Under the Net
by Iris Murdoch
Murdoch’s first novel, this is a polished and extraordinarily funny book. When I started it I knew Murdoch’s work only by reputation, and so was surprised, at least at first, to find a novel that seemed to owe as much to Wodehouse as Wittgenstein. But the book subtly shifts as it goes on, mirroring the growth of its protagonist — for this is a kind of bildungsroman, following a young London writer as he develops into maturity and responsibility — and reaching a depth, poignancy, and lyricism that you wouldn't necessarily expect from the early pages of dry comedy.
A.S. Byatt has suggested that Murdoch’s work is concerned with issues of representation, with the question of how much of real life can be contained in language and in a novel. Hence the title of the book, a Wittgenstein reference which nods to the difficulty of representation — Wittgenstein’s image is a bit complex, but can be thought of as referring to the resolution of a representation: The finer a net, the more points of contact with what it contains, the closer an approximation to the reality it holds. Certainly the book is concerned with representation and reality, in its main character’s writing, in the books that he translates, in film (one of the characters is an actor, another a movie producer), in politics (another character is a political agitator) ... the idea is certainly present, but in no way obtrusive. The theme and the story work together nicely, mixing in subtle ways.
There is, in fact, a tautness and density to the book that’s quite impressive, and matches the precision of its structure. But those virtues do not come at the expense of vitality. There’s a madcap energy in the book; it is farcical in the best sense. This, again, seems to me to be thematically appropriate; the use of the very formal tropes of farce points up the issue of representation, and the fidelity of prose to life. But then, to me, the book subtly undermines those formal elements, growing beyond them, becoming something greater. As a novel, I think it’s a great success; as a debut, it’s stunning.