"Mara and Dann: An Adventure," by Doris Lessing. Harper Collins. 407 pages. $25.
One day last summer, when the heat and the crowds in New York were at their worst, I decided to go somewhere cool where I could be alone. I went to a theater showing Kevin Costner's "The Postman," a film about a journey into a strange dystopian future after some murky apocalypse.
Tribal law has taken hold and the characters deal with a series of cruel and weird challenges. As the film mercifully ends (although the air-conditioning was great) the beginnings of civilization are detected, teaching us a lesson about something.
Doris Lessing's latest book is the same type of story, told through the eyes of a young brother and sister, Mara and Dann, names they must assume to avoid capture or execution by the first vicious tribe they encounter, the Rock People, lead by a poorly brought up man named, of all things, Garth.
The children journey north through Ms. Lessing's native Africa, across a blighted road-warrior landscape, encountering unlikely challenges, eating something called "the yellow root," a sort of "Soylent Green," and meeting people who talk the way tribes of the future talk in movies.
In fact, this entire book, which is billed as "an adventure" rather than a novel, seems to be made of scenes and situations borrowed wholesale from movies of the same genre. People have single names like Kulik, names you have never seen before (except for Garth) and they speak in perfect impending-doom talk, that sort of Hollywood medieval dialect where they sit around a fire and someone says, "tell us of the old ways."
People more familiar with Ms. Lessing's other writings, some of which are described as feminist, will be able to detect meanings in Mara's hiding of her purse of gold coins between her legs, a treasure that saves her and Dann from peril here and there. When sex is finally discovered on page 134, I feared that new terms might be assigned to body parts by the author (or Garth), but that, at least is written up as a normal observance.
Travel is, as you might imagine, very difficult for the children. They narrowly avoid annihilation by tribal violence, storms, flood and death by thirst. They stumble into tribal lands where heroin and ganja rule the day.
Lesser persons would give up, as would lesser readers. It's hard to imagine how such a dull book could have been published. Yet here it is, accompanied with publicity that is amazingly sloppy, misspelled and trite, describing the book as "uncompromising" and a "dazzling work of imagination," words of warning to all but her most enthusiastic followers. Ms. Lessing, who is a fairly famous author, is known for having played a trick once on a publisher by sending in two copies of the same manuscript, one with her name on it and one with a fake name.
The fake named was rejected. But I wouldn't advise her to try that again. This one is worthy of rejecting on its own merits.
Jeff Danziger is a political cartoonist for the Los Angeles Times syndicate. He has made 10 books of political cartoons. Danziger wrote "Rising Like the Tucson" and a children's book, "The Champlain Monster."
Pub Date: 01/10/99