Thursday, May 8, 2008

Modern Library Top 100: #95 - Under the Net by Iris Murdoch (1954)

If art is about making a connection between the artist and the observer, then lots of art eludes me. I can usually appreciate the central ideas behind a supposed masterpiece, but it’s often difficult for me to admire their execution. Walking into the SFMOMA, I don’t see the beauty of a mundane object outside its natural setting; I see a toilet on its side. The idea of a time-travelling schizophrenic is certainly appealing, but Donnie Darko was about as enjoyable as a snuff film. (The comment section is to prove me wrong, people!) And seriously, don’t even get me started on the torpid horrors of The Animal Collective.

Frankly, the majority of my slog through Modern Library’s Top 100 list has been similarly unfulfilling. There have been a couple entries that I’ve truly enjoyed, but for the most part I’ve found the list to be forgettable. Like that toilet, the books seemed to have been more about big ideas than anything else, so they never really connected with me. Thankfully, just as I was beginning to entertain doubts about abandoning this project, I read Under the Net, a novel that finally backs its big ideas with a delightful story to match them.

Under the Net is a pretty straightforward tale, actually. Jake Donaghue is a French-to-English translator living in 1950s London, trying to make ends meet and solve a tricky love quadrangle he’s mired himself in. Along the way he publishes book about the meaninglessness of language; dognaps Mister Mars, an aging movie star; and cracks some bobby skulls in a massive labor riot on a Roman Forum. Essentially it’s a picaresque novel with a protagonist actually resembling a likeable human being, and that’s a rare gift.

In reading Under the Net, it’s hard not to recall Martin Blank, John Cusack’s character in Grosse Pointe Blank. Both Martin and Jake have done some pretty terrible things (though Jake’s rap sheet stops short of assassinating government witnesses), they both have to deal with the romantic consequences of an unexpected homecoming, and each man has a decidedly philosophic bent. But where Martin’s philosophy is necessarily couched in the shallow quip (after all, it’s probably not possible to be named the 21st greatest comedy film of all time if you’re focusing too much on epistemology), Jake’s has a lot of room to breathe simply by dint of literature being a more expansive medium. That's a dynamic that leads many authors to awkwardly shoehorn personal philosophies in their novels. Murdoch, who was a philosophy don at Oxford, probably had to deal with this temptation more than most, but she manages to integrate her personal take on Wittgenstein and Beckett into the narrative without it once sounding awkward.

I could rhapsodize on and on, but I won't. I usually try to connect these pieces to some overarching personal concern or motif, but Under the Net really does speak for itself. It's the first novel I've read with a narrative enriched with deep ideas without sounding pedantic. I can't dispense any higher praise.


Sofistafunk said...

Wait ... but you like snuff films.

I find immense beauty in mundane objects outside of their natural settings. Perhaps its the sociologist in me, but there's nothing like something where it's not supposed to be to render otherwise invisible conventions visible. It's like Harold Garfinkel's breaching experiments ( in art form. And there are few things I find as endlessly entertaining as a good breaching experiment.

Plus, a toilet on its side ... so pomo. Yeah. I said it.

But re: "great" literature and the Modern Library Top 100, I have to admit I'm a little surprised/impressed that you've kept at it. Once/if you get a little further down the list, I'd be interested to hear what your assessment of the list itself is. The list's project is certainly an admirable one, but it seems like a pretty shitty list so far.

Steven Simunic said...

I don't think I could ever really abandon the list, especially considering the primary reason for this blog's existence is to review it.

To be fair, though, the last 2 books have been awesome-possum, so I'm cautiously optimistic.

Brendan K. said...

I think if we took an NH poll, Grosse Point Blank would probably pop up as an all-timer for all three of us. I recall that being one of 3 movies I ever saw in a theater twice.

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