As a man thinketh in his heart

Under the Net

(This review appeared in the ReadReverb newsletter, Nov 27, 2005, and on the ReadReverb website)

Can a debut novel be any more self-consciously intellectual? Murdoch burst onto the literary scene with Under The Net over fifty years ago, a book whose primary inspiration was philosophy, both as a taught subject and as a wellspring for ethical exploration, discussion and action. Is it possible to fashion an enjoyable novel out of the (at first sight) heavy, unyielding materials of existentialism and Platonic realism? Murdoch answers this question with a resounding yes, in the form of a cross between an Ealing comedy, a Chesterton mystery and a Wodehouse farce which far surpasses the sum of its genre parts.

The protagonist, Jake Donaghue, is a not-quite-failed hack, translator and author, who meanders rather than hurtles from one pecuniary crisis to the next. Turfed out of Magda's apartment with his foil, Finn, he plans to move in chez philosophy lecturer Dave, but instead finds himself embroiled in a bizarre mixture of plot and counterplot, all revolving around his old flame Anna, onetime mentor (and innate philosopher) Hugo Belfounder, and Jake's translation of a work by a little-known French writer. Just when the plot seems as complicated as it can get---when he's stolen the canine filmstar Mister Mars and prompted Hugo to blow a hole in the side of his own film studio to escape from a Communist meeting raided by the police---a telegram arrives from Paris, and the reader must begin to be confused all over again.

Given the premise implies dense, unreadable wordiness, it's a surprise to find this book refreshing, exciting, humorous and even, occasionally, thrilling. Interestingly, although Donaghue often ponders a little too deeply---almost onanistically, especially during a particularly affected scene which actually turns out to be the early stage of a drunken bender, and thus largely excuses itself in retrospect---into the great theories of existence, he almost invariably acts and makes decisions with surgical, instinctive precision.

Indeed, much of Donaghue's internal monologues are presented with tongue in cheek at his natural chatterati leanings, while the book itself only ever wakes up in the presence of his Sartrean actions. With this shift of emphasis, Under the Net demonstrates the importance of moral constancy, during such emotional crises as might have unseated our rational appreciation of what it is to be good. That it manages to achieve such a high-minded goal while being a bright, robust, powerful read shows that a pill of any bitterness can in principle be sweetened, depending on the talents of the one who dispenses it.