It's been about 2 weeks now since I've finished The Good Terrorist, and so I'm in that place where I feel most compelled but least capable of writing a review. Since that's never stopped me before, here goes.
I must applaud Lessing for her skill at creating characters, Alice in particular, who are utterly annoying, petulant, stupid, dangerously immature, and appallingly destructive. These characters wrap their fundamental laziness and selfishness in a cloak of ignorant, misguided, sociopathological ideology, and revel in their victimhood while blaming everyone but themselves for their pathetic lot in life. If I met these people in real life, my inner school-marm would, I know, come blazing forth and I would give them each a right tongue-lashing, berating them for being the spoilt children they are. Okay, I would probably do that later, in the car on the way home, after I thought of something pithy and eviscerating to say without needing to fear any comeback or comeuppance at the hands of these dangerously half-witted revolutionaries.
My most damning vitriol I would reserve for Alice, who--unlike the others--does NOT lack for redeeming qualities. She will work tremendously hard to make life better for herself and others (although her efforts are not the least altruistic or selfless). Alice is clever and spooky-smart about people, capable of seeing through them to their real motivations, and then using that--without compunction--to manipulate them and steal from them. She wields her resourcefulness and acuity as tools to 'beat the system' rather than effect constructive change, and so she lost my sympathy about 35 pages in. But Lessing has painted such a remarkable portrait, that despite my distaste for each and every one of the characters, I couldn't help but to keep reading. Oh yes, she hooked me, she did.
I spent the remainder of the book searching for some way in to Alice's psyche, to understand her and to excuse her abhorrent, ultimately criminal, actions. I couldn't. Lessing provided proof points to discount every possible reason why the 36-year-old Alice, living in a squat with a closeted gay boyfriend who frequently abandons and abuses her, is everybody's doormat. Mental illness, generational poverty, lack of education, childhood abuse or neglect--none of these likely suspects bore fruit as a logical explanation for Alice's behaviour.
So by the end, when Alice's full stupidity and cowardice were revealed--with no reasonable explanation available--I felt both frustrated and horrified. But...I'm questioning myself because smart people, not the least of whom the author herself, seem to think she was "quite mad" (as Lessing says in the The Languages We Use
afterword). I certainly saw emotional volatility, odd outbursts, strange behaviour (possibly even delusional), and a definite anti-social inclination without any moral centre. But hell, Alice seemed the sanest of the lot! I therefore didn't see mental illness in Alice. Faye, yes. But not Alice. And, this is Lessing's major accomplishment: as she says, "if a mad person is in a political setting, or a religious one, a lot of people won't even notice he or she is mad."
Otherwise, I'd have to question what Lessing was trying to do here--was she trying to show how banal and commonplace evil really is? How easily we can overlook or misapprehend the looming dangers all around us? Specifically, how short a distance it is from armchair Communist (or any other ideological or religious zealotry) and petty thief to cold-blooded terrorist, bomb-maker and killer? Maybe this book was a little ahead of its time, but from the vantage point of 2009, these themes almost seem... oh, I don't know...quaintly simplistic, I guess.
The greater accomplishment was the extremely compelling dynamic between the unpleasantness of the characters, the stupidity and hypocrisy of their minor acts of vandalism and thievery and their own petty conflicts with each other versus the stumbling but inexorable march, despite being barely capable of getting themselves arrested along the way, to the final, bloody conclusion.
I found the black humour throughout extremely satisfying--visible only now, with some distance and thinking back on what Lessing's true achievement was here. There is not a shred of sympathy for the plight of these characters: they are shown to be hypocritical fools and incompetents, and downright cruel--behaviour that belies the more lofty principles they spout. Lessing was, in effect, putting her own politics under the magnifying glass. A clever feat, and worthy of a solid 4-stars (I'm upping my rating) even though, by the end, I still felt a little tricked into having spent so much time with such unpleasant people.