Iris Murdoch's latest: ideas, comedy, satire

January 07, 1996|By Joan Mellen | Joan Mellen,Special to the sun

"Jackson's Dilemma," by Iris Murdoch. Viking Press. 252 pages. $22.95 "Jackson's Dilemma" is Iris Murdoch's 26th novel and considerably shorter than her masterpieces, "The Black Prince" and "The Sea, The Sea." Dame Murdoch has honed her craft to its essence, producing a fictional gem. This time there is no hero, but an ensemble of upper-middle-class semi-intellectuals, civil servants, artists and mystics, all blunderers. Incapable of discovering where their happiness resides, or afraid to accept it, they duck behind abstractions, religious or philosophical.

They talk of "the early Marx," "rapacious bourgeois capitalism," "a believable form of Christianity" and Indian gods. None of it means anything to them. Meanwhile, as at every turn her work leaps to allegory, Ms. Murdoch demonstrates that ideas in fiction can be fun, that the mind no less than the body enjoys play.

The story begins with a bride named Marion who vanishes the night before her wedding to Edward, dour, uncommunicative and restlessly pursued by the demons of his youth. Before long we are following the trajectories of five couples, among them Edward, whose true love is not Marion, and Marion, whose passion also resides with another. Is this then a latter-day Jane Austen fable with its country setting where marriage is indeed on everyone's mind?

But if "Jackson's Dilemma" begins and ends with rich people assembled in a country house, there is also London, as Murdoch the expressionist marries Austen to Dostoyevsky. A stone hurled through Edward's London window intrudes psychological danger which is the gift of our millennium. Will this be a thriller? Is violence in store for the self-satisfied group?

A quarter of the way through, we meet Jackson, an ageless, mysterious street person likened to a snake in a basket, who materializes out of the London fog. He is soon to be pursued in scenes reminiscent of Thomas Mann's "Death in Venice." Yet Jackson alone brings order, peace, competence. One of the characters calls him a "god."

"Jackson's Dilemma" is a novel of ideas; it's a romantic comedy about people in search of love and solace; it's no less a satire of English upper-middle-class people comfortable but far from content, and deluded about where their sexual proclivities lie. Locked in solitude, they fear the interventions of witchcraft. Peering into mirrors, they experience "loss of identity." They want what all fictional characters want: love and understanding, passion and completion.

The ending is a tour de force, not of abstract ideas, but of the compassion that alone bespeaks transcendence. Ms. Murdoch out-Austens Jane Austen, offering us not one, but three satisfying marriages. But she is not yet through in this concise masterpiece. The final moments belong to the child Bran and the elusive Jackson, who alone know that life is about offering selfless love to those in need. Each in his turn embraces the old horse Spencer, who in his "terrible loneliness" cries out for affection. We are lifted out of ourselves into Aristotelian catharsis, the sine qua non of great art.

A novel should delight, enrich our lives, help us through winter Sundays. This exquisite, penetrating, brilliant work by Iris Murdoch accomplishes that - and in abundance.

Joan Mellen, who teaches in the creative writing program at Temple University in Philadelphia, is the author of 12 books. Her "Hellman and Hammett: The Legendary Passion of Lillian Hellman and Dashiell Hammett" will be published in May by HarperCollins.

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