Friday, July 17, 2015
Under the Net by Iris Murdoch
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.