain class of comical-in-their-odiousness Brits, was like a very long Monty Python sketch without a punchline.

Doris Lessing is a Nobel Prize-winning author; this is the first book I've read by her, and it's one of the only ones not on the list of 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die. So, she's a pretty Big Deal in the literary world, but I went in with zero expectations since I knew almost nothing about her.

From its summary, above, you might think The Good Terrorist is a political novel or a spy thriller, but it's not. It's a book about domestic social issues, moral choices, and perhaps an implied feminist subtext, though Lessing never does anything to specially draw the reader's attention to her message.

The plot moves slowly — very slowly. For a book with terrorists and bombs, nothing much happens for 90% of the book. But it's not about terrorists and bombs.

Alice, the main character, is the "good terrorist." When the book begins, she's living in a London squat with a bunch of Marxist "revolutionaries." While they all talk about the Movement and make grandiose plans to "offer their services" to their Irish comrades in the IRA, Alice is the one who cleans, organizes, and gets electricity and water turned on, bulldozering all obstacles, bureaucratic and financial, with the force of her personality. She bluffs the police, hectors her parents and calls them fascists, then begs them for money, then rips them off, then goes back to them and demands more favors. She's absolutely shameless and absolutely indefatigable. In many ways, she is an admirable personality: she gets shit done, and she is full of good intentions.

She's also completely suppressed her own desires, and gradually she's also learned to suppress any genuine sense of right and wrong. She lets herself be used by her freeloading "comrades" and her freeloading "boyfriend" (who really prefers blokes). She tells herself she's a good person, and she tells herself that everyone she deals with is a good person with good intentions. If you took Alice's valuation of herself at face value, you could consider her a dupe, or at worst, a useful idiot, but Lessing does not let the reader let Alice off that easily. It's never stated, but inescapable in Lessing's deft portrait of Alice and her internal monologue and her relationships with family and fellow travelers: Alice can deceive herself, has become very good at deceiving herself, but down deep, she knows when she's bullshitting herself.

The Good Terrorist was written in the 1980s. This was pre-9/11, pre-modern War on Terror and pre-surveillance state. The IRA was the great bogeyman in Britain, and the USSR was still the great Evil Empire internationally. (And the Taliban were the good guys because they were fighting Russians.) So the political scene in this book is very different from today. Lessing captures the lethargy and resentment of a certain subset of the British middle class circa the Reagan/Thatcher era that turned them into shiftless "revolutionaries" living on the dole and pretending not to be as bourgeois as the "fascist pigs" they were throwing rocks at. But this book is not as dated as you might think, because it's more about Alice and her repressed personality and the ease with which "good" people can delude themselves while slipping past the Moral Event Horizon than it is about IRA terrorists and KGB spies. You can easily envision an Alice Mellings today, full of antipathy for Western Imperialism and ever-so-sympathetic to oppressed POC in the Middle East, cheerfully doing the dishes for a bunch of Al Qaeda sympathizers and pretending that all that bomb talk isn't really going anywhere...



Verdict: The Good Terrorist is perhaps a perfect example of "literary fiction" — it's extraordinarily well-written, the characterization is brilliant and nuanced, it's a thought-provoking book that requires you to read beyond the surface, and it's also terribly unexciting for a story about a terrorist plot. I would call it good literary fiction because I enjoyed it, but you're reading mostly about the inner life of a delusional sexually-repressed middle class Brit and the useless wankers she hangs out with, not spies and terrorists.





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Tags: books, doris lessing, literary, reviews
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