The Cleft

By Doris Lessing

HarperCollins, 260 pp. $25.95


nolead ends Doris Lessing was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature last week, with the judges in Stockholm calling her "that epicist of the female experience." But it's unlikely that most women will want to admit that her latest speculative novel, The Cleft, accurately captures that experience.

Lessing, best known for her 1962 novel The Golden Notebook, explains in an author's note at the beginning of The Cleft that her story was inspired by a scientific article that suggested "the basic and primal human stock was probably female, and that males came along later." What follows is a sort of creation myth. An old Roman senator, in the time of Nero, purports to be assembling a collection of oral histories passed down through the ages that document the start of human society.

In the beginning, goes Lessing's genesis story, there were females. Only they didn't use the word, since there were no males from whom to distinguish themselves. They called themselves Clefts, named both for their anatomy and the big rock around which they assembled. Aside from a sacrifice of one of their own now and then, their lives were easy. These creatures, who came up from the sea, swam, ate, and gave birth. How they accomplished the latter, without men, no one knows. They questioned very little themselves, content to grow fat eating fish and lying on rocks in the sun.

"Sometimes I think we lived in a kind of dream, a sleep, everything slow and easy and nothing ever happening but the moon being bright and big, and the red flowers washing down The Cleft," one recalls.

Their community loses its peace when the first male is born. At first the women believe it is another of the deformed babies that has appeared in the past and they put it out on the Killing Rock for the eagles, as they've always done. But then another appears, and another. Soon they discover that the eagles have not taken away the babies to feed to their eaglets - the Monsters, as they call the deformed children, live in a valley over a nearby mountain.

The women start letting a few of the Monsters survive. But they experiment on them, curious if the Monsters would grow into Clefts if their genitalia were simply removed.

Once a young woman travels over the mountain and discovers that these babies are capable of growing up into human beings much like them, the community splits in two, between those who fear change and those whose curiosity embraces it. Eventually, the two groups start to breed. The people born of these unions are different from the babies born only of the Clefts - the babies are difficult to control, the young adults are not content with a simple life by the sea.

The men and women eventually make peace with each other, but continue to live apart, the women by the shore, the men in the valley. The Cleft, if this fable can be said to have a plot, is the story of how men and women came to live together, and how the male urge for discovery triumphed over the female urge for security.

Within its first two dozen pages, Lessing shows that even at age 87, she hasn't lost her power to shock. When one woman discusses how the early Monsters were treated, one might imagine how Nazi doctors experimented on their Jewish prisoners. Some may believe that only men have the capacity for real cruelty, but Lessing knows better - every human being, she argues, fears the Other.

While difficult to read, this section is the most fascinating of the novel. Perhaps it's because this is the only time someone in the story has to defend his or her behavior. Lessing shows plenty of bad behavior in both the early males and early females. But we never really know how any "character," if one can use such a word of archetypes, feels.

And her characters certainly are archetypes. Lessing imagines that from the beginning of time, men have been bad with directions, careless with children, and tired of female nagging, while women have been lazy and incurious, uninterested in creating a civilization, and incessant naggers.

It might be hard to believe now, but if the first humans were women, then at some time women held the upper hand. Lessing doesn't suggest any reason why they lost it other than that they were simply less industrious than the new breed of males.

One wishes that the author of much science fiction in the last few decades had turned her eye to the future and not just the past, though. If technology makes it possible for women to once again breed without males - as seems increasingly likely - then one wonders whether women will revert to the lazy beings Lessing imagines they began as, and where that would leave civilization.

Kelly Jane Torrance is an arts and entertainment writer at the Washington Times and fiction editor of Doublethink.