"Ben in the World," by Doris Lessing. HarperCollins. 178 pages. $23.
'Ben in the World" is a sequel to "The Fifth Child," published in 1988. Neither the years nor the copiousness of the intervening books by the same author have loosened the linkage between these two brief novels. But it is not their protagonist, Ben Lovatt, nor any idiosyncratic authorial style that binds these works. "The Fifth Child" is a somewhat old-fashioned realistic novel, while "Ben in the World" is a fantastic, picaresque parable. Both, however, are the products of the same vigorous, audacious mind in battle against the status quo.
"The Fifth Child" recounts the disintegration of the marriage of a British suburban couple who dared to defy the edicts of the Free Women of the '60s, only to espouse the rigid laws of Victorian society: innumerable offspring, large family get-togethers, the home as castle where the wife-mother is confined. But the clock cannot be turned back and the Lovatts' anachronistic dream was transformed into nightmare by the birth of number five, Ben, a freak.
It was my lot to read the sequel first, depriving me of an introduction to the story of Ben, the idiot child grown to adulthood: a hirsute monster-man-animal of mythological size, strength and sexual proclivity. It had been impossible to handle him in mental institutions, so he was turned loose into the world, a victim to its villainous manipulations.
Like a starving creature with a crust of bread, he was, at first, granted shelter by an old, impoverished woman, but after her death he was homeless again, shunned and feared because of his apartness. Yet Ben intended no harm, his lethal strength was divorced from his emotions.
Eventually, the wily world found ways to use him. Through a prostitute, drawn, perversely, to his physical powerfulness combined with an infant's brain, Ben, unwittingly, is taken up by a drug ring. He is sent to Florida, where he encounters a sleazy film director from Brazil who wants to promote him as a latter-day King Kong.
When the producer drops him, Ben is picked up by a group of scientists performing brutal experiments on animals inside their hidden laboratory. The scenes connected with this hell are second to none in nauseating horror.
Somehow Ben is sprung from his heavily barred cage by a band of anthropologists for their study of primitive man, and he is transported to the mountainous terrain behind Rio. "After his experience in the laboratory, he did not tremble, but he found it hard to look at the researchers -- crouching in his chair, fists dangling, head poked forward, eyes still painful with fear ..." he asks, nevertheless, "Are you taking me to my people?"
All living beings seek their own kind, the need to belong is irresistible. And upon arrival, "Ben exults, bending, bowing, stretching up his arms to the stars . . ." But at the discovery that his kin are not made of flesh and blood, but are merely images carved into rock, he climbs to a top peak and jumps.
So ends this bizarre parable. What is Lessing telling us? It is my belief that it is an exhortation against the wishful belief in progress: family life, culture, the benefits of technology and science. Crime thrives, and although politics are not dealt with directly in this book, the failure of communism, Lessing's early faith in it and her subsequent angry rejection, act as an undercover motor, the impetus for the lesson imparted in the world of Ben.
Doris Lessing's famous "The Golden Notebook" was acclaimed by women of the '60s. Just like a mirror it provides a reflection of female struggles and aspirations. Now in the year 2000, the author has presented "Ben in the World," in which a view of life is glimpsed, downward, as through the brackish waters of a well, into depths of disillusion.
Dorothea Straus has written seven books and her work has been published in Yale Review, Raritan, Partisan Review, Fiction, Commentary, Confrontation, Vogue, Harper's Bazaar and The Sun. She lives in New York City.