To get her message of resurrected hope across, Lessing covers episodes of national, international, and personal turbulence over three decades on two continents and calls up a cast of hundreds. Colonial governments fall; postcolonial nation builders ravage bountiful resources. Romantic German war brides age into expatriate snobs in class-confused England; clumsy, hypersensitive African foreign students grow into pompous civil servants. The events referred to in pre-World War I Germany, post-World War II England, and newly independent Zimlia/Zimbabwe are violent, but Lessing's depiction is undramatic, one might even say antinovelistic. Her preoccupation is with polemics. As with setting and plot, she utilizes her characters as abstractions for advancing arguments.
Frances Lennox, a stand-in for Lessing and an all-nurturing (European) woman who came into maturity in the '60s, is a self-sacrificing Earth Mother who cleans up other people's messes, taking in the damaged and the needy while comforting them with labor-intensive meals. Frances's ex-husband, Comrade Johnny, possibly a pastiche of Lessing's former lover Clancy Sigal and former husband, Gottfried Lessing, is a narcissistic Trotskyite aristocrat in tight black jeans and custom-made leather Mao jacket. Sylvia, Comrade Johnny's anorexic stepdaughter brought up by Frances, is an advocate of private charity and a campaigner for civil defense. Rose Trimble, a teenage runaway whom Frances takes in, is the embodiment of the mean-spirited '80s. "Her qualities were what were needed now, in the time when getting on, getting rich, doing down your fellows, were officially applauded. She was ruthless, she was acquisitive, she was by instinct contemptuous of others. . . . She was particularly famous for her 'portraits,' bringing journalism to new heights of vindictiveness."
Except for Frances, Lessing's characters are constantly on the move, as befits the age of globalization. They pass through Frances's London flophouse to rest and recuperate and to acquaint her with their worldly experiences: Soviet betrayal of dissidents, torture of political prisoners in Prague, forcible land redistribution in newly independent African dictatorships, wasteful disbursement of foreign aid by jet-setting professionals. A more conventional novel would have confined itself to Frances's point of view on world events; it might have also explored the vast areas of her submissiveness. The author lurches along with the many, too many, restless characters as they work through their particular forms of madness, or explore the paradox of sexuality, or entrap themselves in their sweet delusions, thus giving the novel heft and ungainliness in place of shape and definition.
In the face of apocalypse engendered by the mismanagement of natural resources and human potential, Lessing offers a points-of-light solution: personal acts of charity and civic commitment. The only saintly character, Sylvia, devotes her fortune, her medical knowledge, and her physical energy to improving the quality of life for a community of aids-afflicted Zimlians. In the end, she can save only two orphans and settle them in Frances's house. Has the onetime champion of radical causes come around to a reactionary position? I prefer to think Lessing has evolved into a tough-minded contrarian distrustful of all organizations.
Lessing's strengths have always been passion, audacity, and conviction, strengths very much on display in The Sweetest Dream. It intends to vex, uplift, and incite to action. Whether the price in frustrated fictional expectation is too steep willóas always with this provocative giantóremain an open question.
Bharati Mukherjee's latest novel, Desirable Daughters, will be published by Hyperion in March 2002. She teaches English at the University of California, Berkeley.