Iris At Last

I remember a former classmate back at Wesleyan recommending I read Iris Murdoch–her novel The Good Apprentice. “I think you’d like her, based on what you’re writing,” he said. I admired his work above all the other student writers in our very small advanced fiction class–he seemed older than the rest of us somehow and younger at the same time, his hair dyed into leopard spots, his clothes always stylishly punk, even when awkward, and sincerely punk, too–none of that store-bought stuff.  His face was eflin or Vulcan, or the face of a Vulcan elf–beautiful in an otherworldly sort of way. He was also, I know now, like a character from an Iris Murdoch novel himself–he even looked like the young man on the cover, the butterfly like a mask on his face. He was, to my mind, our most talented fiction writer. He gave it up when he began reading Foucault to become, eventually, a queer theorist. He had a boyfriend he’d later marry–they met in prep school, something I envied, and the boyfriend would go on to write and produce one of the few recent successful rock operas in recent history. If Iris was writing now, I believe he–they, really–would be in her newest novel.

Given that admiration I had for this hero of my school days, I still find it hard to believe I didn’t begin reading her back then, but I can only think I was afraid of being influenced, something that now seems ridiculous, but is so common among the young, and that deprives them too often of an education they might otherwise get earlier.

In any case, at some point late last spring, as the whole world was crisping up with that end of times heat and turning into the bleak muggy early summer that threatened to sweat us all to death, I remembered his recommendation. Another friend loved her too, and had sent me an essay she was writing on her. So I got some recommendations, read some samples, chose and downloaded A Word Child, as a test (I often buy an ebook for an author I’m uncertain of) and began.

*                     *                    *

A Word Child was, quite simply, some of the most fun I’d had reading something in a while. The style of the book itself was its own pleasure–I almost didn’t care what she was saying, or, he, her narrator, that is. An angry old man in the body of a slightly younger man.

I was trying to rescue myself from despair when I began, for when I do not have a good novel to read, I read myself sick with news on politics, and become full of despair. To my surprise, I found as i I had stuck myself into the life of one of the nastiest narrators I’ve ever run into, and had, well, a lot of fun. Some examples, from what I highlighted:

I thought of them as ‘students’ though they studied nothing but pleasure.

There is nothing like early promiscuous sex for dispelling life’s bright mysterious expectations.

I was one for whom the spoken and written languages are themselves different languages.

Clifford was a glittering object, good-looking, clever, charming when he wanted to be so, and surrounded with the sort of melancholy and the sort of mystery which make women feel for men pity, then quickly love.

Life isn’t a play. It isn’t even a pantomime.

My ‘home’ was a small mean nasty flatlet in Bayswater, in a big square red -brick block in a cul-de-sac. Outside the cul-de-sac was a busy noisy street, beyond that street were some modest dingy shops, beyond the shops was a Bayswater tube station (District Line and Inner Circle), beyond that was Queensway tube station (Central Line), beyond that was Bayswater Road, and beyond that was, thank God, the park. I instinctively denigrate my flat: it was doubtless my own life which was small and nasty.

I know this last paragraph looks somewhat ordinary, and it is, which is part of what is so good about it–it has the feeling of someone figuring something out as they talk to you, and telling you something you can believe, even as it also tells you about his neighborhood and how he feels about it, and his life, all at the same time.

And so I went under, in the grip of the spell, her spell. The irony for me was that all around me was the whole “likable character” controversy, as well as the question of whether Salter was or was not a misogynist, and so on–and it was like walking through a party with a bitter funny friend who insistently pushes you to think a little more, to second guess, just when you think you know what you know. If Iris ever thought about likable characters, well, this is what interested me–this is the cliffhanger, as it were, and I’ll address it in another post soon–I bring up the Salter misogyny question because this narrator of hers was one of the most misogynist first person narrators I’ve ever read a novel from, if not the only one. I have found it challenging before–I was entirely overwhelmed by the misogyny in Updike’s Rabbit, Run, for example, so much so that it was hard to finish the novel, I was so angry with Rabbit by the end.  But not so with Hilary Burde, not quite the same level of annoyance. I suppose I could say it was a matter of degrees–Rabbit really hates his wife in some terrible ways, his mistress also, whereas Hilary seems to hate everyone, but especially women who need something from him, or need him to change. I could say I read through to the end in part to see if I ever would see him change, if he would ever relent or learn something about his narcissist ways, but even that isn’t quite convincing. The effect puzzles me even now, it almost feels like a betrayal of myself, but I think it gets back to what Claire Messud was saying when she so famously said, last year, some of what I’ll post here, in PW:

As a writer, I subscribe to Chekhov’s world view: “It’s not my job to tell you that horse thieves are bad people. It’s my job to tell you what this horse thief is like.” The more accurately one can illuminate a particular human experience, the better the work of art. I’m not an autobiographical, or biographical, writer, except in some abstract sense. If I had to summarize, most broadly, my concerns as a writer, I’d say the question “how then must we live?” is at the heart of it, for me. It can only be addressed in the individual, not in the general; each of us on this planet must come to terms with this question for him or herself.

As a reader, I’ve long felt passionately about fictions that articulate anger, frustration, disappointment—from reading Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground, in high school, when I thought, “my God, fiction can do this? Fiction can say these unsayable things?” to reading Beckett or Camus or Philip Roth’sSabbath’s Theater to Thomas Bernhard—these are all articulating unseemly, unacceptable experiences and emotions, rage prominent among them. Because rage at life and rage for life are very closely linked. To be angry, you have to give a shit.

I think I can go out on a limb and say Iris would agree (without a Ouija board, though, if I was to ever ask a spirit a question, it would be her).  And then the interviewer famously says, I wouldn’t want to be friends with her, speaking of Messud’s narrator in The Woman Upstairs, and Messud says,

For heaven’s sake, what kind of question is that? Would you want to be friends with Humbert Humbert? Would you want to be friends with Mickey Sabbath? Saleem Sinai? Hamlet? Krapp? Oedipus? Oscar Wao? Antigone? Raskolnikov? Any of the characters in The Corrections? Any of the characters in Infinite Jest? Any of the characters in anything Pynchon has ever written? Or Martin Amis? Or Orhan Pamuk? Or Alice Munro, for that matter? If you’re reading to find friends, you’re in deep trouble. We read to find life, in all its possibilities. The relevant question isn’t “is this a potential friend for me?” but “is this character alive?”

I’ve been thinking about this issue because it is common now to disallow a novel for containing this kind of a character or narrator, and that makes me uncomfortable, because misogyny is real. For our fictions to relate to the world, we can’t ask them to be better than we are.  My situation also is that my good friend Roxana Robinson wrote that essay on Salter, and I’m having dinner with her, to talk about novels, including Salter and Murdoch. So, I will hang out with her, see if she’ll give me a quote and write more soon on why I think Murdoch’s use of a misogynist succeeded next week. Because it isn’t enough to say she’s a great artist, there’s something in there we can see if we look hard enough.


  1. I had your former classmate as a professor in college! What a small world…. He wrote me a letter for grad school, but we haven’t been in touch since 1999.

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