Classics to Take Your Mind off Dystopia: Doris Lessing, James M. Cain, & D. H. Lawrence

Inside a coronavirus ward in California.

I am trying to cut back on reading the news.  I hate to say it’s all bad, but it  is, as you know, because you’re living through it, too.

Perhaps, I thought, as I sat in an Adirondack chair looking at the stars, it would be BETTER if I read dystopian novels rather than the news.  I  recently reread Doris Lessing’s The Four-Gated City, the fifth in her Children of Violence series,  the last part of which segues into a dystopian  collection of documents that record the experiences of Martha and her familly after a catastrophe destroys the world as we know it.  Oddly, it felt cathartic to read about a catastrophe that isn’t happening here.  The  hopeful note is:  some people do survive.

Martha Quest and her employer/sometime-lover Mark believe the inception of the disaster was in the ’60s, when suddenly nothing worked.   New items were broken when you bought them, and it was nearly impossible to report a problem to the telephone company or a store.  A freezer door would fall off a new refrigerator, and you would spend months calling the company, which would refer you to the parent company, which would eventually send an incompetent repairman who would say you should buy a new one . Or something as simple as a loose bolt or an improperly attached bit of plastic would be responsible for blowing up a  manned space craft. And the air and water had long been  poisoned (like ours), people are shattered into mental illness by noise pollution, and there are unreported  nuclear plant disasters.  And after the final catastrophe, many are born mutants.  Mark’s son Francis grimly works in a refugee camp in Africa where children are  born two-headed .  But Martha, somewhere on an island where the community has a hard life, reports their  children look normal, but are often born with different kinds of brains–psychic abilities, for instance.  And she hopes they never get rescued, because she mistrusts the scientists.

Well, that’s very Doris Lessing.  The book was published in 1969, and her disaster takes place in the late ’70s. Let us hope that we never have such a disaster.

Alas,  record numbers of Covid-19 cases have been reported in Southern states and California now that things are reopening.  At the end of last week in Oklahoma, the number of cases skyrocketed, and there was a new wrinkle:  54% of the cases were among people age 18-34.  The number of new cases among older people was, bizarrely, down.  

CLASSICS TO TAKE YOUR MIND OFF DYSTOPIA.

I adored James M. Cain’s masterpiece, Mildred Pierce (1941), a psychological novel that dissects the dynamics of work and surviving the Depression.  Mildred Pierce, a  young woman in her late twenties, is raising  two daughters alone after her husband’s business crashes and he has an affair with another woman.  She is determined not to lose the house and to keep up the middle-class lifestyle, but bitterly discovers she is qualified for nothing. So she becomes a waitress, a  job she conceals because she doesn’t want to embarrass her daughters.  But after she  starts selling her pies to restaurants, she opens her own fried chicken restaurant. Her climb to wealth–a woman who had been  told her housewife skills would get her nowhere–is  fascinating.  Alas, she has one problem:  she worships her sociopathic daughter Veda, a cold, calculating girl who  actually co-opts Mildred’s upper-class polo-playing boyfriend.

I couldn’t put this down!  Cain’s style is spare and elegant, his portrait of Mildred unforgettably realistic, and his dialogue pithy and slangy.  This is my favorite book of the summer so far.  Somehow I never thought I would enjoy a book by the author of The Postman Always Rings Twice.  (Hated the movie.)

D. H. Lawrence’s Women in Love.  This brilliant, lyrical novel was banned–it just kept happening to Lawrence, whose novel Lady Chatterley’s  Lover is famous mainly because it was banned.   WIL has particularly vivid portraits of two sisters, Ursula and Gudrun, who are teachers in a coal-mining town.  They don’t particularly want to get married, but they are curious about different kinds of love with different men.  Rupert Birkin, a school inspector, falls for Ursula, but has a strange idea of love:  he doesn’t think it will be complete unless he also loves a man, though this love is supposed to be beyond sex.  And Ursula, like me, a has a difficult time understanding why she is not enough.  

But their relationship is very healthy compared to that of Gudrun and Gerald.  Gerald owns the coal mines, is sadistic to horses (there is one horrible scene where Gudrun screams at him to stop beating his horse, which he is determined should stand in front of the railroad tracks as a train passes), and is drawn to Gudrun’s beauty and talent as a sculptor.  But these two clearly shouldn’t be together, as we discover when the four take a trip to the Alps.  

In a way, this is a sequel to The Rainbow, much of which is devoted to Ursula’s early experiences. but you can read WIL on its own.  Somehow it is more famous, though The Rainbow is a better novel, I think.  You can read my post about The Rainbow here.