Top critical review
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Big Ideas, good tale - too much talk
on 2 August 1999
Murdoch clearly knew a lot about Hell - just about every character lives there in this book. It has to be one of the most despairing depictions of the human condition in English. Yet I don't think she quite invites comparison with the greats. The characters are just too, well, knowledgable, too talkative about their conditions. Of course everything they, including the narrator, say, is unreliable - but that's not exactly the point: they lack weight, a certain verbal dexterity blights them all. Their words are slippery and they're bound to be wrong about themselves most of the time. That's probably part of Murdoch's intended effect. Still, however you slice it, too much verbosity is bad for the soul. You cease to care much what happens to these people because they're essentially trivial. You keep thinking you're in a french farce or Restoration comedy - but you know the narrator (and the author, too, I think) imagines something more ominous at the bottom of these wretched lives. Call it a perverse power (the Black Prince?) operating to destroy the few bits of happiness these people are capable of. That very power - especially in the case of the narrator, Bradley Pearson - may also be necessary to lift them out of the torpor of their lives. That's an interesting idea - this author is nothing if not daring and inventive. Still, in the end, the lives here are more willed than realized. I never quite believed in either the misery or the exaltation of the narrator - and certainly not in the transforming power his love is supposed to have over his youthful beloved, Christian. Yet the depiction of this love affair is not ironic and is uncharacteristically elevated in tone: Christian is part Beatrice, part Heloise - and wholly wish-fulfilment. Bradley, on the other hand, is most identifiable as a certain type of dissatisfied malcontent - detached, anesthetized, ironical - until made otherwise by Love, the Black Prince. But even in love he hasn't enough substance to constitute the center-piece of a book: I never believed any of his high-flown talk about either art or love. Bradley Pearson, you're no Jonathan Swift. Iris Murdoch, you're no Fyodor Dostoevsy.... But compulsively readable, all the same. This author can't write a silly sentence or a dull book.