(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 36)

Part of the interest of yet another novel by the prolific Iris Murdoch is charting the intense reactions it invariably provokes among reviewers. A Murdoch novel is not only wildly creative but also can be a cause of creativity in others, judging from the range of simile and metaphor used to express the satisfaction, bafflement, or exasperation of its readers. Murdoch’s twenty- fourth novel, The Message to the Planet, is no exception. “[A]s sturdy and reliable as a well-made trench coat” observes one, while another finds in The Message to the Planet “the impassive force of a natural disaster, predictable but unstoppable; and a trail of broken critics, as ineffectual as a picket fence in a hurricane, lies in its wake.” “Like Henry James on crack” muses another (perhaps one of the broken pickets), who confesses uncertainty as to whether The Message to the Planet is “a great novel, a merely interesting one, or an unclassifiable pandemonium.” The latter reviewer adds, however, that “I wouldn’t dream of missing one of her novels,” even though Murdoch “is like one of those middle-aged English walkers who take you up steep hills without a pause for breath.” That a writer as demanding as Murdoch can also be a popular novelist (in Britain her books are best-sellers) is surprising. Many have tried to isolate the specific qualities of her fiction which have earned for her an unexpectedly large following; much analysis has been devoted to her hypnotic narrative style, her uncanny plots and eccentric characters, her “superb rendering of emotional turmoil,” her ability to interweave “humor with psychological and philosophic insights.” Critics have attempted to classify her, to place her in a tradition—of English realism or of magical realism or of the twentieth century Continental novel of ideas—or to see her as an existentialist writer. Ultimately Murdoch eludes classification and remains like one of her novels: enigmatic and singular. Murdoch does, however, develop recurring themes within her strange fictional world, and recurring character types—primarily upper-middle-class British intellectuals and pseudo-intellectuals. Like The Book and the Brotherhood (1987), The Message to the Planet features a powerful demonic-charismatic figure around whom much of the action and most of the other characters revolve. Marcus Vallar, a Jewish intellectual, was recognized as a mathematical genius at age nineteen for developing the Vallar Theorem. After that he became a chess champion, briefly took up philosophy “but soon ’saw through it,’” took up painting but abandoned it for Sanskrit and Japanese, and is currently on the track of “deep foundations, pure cognition, the nature of consciousness, a universal language underlying the tongues of east and west”—or so, at least, his ardent disciple Alfred Ludens believes. Ludens, who is the central consciousness of this novel, is a young lecturer in history on leave from a London college and is the most passionate of the Vallar watchers. Others in the group are Gildas Herne, a former Anglican priest who works in a Bloomsbury book-shop; Patrick Fenman, an Irish poet believed to be psychic; the painter Jack Sheerwater and his wife, Franca; and Jack’s mistress, Alison Merrick.

Marcus has powerfully affected the lives of the major characters. He caused Gildas to leave the priesthood, taught Jack Sheerwater a style of painting that brought Jack great commercial success, placed a curse on Patrick that brought him to the brink of death and then miraculously resurrected him, and has Ludens believing that he, Marcus, is a god who possesses some secret, ultimate knowledge. Ludens becomes obsessed with Marcus, following...

(The entire section is 1520 words.)