So what happens?
The narrator of Iris Murdoch’s Under The Net, Jake Donaghue, is a complete waster who scrounges a roof over his head from whichever of his (frequently women) friends can be persuaded to put up with him. He is, of course, a writer. He’s in love with Anna who he suspects is also loved by Hugo (a fireworks manufacturer cum film magnate) who is possibly loves Sadie who is, perhaps, a bit sweet on Jake. Or is it Hugo? Either way, a washed up canine filmstar, a bookie, a floozie named Madge and a mysterious Sibylline figure called Mrs Tinckham who keeps a newsagent and a tribe of cats also come and go. In the end, everyone loves someone but not necessarily as assumed. Oh, and there is a sidekick named Finn. Did someone say ‘picaresque’?
Why on earth should I read it?
Because it’s the first and lightest of Murdoch’s novels. Philosophy permeates the text but airily, like bubbles rising through champagne. It might not have the gravitas or seriousness of later works, but (with the possible exception of The Bell), there’s a lightness of touch and an optimistic sense of the possibilities of redemption in the heart of the human experience I haven’t encountered anywhere else in her novels, though I can’t claim to have read them all.
So no caveats?
None whatsoever. It wouldn’t be my favourite or the first of her books I’d recommend (that would be The Bell or The Unicorn – I’ve a weakness for the Gothic qualities of the late sixties books) but it’s unique. Well for Murdoch, anyway.
Aha! So there is a catch?
Hmm. Well, the blend of philosophical discourse and novel wasn’t new – Sartre in particular was obviously a model and Murdoch was a philosopher before she became a novelist. And whilst London has frequently stood in as a major character in Murdoch’s books – the spookily rendered Isle of Dogs in The Time of the Angels, for example, or the whistle stop tour of Soho and the City that ensues in Under The Net itself – the novelist who most springs to mind as resonating with Under The Net is G.K. Chesterton, the Chesterton of the fantastical The Napoleon of Notting Hill and The Man Who Was Thursday in particular.
Oh, and under what net, exactly?
The net of language, of course. We don’t get out from under it but we do learn to live with it and even to see behind it. Under The Net is full of raised veils, from the the epic collapse of the plasterboard Rome in a film studio to the final lifting of the veils of self-deception from the eyes of Jake. Twenty four years later, the narrator of The Sea, The Sea would relapse almost instantaneously back into his old Satyr-like ways but Jake, a creation of a less jaded writer, may even have learned to be good.