Murdoch’s attempt to break away from the narrowness of the realistic novel has never been entirely satisfactory to the critics, primarily because of her strong desire to hold on to realism while breaching it with other literary modes. This novel, her twelfth, is a typical example of the way in which she brings reality into play against farce, slight mystical intimations, arbitrary conduct by characters, and tentative and sometimes unsystematic symbolic structures. It is not quite as wildly imaginative as other works before and after Bruno’s Dream, but it has some of that modal breadth that makes her popular with literate readers enjoying the shuffling of genre, and makes her suspect with critics who demand a more rigorous repudiation of reality. There is something too cozily smart about her work to take her as a full partner with writers of the absurd, such as Samuel Beckett.
What often helps Murdoch in saving her novels from dismissal as sophisticated fantasy is the way in which she develops physical densities, three-dimensional tactilities in “things,” in the normal physical accumulations of everyday life. The squalor of Danby’s home, for example, is realized vividly, and Bruno’s room is a fetid lair reeking with his illness but quite as full of his spiders and stamps, books, old champagne bottles, and rumpled bedclothes, which make for a reality which the character’s surprising conduct cannot dispel.
That same intense, close-up power of description, that sense of almost claustrophobic focus, is used in the description of the flood, and in the hushed, step-by-step, fingertip stealth of Nigel in snaring Will in order to have a little talk with him. On the rational level it is nonsense, but physically it is absolutely right. The same attention to detail charms away any reservations about the crazy duel on the bank of the Thames. After the fact, the critical reservations, so deeply tied to the proposition that characters ought to act consistently and reasonably, may take over, but while Murdoch is building these structures of enchantment, the spell is usually unbreachable. It is a form of literary hypnotism.