When you take reading as a hard fought effort, as a promise of finding things that surprise and fascinate you even as you read many things that fall far below that mark, every now and again you come across a novel that keeps its promises to the reader. Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook does just that. It is completely realized in almost every conceivable way. A fully wrought vision of the novel, both as it is and what it can be.
At 635 pages of text, Lessing has ample space to take on almost every major topic in the post-war, postmodern literary grab bag. The novel is feminist, post-colonial, post-communist, late capitalist, meta-fiction in the sense that it is concerned with itself as art, and explores the nature of art and the artists. There are stories within stories, diary entries, letters, and a fractured text looping back into itself. But all this is a dry recitation of its virtues as an “important” novel. Its real success is elsewhere.
Foremost, The Golden Notebook never sacrifices itself to the altar of these various “isms.” Quite the contrary, it is novel about the impossibility to qualify and categorize life by any system, whether it be art, politics, religion, or science. Life is simply too multivariate to fit into one mold. So we get a novel which displays the characters’ lives in maddening, sometimes grotesque ways. Everything is open to investigation, and nothing is sacred.