Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Under the Net by Iris Murdoch

[A]s 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.

To the loyal readers (lol) of our little blog here, I'd like to apologize for using the same excerpt Chris did in his review. But it's such a razor-sharp, poignant piece of writing. Let's just savor it for a moment, shall we?

Aaaand... done. And now let's consider the sad fact that this piece of writing, wonderful as it is, can never really communicate to us as readers what Murdoch intended for it to communicate. If thinking about that makes you feel a little melancholy, you might like Under the Net. If it makes you chuckle at the absurdity of life, giggle at the realization that we can never really burrow into the brains of others and know exactly what they mean, then you should pick this up right now. That gauzy haze of miscommunication hangs heavy over Under the Net which is, I should clarify, not a heavy book.

Jake Donaghue is a translator of books he doesn't like, living with a girlfriend he doesn't love, coasting through a life he barely understands. When his girlfriend gets engaged--to another man, naturally--Jake's search for a new place to stay leads him to an old flame, Anna Quentin, and, eventually, to his old philosophical sparring partner, Hugo Belfounder, an eccentric millionaire who owns a firework factory. In the course of things, Jake kidnaps a dog, breaks into a hospital, crashes a mime theater performance, and, in my favorite setpiece, gets corned by police on a film set and is saved by Hugo pulling a huge firework out of his pocket and blowing a hole in the wall, bringing down ancient Rome around their ears. Pretentions, Under the Net is not.

At the same time, much of the book sits on the melancholy foundation of obfuscated ideas, muffled relationships, and the improbability of true connection. Repeatedly, plans are thwarted and friendships strained by a misunderstood word or misconstrued action. Life exists in the moment for Jake and his friends, and any moment can be the one that alters things forever, usually on accident.

But, as befits a novel with such a light tone--I laughed out loud several times reading it--the conclusion is hopeful, if still realistic. Maybe full disclosure never is possible--perhaps we'll always be trying to project our whole self through a keyhole, as David Foster Wallace says--but Jake finally reaches a pleasant stasis, his life once again open-ended and hopeful. Whether we always understand each other or not, Murdoch seems to say, we must muddle through anyway, and take what pleasure we can in the muddling.

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