If you had asked me to describe Iris Murdoch a few months ago, when all I had read of her fiction was The Sandcastle and The Nice and the Good, I would have described her as skilled at sharp, biting domestic fiction. The kind of writer who picks apart personal relationships – friendships, marriages, sibling dynamics – with careful and sometimes frightening acuity. I would have tempered those two statements with a comment on her ability to render her characters with sympathy, with shades of gray, with feeling and with compassion.
But now, after reading Under the Net, I realize she is not so easily categorized. With Under the Net I must add humorist and satirist to her accomplishments. It isn’t every writer who can do both straightforward fiction and satire, and I was very impressed to get into the novel and realize how different it was from the other books of hers I had read.
Under the Net is about Jake Donaghue, a struggling novelist who translates French potboilers on the side. Jake is about as self-absorbed as you can get. But he is also wonderfully clever and likeable. He has a personal philosophy against work, so he does a lot of sponging off of friends and girlfriends.
This personal philosophy is what sets the entire book in motion. His current girlfriend, Madge, has decided to kick him out. So Jake and his friend Finn (most excellent character, by the way, a kind of Jake-shadow, who chimes in from time to time with many of the novel’s best lines) must move. Their options are limited, and Finn suggests Jake go look up an ex-girlfriend named Anna. The suggestion appears to unmoor our poor Jake.
One of the aspects of the book I enjoyed so much is Jake’s constant hyperbole. Suddenly, although we’ve never heard of her before, although he hasn’t mentioned her until now, suddenly Anna is the lost love of Jake’s life. And finding her, getting her to love him back, sends him on a series of wild capers across London and all the way to Paris and back. And many of these capers raise a measure of doubt as to whether Jake really cares for Anna at all. But of course Under the Net isn’t just about Anna and Jake.
If I had to hazard a statement to sum up in one line what the novel is about, I’d say it’s about poking fun at that pervasive myth of the artistic temperament. Jake, who is so committed to his writing that he’s willing to live in relative poverty in order to devote himself to his typewriter, doesn’t write a single word for the entire book. And he considers himself a deep, intellectual and perceptive person but most of the novel’s action results from his misunderstandings.
Now, despite the humor of the book, there is a subtle philosophical discussion running its way through Jake’s antics. About friendship and politics and about the individual. I think this works and never gets heavy because Jake remains so completely likeable. I think if I were to meet someone like Jake in person I’d want to throw him off a bridge, but within the universe of the novel, I followed him with great sympathy and support. As a reader, I wanted Jake to eventually succeed. I leave it to anyone else who reads the book to determine whether they think he does.