Saturday, 7 July 2012

Briefing for a Descent into Hell

Briefing for a Descent into Hell - Doris Lessing
Great title, isn’t it? Doris Lessing’s 1971 novel relates the inner rumblings of the disturbed mind of Charles Watkins, a classics professor from Cambridge, found wandering near the Embankment with no identification and no memory of who he is. The story is related through a slightly clunky mixture of Watkins’ internal narrative, snatches of semi-lucid conversation between him and his doctors, and letters from concerned friends and family delving into the strange events of his past.

This is a book that splits very obligingly into three sections. The first is dominated by the Professor’s delusions. He is shipwrecked after his friends are taken from their vessel by a mysterious, crystalline UFO. He survives on a beautiful island, discovering an ancient city. He sleeps amongst the deserted ruins, developing an unhealthy obsession with the moon, and awaits the return of the crystal which, he feels sure, must have simply overlooked him the first time. But before it returns the city is tarnished, invaded by dog-men and monkeys who desecrate the buildings, fight savage battles and choke the ancient streets with corpses. The crystal does not come.

Part two of the novel could be said to be the denouement (spoiler alert) as we are elevated to the heavens for a conversation amongst the gods. This is where the title comes in. They see a poor planet, wracked by meteor damage, inhabited by a race of primitive apes whose brains are choked by a poisonous atmosphere and who can barely cling to existence, despite their delusions of technological advancement. A party of gods are briefed to descend and drag this planet back from the brink, before instability spreads throughout the solar system. They are warned before they set out that, although they will be brain-printed with the knowledge of their mission and what they are, the descent and transformation into human beings will be so traumatic that there is a good chance they will have no awareness of themselves as they were before.

Charles Watkins is a god. He doesn’t know it, but the vague imprint is on his brain, like something glimpsed out of the corner of one’s eye. The final third of the novel is driven by the hope that he will unearth this ancient knowledge before his doctors cure him.

My main problem with this novel (and you might not think it from that synopsis) is that not very much happens in it. For much of the time it is duty rather than interest that pulls you through. The plot is implicit, and only begins to surface when you understand what is going on above the Earth. When something does happen – the conflict in the ancient city, or a beautiful, Hemingway-esque vignette of Watkins’ wartime experience fighting with guerrillas in the mountains of Yugoslavia – it is perfectly executed, reminding you that you are in the hands of a Nobel Prize-winning novelist.

The ideas that Lessing plays with and brings to life with incredible colour and realism are the kind of ideas more often found in short stories than in novels. She takes an idea – what if some of us were once gods, descended into a corrupt world, but have no idea that this is the case? – and twists it to its logical extreme, like Calvino or Borges. Do you ever feel anxious for no discernible reason? Ever feel like your brain is straining to uncover something that you can't even guess at? These little things connect us all, but we have no idea why. 

This is a fantastic way of writing short stories, but it is a tactic that easily reaches its limit, which is probably why it doesn’t drive many novels. You can only stretch an idea so far before you run out of material, and this method seems fundamentally hostile to those tricky little things like plot and character development that make a novel tick.

That sounds like a harsh review for a novel that I really did enjoy, but I think there were many aspects of it that could have been improved. I felt all along that Lessing’s imagination and purpose were constrained by the form of this novel. The letters, the doctors’ notes, the stilted conversations – all these felt like unwise literary devices that got in the way of the beautiful idea behind the book. Clearly this was a highly experimental effort, but I think it could have been just as beautiful and far more readable if it had been a little more conventional.