Friday, July 17, 2015

Under the Net by Iris Murdoch

We got onto an eighty-eight bus.  Mars provoked a flood of remarks from the conductor.  We sat in the front seat on top, the seat in which I had sat not so very long ago thinking about Anna until I had to get off the bus and go looking for her.  And as I looked down now on the crowds in Oxford Street and stroked Mars's head I felt neither happy nor sad, only rather unreal, like a man shut in a glass.  Events stream past us like these crowds and the face of each is seen only for a minute.  All work and all love, the search for wealth and fame, the search for truth, life itself, are made up of moments which pass and become nothing.  Yet through this shaft of nothings we drive onward with that miraculous vitality that creates our precarious habitations in the past and the future.  So we live; a spirit that broods and hovers over the continual death of time, the lost meaning, the unrecaptured moment, the unremembered face, until the final chop chop that ends all our moments and plunges that spirit back into the void from which it came.

Iris Murdoch's excellent Under the Net is literally a shaggy-dog story: a key element of the plot is the kidnapping of the Marvellous Mister Mars, who stars in movies.  The narrator, Jake, nabs Mars from a shady bookie who has designs on Jake's translation of a French novel, which he wants to turn into a film.  It isn't really quite clear what Jake wants to do with Mars, but the goals of the characters in Under the Net are never really clear, much like real people, and there's never a sense in which the adventures are headed toward a definite and sensible climax.  Under the Net is really a kind of picaresque, enjoyable because it zooms from one improbable scene to another: a mysterious mime production, a Communist riot on the set of a film designed to look like ancient Rome, an apartment overrun by pigeons.

But the fun of Under the Net belies the seriousness of its subject matter.  The "net" of the title refers to language, which Jake describes as something we are constantly trapped under, and which refuses to release us.  Murdoch was a devout follower of Wittgenstein, the 20th century philosopher who wrote and thought the most about language.  In Under the Net, Wittgenstein's ideas appear under an unsuccessful novel written by Jake called The Silencer, a kind of Platonic dialogue adapted from conversations Jake once had with a friend named Hugo, who was his roommate during a cold medicine study.  Jake is so impressed with Hugo's ideas that he turns them into The Silencer, but seeing them transformed by his own language, he's so embarrassed by them that he can't face Hugo again.  (What Jake learns is what Nietszche said: you can only find words for what's already dead in your heart.)

What drives the action of Under the Net is Jake's discover that Hugo has fallen in love with, and been harrassing, an actress friend of his named Sadie.  Jake is in love with Sadie's sister, Anna, but Anna--we find out later--is in love with Hugo.  Sadie, in turn, is in love with Jake.  Somehow this love square results in the theft of Mr. Mars, and Jake helping Hugo escape a hospital, and all sorts of other ridiculous stuff.  But despite being very high in hijinks, Under the Net proves to be one of the more thoughtful and intellectually interesting books I've read this year.

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