Picks and Pans Review: The Message to the Planet

updated 03/26/1990 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/26/1990 AT 01:00 AM EST

by Iris Murdoch

Few modern writers convey a sense of the pleasures of community as powerfully as Murdoch. In each of her dense, delightful novels we meet a large circle of friends who dine, drink and laugh together, discussing art, philosophy or one another far into the night. Their lives seem comfortingly intertwined, rare examples of fellowship in an increasingly fragmented world.

This does not mean, however, that Murdoch characters are happy—in general they are too busy suffering in love or pondering the meaning of the universe. Franca Sheerwater and Alfred Ludens are cases in point. Friends from their university days, Franca and Ludens both had unhappy childhoods, and each has fixated on a parent substitute. For Franca it is her husband, Jack, a selfish painter prone to such utterances as "Women ...understand themselves through us; like plants and animals, we make them exist." So besotted is Franca that she abandons her own artistic ambitions and makes no objection when he declares that "absolute love precludes jealousy" so he can move his mistress into their home.

Ludens's obsession takes a different form. Convinced that Marcus Vallar, an eccentric mathematician and philosopher, is "the possessor of an intellectual secret, some master-key, talisman, password, or radiant lump of deep fundamental knowledge," Ludens decides to devote his life to Vallar in hopes of uncovering that secret. Ultimately, however, Vallar shows himself to be merely charismatic and "fundamentally muddled."

Murdoch is a supremely inventive storyteller and embellishes her two main story lines with engaging subplots. A former philosophy professor, she also permits her characters to ramble on for pages about religion, suffering, the contingency of existence and so on. One is almost tempted, at times, to wish the whole gang would all stop thinking for a while and adopt the kind of devil-may-care attitude Franca displays at one point: "We may be dead tomorrow...but today is true and real and to be lived well in the clear light and the fresh air."

In an Iris Murdoch novel, of course, there's not a chance. (Viking, $22.95)

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