Ben, in the World

Doris May Lessing, Author HarperCollins $23 (192p) ISBN 978-0-06-019628-8
When it appeared more than a decade ago, The Fifth Child, Lessing's powerful novel about a boy who was a freakish throwback to a primitive stage of existence, was justly praised as a shocking and memorable speculation about what happens when society is confronted with a human anomaly. This sequel continues Ben Lovatt's story, but with decidedly inferior narrative resources. Ben has run away from his upper-middle-class British family, who were humiliated by this genetic aberration. He is now 18, but with his fearsomely developed chest and arms, his squat and hairy body and his feral face, he appears to frightened observers to be a man in his 30s. Ironically, Ben himself is terrified of society. Unable to read, to handle money, to decipher even the simplest of situations, he is helpless, lonely and desperate. He realizes he must control the blood-red tides of rage that engulf his brain, lest he kill the adversaries who torment him. But in a series of lurid adventures in a plot that seems to have been made up in fits and starts, Ben is betrayed by nearly everyone. Only three women are kind to him: one is old and terminally ill, the other two are prostitutes. People who have power and money abuse him, notably an American scientist doing research in Rio de Janeiro, where bewildered Ben has been transported by a down-and-out filmmaker, who picked him up in Paris after Ben was used as a dupe in a cocaine smuggling operation. It's obvious that Lessing is making a social statement about how intellectuals acting in the name of art or science cruelly exploit simple people who can't defend themselves. The plot achieves bathetic melodrama in the deserted mining country of interior Brazil, where poor Ben, ""knowing [he is] alone, used but then abandoned,'' meets his grisly fate and brings this soap-operatic story to its long-foreshadowed, tragic close. (Aug.)
Reviewed on: 07/31/2000
Release date: 08/01/2000
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