Briefing for a Descent into Hell

by Doris Lessing
Release date: 1971
Type: speculative fiction
Genres: fantasy, mainstream

Booker Prize nominee 1971. Developing major themes from The Golden Notebook and The Four-Gated City, Doris Lessing's new novel – which she defines as ”inner-space fiction” – is a harrowing voyage into the rarely glimpsed territory of the inner man. We are inside the mind of Professor Charles Watkins (Classics, Cambridge). He is doomed to spin endlessly on a raft on a tropical shore. He discovers a ruined stone city, participates, moon-dazed, in bloody rituals in the paradisal forest, is caught in the swirling, savage was of the Rat-dogs, is borne on the back of the lordly White Bird across the sea of the dead. Finally, the Crystal claims him, whirling him into space among the singing planets... Yet this wildest of trips is firmly anchored in the reality of a mental breakdown. Watkins is a patient at Central Intake Hospital and an enigma to the physicians who try with ever ore powerful drugs – as if each doctor were competing for his soul – to subdue his mind's adventure, to bring him into ”controllable” range. Doris Lessing believes that society's treatment of the mentally ill is a great and dangerous blind spot, that through the minds of the ”broken-down” appear (crookedly, of course, and with every kind of double-dealing – like the disguised messengers in myths and fairy tales) the truths, important to our civilization, that we deliberately choose to shut out. With this intensely charged and imaginative work, Mrs. Lessing once again confirms her place among the major writers of our time.
(updated 2017-01-16)

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