There is something to be said about reading the debut novels of accomplished writers you love to see what their work was like the first time out of the gate. I’ve done this recently with A.S. Byatt and again with Anthony Burgess, and I’ve done it here with Iris Murdoch. The discovery has generally been the same each time—flashes of the genius yet to come trapped inside a deeply flawed first effort.
In Murdoch’s case, the book in question is Under the Net, published in 1954 and sub-labeled “A comic novel about work and love, wealth and fame.” The emphasis definitely should be on the ‘comic’: Under the Net is a wild and often hilarious picaresque about one Jake Donaghue, a shiftless hack writer trapped in a love tryst between a singer named Anna, her film-star sister Sadie, and a film studio owner named Hugo. Their central tension revolves around a book that Jake published years earlier called The Silencer, which he basically cribbed from ideas espoused by Hugo during a series of heady conversations they once had together.
Under the Net, while deeply comic, is rooted in philosophy—specifically, the philosophy of Plato’s The Republic. This manifests itself in a number of ways. The Silencer, for example, is written in a kind of neo-Platonic dialogue between a sage teacher and a group of eager students. What’s more, every interaction/misunderstanding that Jake experiences over the course of Murdoch’s novel is a kind of play on Plato’s Myth of the Cave: his perceptions of Anna and Sadie, his strained relationship with Hugo, and even his faith in his own work, are all nothing more that flickering shadows on the wall of a reality he never quite has access to. For good measure, the book also wrestles, as The Republic did, with the poet’s role in a utopia: in this case, the socialist utopia strived for by a rabble rouser (predictably) named Lefty, whom Jakes meets in bar while on one of his adventures.
These allusions, at least to my eye, were all a little too obvious. And while the novel’s saving grace is its humour—and there are many laugh-out-loud set pieces here, including one involving a pub crawl of epic proportions—in the end, the humour is all we’re left with. The relationships and social commentary don’t really hold together, and the revelation between Jake and Hugo at the end is too neat, too easily summed up as a simple misunderstanding.
Murdoch would go on to publish some of the sharpest and most comic novels of the 20th century (see my reviews of two of them here and here) but this debut shows her as a novice still getting a handle on her power.