FrankH's Reviews > Under the Net

Under the Net by Iris Murdoch
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Jan 18, 11

Read from January 02 to 18, 2011

Book Club Reading - 2010

As the first novel by Dame Iris, the comedy doesn't always come off, the story lacks a compelling narrative thread, and at the heart of it Jake Donaghue tells his story with a rambling, ruminating style that somehow distances rather than involves. Still, the unique style and substance of her writing, fully sharpened and matured in such books as The Word Child, The Book and the Brotherhood, and Message to the Planet, can also be seen in this seminal, lighter work. Jake will be the first in a long line of characters who become obsessed with an idea, a lover, or an enterprise and then are shaken when events conspire -- with the shape-shifting magic of Murdoch's prose -- to take them in a different direction.

From where 'Net' began, the story too starts to tack to a different wind, say by Chapter Eight.

Jake impresses us initially as a kind of middle-brow layabout, with nothing more urgent than trying to make the rent and figure out his next paying gig as a translater of obscure texts. He seeks out the former girlfriend, Anna, and is drawn into a series of intrigues that find him swimming in the Thames, gambling on horse races and finally at the door of his old friend, Hugo, the retiring, laconic philosopher. Jake's obsession with re-connecting with Anna drives the story forward to the middle pages. But in the depiction of new and curious events that befall Jake -- not the least of which are the circumstances attending upon the stealing of the theater dog Mister Mars -- the story seems to morph into something more broadly comic, less personal; by the time we've reached the Casting Rally at Belfounder Studios, we have Murdoch working toward a Brit version of Screwball Comedy and it is very funny indeed. Murdoch, it seems to me, almost always builds incongruity into the scenes she has chosen to anchor her narrative. In the later novels, the incongrous elements assemble for dramatic effect; here the intent is farce. At Belfounder studio, , we have drinking-buddy 'Lefty' conducting a leftist political rally for toga-clad actors on a set of a soon to be deconstructed Ancient Rome; the arrival of the United Nationalists, the opposing right-wing group intent on breaking up the rally and whoever gets in its way; Jake, desperately trying to convey to Hugo how Anna's sister Sadie is plotting against him; Hugo, ready to detonate one of his bombs as a diversionary measure for escaping the pandemonium: 'A wild scene met our eyes, the crowd was ...split into a chaos of struggling groups..The whole mass swayed to and fro like a vast Rugby scrum...every now and then a man would leap from the scaffolding ...scattering friend and foe the distance, we could still see Lefty, mounted on his chariot, still gesticulating, his mouth opening and shutting, while round about him, as about the body of Hector, the battle raged..' And when Hugo's bomb detonates? 'The ground was strewn with legless torsos and halves of men and others cut off at the shoulders, all of whom, however, were lustily engaged in restoring themselves to wholeness by dragging the hidden parts of their anatomy out from under the flat wedges of scenery'. In the end it's a playing-dead-trick by headliner Mister Mars that gets Hugo and Jake out in one piece. 'A Canine Victim of Police Brutality', reads the caption in the morning newspaper.

I have often admired the way Murdoch technically foreshadows her highest drama with precise, evocative, possiblby painterly descriptions of the physical components of her stage, a garden, perhaps, the streetlights. In 'Net', the closest thing we get to this is the scene where Jake looks for Anna in Paris; 'On one side the Arc du Carrousel stood like an imagined archway, removed from space by its faultless proportions; and behind it the enorous sweep of the Louvre enclosed the scene, fiercely illuminated and ablaze with detail. On the other side began the unnatural garden with its metallic green grass under the yellow lamps and its flowers self-conscious with colour and quiet as dream flowers which can unfold and be still at the same moment....' And indeed, the tone of the writing shifts back to drama and emotional obsession: 'This was a rendezvous. My need of her drew me onward like a physical force. Our embrace would close the circle of the years and begin the golden age. As the steel to the magnet, I sped forward.' But Jake's Anna is someone else; the circle is not closed and it's not very long until we're thrust into more comic mayhem -- sneaking Hugo out of the Hospital

I enjoyed this book. I am looking forward to the time when I can start re-reading her more ambitious novels.


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