Sunday, January 8, 2012

#95- Iris Murdoch's "Under the Net"

Hello, lovelies! I know, it’s been much too long. But I promise I didn’t forget about you- this book was just slow going. Slow Going is not, of course, to be confused with boring.

Number 95 on the list, Under the Net, was published in 1954 and authored by native Dubliner Dame Iris Murdoch. This, her first novel, is a conflation of philosophy and the picaresque style, narrated from the point of view of one Jake Donahue. Jake is often wrongly described as a “failed novelist”. I take issue with this description because we all know one can not fail if one does not try. Jake has made it his mission in life to not try. At anything, really. Ever. He dabbles in translation, wrote one mediocre book, and mooches prolifically. His relationships are, for the most part, superficial. His love affairs are handled badly and lead nowhere.

So what makes Jake’s a voice worth reading? Jake is far and away the most self-aware narrator I have ever come across. He suffers from a condition he describes as “shattered nerves” (a condition that now probably has a proper name and diagnosis and favored treatment) and insists that how his nerves got shattered is unimportant. I know so far in our readings M. and I have made much of the heavy-handed narrator versus the light, unobtrusive narrator. Jake is leagues away from unobtrusive- every thought he has is about himself- but I don’t feel comfortable calling him “heavy-handed”. He is intensely, painfully self-aware. Every word he speaks, every action he commits, every decision he makes is carefully outlined, described, and analyzed for the reader.

Much as you would expect, that level of introspection can get overwhelming quickly. This is why the book took me so long to read- every thirty to fifty pages I had to get up and do something else, usually for a few hours. But please, don’t let this deter you. I really enjoyed reading about Jake’s lady-pursuing, dog-stealing, hospital-breaking adventures. Your capacity to handle (and enjoy) this book is going to be entirely based on your tolerance for neurotic people. If you can stand the compulsively self-reflective voice, the voice that sees a fractal pattern of possibilities and consequences in every word and gesture, I think you’ll get a lot out of this book. If “over-analyzers” are one of your pet peeves, stay far away from this book. Far, far away.

The supporting cast in this book is delightfully colorful. Jake has a person he describes as being emphatically not a servant who follows him around and fulfills servant-like duties, who, next to Jake, looks about as complicated as a plastic cup of applesauce. His first landlady, Magdalen, is the kept woman of a film industry magnate. One of the people Jake mooches off of, Dave the Philosopher, makes a number of farcical appearances, Hugo Belfounder, a jack of all trades and former roommate of Jake’s, is essential both to furthering the plot and to illustrating more of the narrator’s character: he is Jake’s polar opposite. He is superficial, uncomplicated, un-philosophical, and has never had any trouble accumulating money. He serves as a conversation partner for Jake while they are both in a facility for test subjects in a research project to cure the common cold, and their relationship is broken when Jake writes the aforementioned mediocre book about his conversations with Hugo. Thinking he has betrayed his friend by publishing a work based on their interactions, Jake runs away, much to Hugo’s confusion. Throughout the book, Hugo serves as the perfect counterweight to Jake’s obsessive analysis:

“During the early parts of my conversation with Hugo I kept trying to “place” him. Once or twice I asked him directly whether he held this or that general theory- which he always denied with the air of one who has been affronted by a failure of taste. And indeed it seemed to me later that to ask such questions of Hugo showed a particular insensitivity to his unique intellectual and moral quality. After a while I realized that Hugo held no general theories whatsoever. All of his theories, if they could be called theories, were particular. But I still had the feeling that if I tried hard enough, I could come somehow to the centre of his thought…” (61)

I think the above is a good illustration both of Jake’s relationship with Hugo, and Jake’s need to get to an ideological heart of everything everyone says (including himself). But don’t worry- the book isn’t all introspection. When I described this novel as picaresque, I really meant it. Superficially, casting off all the underlying philosophy (but why would you want to?) it’s a fun book about a roguish hero who goes on a wild adventure, getting by on his wits alone.

Does this book deserve to be on the list? Definitely. The story is engaging, and its message was really sincere. Jake is a person who, like so many intelligent people, lives with a lot of noise in his head- the noise of insecurity, the noise of those around him, the noise of money, and the noise of fear. But, just like Pandora’s box, at the bottom of the pile of negativity, there is a positive: creativity. Jake’s goal is ultimately not to turn off the noise- it is to strike a balance between all the forces within himself, both good an bad, by turning the volume on the noise down.

It’s been a pleasure, reader, as it always is. You have M.’s review of John Fowles’ 1966 novel The Magus to look forward to, as well as a little glimpse into my latest pleaure reading obsession. Our next team review will be of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five- get ready for clash of the litcrit titans on that one. And as always, we welcome you to join in!



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