As I read Ben, In the World by Doris Lessing I couldn’t help comparing it to Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life. Although vastly different in style and scope, both books have a male protagonist who is out of sync with society at large–damaged, abused, odd, fragile, and ultimately unknowable and unreachable. Both are taken advantage of and betrayed and suffer a similar fate. As for the books themselves both are noticeably ahistorical and both are entirely implausible and/or allegorical depending on how generous one feels.
The big difference is that Ben, In the World is brilliant and packs an emotional wallop in 178 pages that Yanagihara didn’t come close to in her unwieldy 720. Ben’s experiences are arguably much less horrific than those cataloged in A Little Life, but Lessing’s story is deeply devastating while Yanagihara’s feels like sadistic voyeurism. I forgive Lessing her implausibility because Ben reads more like a macabre fairy tale than a novel trying to convince the reader of its plausibility. There were more than a few times when my overly analytical brain started to question a detail or plot device but not so much that it took me out of the emotional space of the story.
But enough about the comparisons. Ben, In the World is a sequel to Lessing’s equally disturbing novel The Fifth Child. One doesn’t need to read the first book to enjoy the second but the background does put the reader more quickly in the right frame of mind for understanding Ben and his troubles. After a difficult childhood, Ben’s family seem no longer able to care for him, and he ends up wandering from situation to situation trying to survive and being perpetually misunderstood and taken advantage of. He meets kindness along the way but no one is really in a position to help him even when they want to. When I read The Fifth Child I came to the conclusion that Ben was probably somewhere on the autism spectrum: anti-social and prone to inappropriate behavior and violence. I took things like his mother thinking of him as more beast than child as metaphor. But in Ben, In the World, Lessing plays up the beast part of the story to the point where some sort of developmental disability doesn’t begin to explain his appearance and behavior. Without giving away any spoilers, Ben ends up in Brazil where his yearning to find people like himself comes to an emotional head.
As I alluded to earlier, this is not a perfect book, but it is a brilliant one. Unlike much (perhaps all) of Lessing’s other work, both The Fifth Child and Ben, In the World, are decidedly fantasy. Rooted in the familiar and mundane, but dark and definitely not of the real world. I think I like them so much because this is a place I don’t often allow myself to go in fiction and Lessing does it in a way that I find captivating and unbelievably moving.
This New York Times review really hits the nail on the head for both books.