The Good Terrorist is my first Doris Lessing and has been on my shelf for far too long. It kept my interest from start to end, evoking the banality of communism’s reactive culture. Learning more about Lessing’s history, especially her experience in communist groups after dumping her children, made it harder-hitting still.
I felt in the growing wake of university an urge pulling between leading an artistic life or dedicating myself to a career. With no overriding influence either side, it was up to other circumstances to guide my path as a teacher. A similar tension plays within The Good Terrorist, although the protagonist (Alice) firmly sees herself in the artistic revolutionary camp (whilst angrily demanding handouts from her beleaguered parents).
The banality of life in an 80s London commune is described well from Alice’s beautifully domestic soups to the left-over buckets of human waste. Such descriptions build to decry the motivation of the communists as largely ineffectual and ultimately self-absorbed, some to the point of mental illness. Yet the focalized narrative of Alice ensures we never entirely lose sympathy with their vision.
And it that Alice dominantly seems a good heart that keeps our compassion throughout. Good is perhaps the wrong word: she is nice inasmuch as she is naïve. She expects no consequences for stealing money from her father, despite the devastation is clearly wreaks upon others. Yet she is also able to deal with the Kafkaesque bureaucracy of the British benefits system (certainly look to watch I am Daniel Blake if you want to see a realistic portrayal of those more deserving, and less able, to navigate it). Her male partner is annoyingly dismissive of her, damned by her parents and friends, ready to leave for weeks with another male friend (with ensuing allusions…), and yet apparently deeply charismatic. With a minimum of reported speech, he is portrayed as moving other communists to angry tears. It seems that Alice’s attitude to Jasper’s inept excesses is no more than a nice sigh.
That resignation contrasts, though, with her parents’ acceptance of their lot. The narrative sometimes slips into an interesting reminiscence of her dislocated childhood, of successful writing parents who squandered wealth and refused to lay down roots. The lack of perspective from the parents is telling. Without it, we see Alice as a spoilt, although not entirely irrational, daughter who suffers her parents’ financial support as a substitute for social affection. It is these points of conflict that I found most interesting in this text; such heightened emotion leads to the worst choices Alice makes.
Such an event reminds me of an interesting play I watched in Scarborough once: it was about Blake and Payne discussing the French Revolution. One notion proposed was that every significant leader of that revolution could be tracked as suffering from an antagonistic relationship with their parents. Such political antagonism against the state is really a proxy for the desire to defy parents, or so says the playwright. I think that these points of clash are essential for making a similar point in The Good Terrorist.
Ultimately, the text is a domestic read with an ambitious vernacular that focalizes well Alice’s limited perspective. Such a text is really of its time, I think, as its terrorist activity seems so fractured in its purpose. The characters are starkly drawn with human traits of complexity and ineptitude, with the females trying to hold things together in a group dominated by underconnected and angry young men. For anyone interested in life in a commune, such a story would be sadly illuminating.