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The Good Terrorist by Doris Lessing
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Woman Adrift

Alice Mellings, product of a comfortable bourgeois upbringing, has turned violently against that upbringing and the people who created it: her parents and the British middle-class in the mid-1980s. Her dislike has mutated into a simmering rage that seeks outlet through protest groups for various causes, some Communist inspired, others aligned with the IRA, at that time openly violent against Britain. At age thirty-six, she seems a bit old for this behavior, but her life is stalemated in a non-sexual relationship with an exploitative, sometimes physically aggressive, homosexual, Jasper, whom others dislike. She stoutly defends him, because she loves him and admires what she considers his leadership ability. For the past fifteen years, the length of her relationship with Jasper, she has moved from squat to commune to squat (condemned or unoccupied housing scheduled for demolition) furiously busying herself with obtaining official recognition of the squat as temporary housing for its usually unemployed, dissident occupants, and securing bourgeois amenities, such as electricity, water and garbage collection, from London utilities. She prides herself on her bourgeois look and behavior which enable her to exploit and convince reluctant bureaucrats that she will fulfill obligations to pay, when in fact she intends to enjoy the resources and move on when the money fails.

The novel begins as Alice and Jasper move into a new squat, a solid old house, scheduled for demolition at some indefinite future time, the result of housing development schemes that lost steam when the profit in them died out. Its occupants are a lesbian couple, Roberta and Faye, Pat and Bert (Jasper’s friend), and Jim, a young, black printer, who can’t find a job because his training was on older printing methods no longer in use. Not only can’t Jim find a job despite his best efforts, he’s been rejected by previous tenants in the squat, who moved on because they wouldn’t accept Bert’s plan to offer their “services as an England-based entity” (9) to help the IRA. Jim sits in his room drumming and ignoring the floors above him which are filled with buckets of feces because the toilets were blocked with cement to prevents squatters. Alice and Jasper have just been thrown out of her mother’s house after four years of comfortable bourgeois existence at Dorothy’s expense; Dorothy and Jasper violently dislike each other, and she is finally exhausted paying their bills and receiving scorn in return. Alice’s father, whom she dislikes even more adamantly, had divorced Dorothy about six years previously, and now has a new wife, two young children and a comfortable new house.

Periodically Alice rages violently over trivial incidents, but her attitude toward Jasper is submissive and acceptive of his sometimes violent peculiarities, which include occasional homosexual forays (that she discreetly ignores) and an attraction to older men with whom he adopts a younger brother role. They sleep in separate sleeping bags, and Alice is abjectly grateful when he permits her to sleep in the same room. She thinks of him almost maternally, as she does several other members of the squat, especially slender, defenseless Philip, ejected from his girl friend’s apartment. He moves in and sets to work fixing the plumbing, electrical and roof, the only person besides Alice who spends time repairing the house. Roberta and Faye are a closed, neurotic couple that allows Alice no role in their relationship, as Faye makes hysterically clear when they first meet. Roberta’s role with Faye is similar to Alice’s with Jasper, defending her and taking care of the practical details of their survival, which are minimal as their dirty room shows. Pat and Bert, another couple, have an active sexual relationship, which is Pat’s only enticement to remain because she is serious about her revolutionary activity; Alice is attracted to Pat’s seriousness but repelled by her sexual liaison with Bert. Bert and Jasper form an alliance that ensures for the most part they do no real work to support the squat’s survival and instead concentrate on various political protests, ultimately shown to be foolish and rejected by real revolutionaries such as the IRA and the KGB. Later Mary and Reggie move in, an economic convenience as she’s actually employed by a London bureaucracy, so can be a helpful contact; however, she and the recently fired Reggie are so completely bourgeois in their attitudes that they even bring in a large double bed for their room, a TV and make clear they see the squat as a way to save money on rent until they can move elsewhere. While Alice, Jasper and Bert form a revolutionary core, based on their own version of a communist group (CCU—Communist Centre Union), the squat’s inhabitants are ill-matched in terms of interests and needs, thrown together by economic forces and their unwillingness or inability to find satisfactory roles in British society. The middle-class members like Jasper and Bert affect working-class accents, while Faye uses a Cockney accent at times, and only Jim is really Cockney. Everyone is trying to be something they are not, which further compounds the difficulty of working together. They have little concern for each other, quickly forgetting Jim when he abruptly leaves and lacking interest to attend Philip’s funeral, although they create a fleeting semblance of a warm, unified family when they gather in the kitchen to eat one of Alice’s frequent soups.

As the novel develops, Lessing slowly reveals background, usually through the characters’ actions as seen by Alice; there are no introductory passages to present characters’ past history or psychology, except for a brief explanation that Jasper was outraged at his father’s bankruptcy due to “dubious investments”; because he was “very clever” he was given a scholarship that he saw “as charity” (31). Incident by incident, details about the characters emerge. Alice has willful blind spots in her perceptions, which result in internal confusion that she represses and ignores by taking on the endless chores of maintaining the house. Her inconsistencies and contradictions come to a head at the end of the novel when she is confounded with the difficulty of deciding whether the agent who demands the matériel (dissembled guns) is the Irish-American he claims to be or a KGB agent. Usually relying on her instincts, backed up by an intuitive ability to read a person’s body language, when she meets real revolutionaries with their trained ability to show nothing distinguishing or to present incorrect signals, she is at a loss, without realizing she is out of her depth.

Because he is English and not Russian, she is warmly attracted to Peter Cecil, who suddenly appears asking about a neighboring squat’s mysterious member (probably under KGB control). The squat has finally decided their English culture doesn’t fit in with the rigid Russian mentality, so she considers discussing the bombing that she has just participated in, because this new Englishman would certainly understand, rejecting “a doubt … she could not pin … down to anything, so suppressed it” (450). Later she realizes Peter must belong to Britain’s “MI-6 or MI-5…or one of those bloody things” (453), begins to despise him as upper-class and fascist, and wonders what she had said to him the previous day. “Alice did know that she forgot things, but not how badly, or how often” (454), Lessing warns the reader because Alice is about to be caught between Scylla and Charybdis, and all she can do is revert to childhood fantasies of being “a good girl” (454). So “the poor baby sat waiting for it to be time to go out and meet the professionals,” an ironic reflection of her previous sentimental reflections on the bourgeois “ordinary people….Alice sat with tears in her eyes, thinking. ‘Poor things, poor things, they simply don’t understand!’--as if she had her arms around all the poor silly ordinary people in the world” (451).

By the novel’s conclusion it is clear that Lessing is not on either side in the ideological struggle. Yes, the squatters are correct about the failings in Britain, but the choices they make to effect change are mainly ineffective or tragic errors, like the bombing of the hotel and Alice’s desire to explain their actions to a stranger just because he is British. The machinations of the IRA and the KGB are equally reprehensible, as their solutions revolve around violence and destruction without real concern for the innocent people who will be involved and in general stiffen British resistance, as even the squatters realize when they insist their brand of revolution rises from their unique British culture, even though no one ever explains exactly what this cultural difference entails. Just as the lives of all the members of the squat are dysfunctional reflections of their families or the way they have been treated when they tried to find work, so too their understanding of their political philosophy and how to achieve their goals is incoherent and inconsistent, as they try to unite those who want to save the whales with those who want to promulgate Leninist theories of social development (268). When they hold their conference to develop a coherent CCU philosophy, they never get past the second agenda item as everyone really just wants to attend the party after the conference.

While Lessing portrays the squatters objectively, sensitive to the personal and social issues that have caused them to oppose the situation in Britain, as the novel progresses it becomes apparent most will have no effective role in social change, being “useful idiots, [with] vague and untutored enthusiasm for communism” (300). There is a hint of Lessing’s ironic distance when she describes Alice’s naive reflections on what she had learned since coming to the squat several months ago: that throughout the country there were networks of people, trained revolutionaries, “Kindly, skilled people [who] watched and waited, judging when people like herself...could be really useful. Unsuspected by the petits bourgeois who were in the thrall of the mental superstructure of fascist-imperialistic Britain, the poor slaves of propaganda, were these watchers, the observers, the people who held all the strings in their hands...everyone with any sort of potential was noticed, observed, treasured...It gave her a safe, comfortable feeling” (305). When she later petulantly refuses to take a transit shipment of matériel, which turns out to be dissembled guns, she discovers the angry KGB agent could easily kill her for disobedience. But until that incident, she and Jasper achieve naive thrills by painting dissident slogans on walls or joining a group in a fierce downpour to toss fruit and eggs at Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, while others, like the more serious Pat, have been silently selected for real training and sent to “spy universities” in Lithuania or Czechoslovakia, as Alice finally realizes.

As well as describing the range of people who live in a squat, along with their issues and expectations, Lessing’s main focus is on the emotional and intellectual dynamic that drives Alice’s erratic behavior. Operating on instinctual responses, an ability she doesn’t fully understand and can’t back up with logical analysis, she is emotionally driven as her frequent rages and tearful outbursts indicate. The root of her internal, unresolved conflict is that she feels a “violent derision, like a secret threat” to “suburban affluence and calm…At the same time, parallel to this emotion and in no way affecting it, ran another current, of want, of longing” (27). This is one of her blind spots, as is her refusal to accept any criticism of Jasper’s behavior toward her, because she has an intense need to mother and support him, although his aims are cloudy and ultimately kept secret from her. Similarly, she blindly expects to find the money needed to keep the utilities operational in the squat, although her family has now broken all ties with her, and she doesn’t even turn her attention on the other members of the squat, adopting a laissez faire attitude, seemingly willing to have them live there even if she must take on all the burden of providing the minimum of physical necessities, which is exactly what her mother had done for the past four years that she and Jasper lived with her. Without realizing it, using the model of her mother’s activities while she was growing up, Alice tries to recreate a facsimile bourgeois environment from which to attack bourgeois society; the only differences are that the squatters are recycling, using rejected items, surviving on social security benefits and skirting paying for utilities. The irony is lost on Alice and the others, who have picked their causes and pursue them blindly. Lessing avoids sentimentalizing or ridiculing the squatters and uses little moralizing or commentary, except when Dorothy accuses her daughter of being “spoiled” by her upbringing and in the book’s final incidents when the author’s sympathy for Alice’s imminent, uncomprehended peril is apparent. Mostly Lessing has enabled the reader to see the squatters as human refuse and Alice as a dedicated if ineffective worker trying to right the social flaws that have crippled her comrades and herself.

Alice, despite her ability to nurture others by aping her mother and providing large pots of nourishing soup for the squat and their meetings, which results in admiration for her and a sense of her necessity for the survival of the group, is internally tormented. She fears “being excluded, left out. Unwanted” (122), which she tries to overcome by making her role indispensable for the survival of the squat. The origin of this feeling is found in childhood memories of being displaced from her room whenever her parents had their frequent, large parties. This caused a feeling that her parents had no real place for her, which may have been true to a certain extent as they were absorbed with their friends. On the other hand she shared their comfortable existence, which she learned to despise only after it had vanished. When the family fell on hard times and the money and parties ceased, her internal contradictions began to surface, resulting in her rage at them and her blind exploitation of their help and money. At one point she prides herself that as a child she had never stolen anything from her parents (228), but this is just after she has stolen from her father’s new house and been thrown out of her mother’s; she does not see these events as contradicting her image of herself as a child, because that is what she still is internally. The picture that emerges is an immature woman, too emotional to clearly analyze herself and the people closest to her, reliant upon instincts that are shaped by social prejudices, including those she has taken over from the socialist, revolutionary movement. She despises Muriel, also a member of a squat, because she’s from a higher social level, just as she had vowed to despise all higher-class girls at her school, showing her own blind class prejudice, no different from bourgeois scorn of the working class, and her inability to see these contradictions. As her father comments, she lives in a “dreamworld” (248), with little connection to reality, her family or even her putative friends in the squat.

For anyone who is injured or incapable of helping themselves, such as Philip or Jim or even ultimately hysterical Faye, she applies all her skills to help them and makes significant personal sacrifices, but she cannot understand her own emotional needs and limitations, even though she routinely tries to console herself by remembering that most people in the world have much less than she has had—most in fact never have a room of their own. Ironically, because she is displaced from her comfortable family home, which she is blindly replicating in the squat, she is now determined to destroy the bourgeoisie and ensure that everyone will live in shared, communal housing, which she magically believes will ensure in the future that no one is ever subjected to a harsh childhood, denied employment or exploited.

Because Lessing so skillfully takes the reader inside Alice’s upside-down world, through the looking-glass into the revolutionary universe that is a mirror image of the ineffective bourgeois world, the reader is required to navigate between sympathy and realization of Alice’s limitations, an understanding even she achieves partially as the novel progresses. She sees that the squat isn’t a cohesive family when all refuse to attend Philip’s funeral, and that she is deliberately left out of Jasper’s and Bert’s plans to bomb a hotel because she would likely have a different view, which might cause the squat to oppose the men’s plans. For all her efforts and mothering, she remains an outsider as she has been all her life, a willing servant to their needs, just as her mother later reveals she had been throughout her life--sacrificing herself to fulfill the needs of her husband and family.

The novel contains so many levels, so many ironic reflections of behavior by different characters (Alice and Dorothy as mirror images, Alice and Roberta, Alice and Pat, perhaps Jasper and Cedric), and such an objective, distanced and mildly despairing view of Britain that the reader is left without an easy explanation of why and how well-intentioned youth decide that terrorism will remedy the wrongs they perceive. The book’s ironic title completely exemplifies the paradoxes that Lessing has exposed, even if she too has not been able to unravel and explain them, or show how they can be avoided.
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Reading Progress

Started Reading
October 27, 2016 – Finished Reading
April 9, 2018 – Shelved

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