The short stories collected in Doris Lessing’s “The Real Thing” are stories of dismay and despair. Lessing’s writing is exquisite, full of intimate detail and vibrance that overcomes one of short fiction’s greatest challenges – fleshing out character in short shrift. Each character’s failings and foibles are heartrending and yet easy to identify with, familiar. These are the heartaches of everyday life.
“An elderly man stood with his face to the wire of the bird enclosure. Everything about him was yellowish and dry, like a fungus on an old log, but even his back was full of the vitality of indignation. In the enclosure live flamingos and demoiselle cranes, but he was looking at a fowl, a chicken, a rooster like a sunset in the act of exploding, all iridescent black, gold and scarlet, a resplendent cock who sat on a shiny log raising its wings and crowing, a triumphal shout. ‘You shut up,’ threatened the man through the wire.”
Lessing’s fully-fleshed, recognizable characters make reading her stories like being a fly on the wall at the darkest of cocktail parties. Her writing is also eerily timeless. Despite providing details that could date her work and which could trap a lesser writer into a small window of relevance, Lessing’s underlying themes, as well as her social commentary, are surprisingly resonant 30 years after publication. For example, it seems Lessing saw Brexit coming decades ahead of time:
“Is that what people mean when they complain the Underground is so untidy? It is the xenophobia of the British again? Rather, the older generations of the British. Is what I enjoy about London, its variety, its populations from everywhere in the world, its transitoriness – for sometimes London can give you the same feeling as when you stand to watch cloud shadows chase across a plain – exactly what they so hate?”
All told, “The Real Thing” is exactly that – a bite-sized taste of a writer with masterful wit, acute detail, and enduring commentary.