New Murdoch novel of moral dilemmas

The Good Apprentice, by Iris Murdoch. New York: Viking. 522 pp. $18.95. As if to bridge the gap often presumed to exist between realism and romance, between the novel of manners and the novel of ideas, the formidable body of Iris Murdoch's fiction interposes itself: 22 novels ranging through the realms of realism, romance, allegory, myth, symbolism, history, and social comedy.

Of the moral purpose that informs her work there is little doubt, or of the intellectual energy that animates it. Few go so far as to question the quality of her thought (Murdoch is, after all, a trained philosopher), but some have questioned the level of her craftsmanship, suggesting that the intellectual content of her novels outdistances the niceties of artistic form. Defenders have countered by arguing that the novel is a mixed genre, open-ended, elastic, at its best when pushed beyond the neatness of mere form.

One can admire the rough-hewn splendor of Murdoch's sprawling later work (akin, perhaps, to Michelangelo's late sculptures of bodies emerging from the rock they still resemble) without taking sides in the debate as to whether polished perfection is preferable to flawed greatness. But sometimes, what one actually finds in her recent work is not the fascinating unevenness of craftsmanship buckling under the weight of ideas, but the spectacle of ideas running round in ever-shrinking circles. Murdoch's next-to-latest novel, ``The Philosopher's Pupil'' (1983), is in fact beautifully written and very artfully constructed. Yet its characters -- clearly modeled on the talkative, tormented souls who people the world of Dostoyevsky -- seem but pale parodies of the originals, promisingly labeled doors that open on blank walls.

But in her most recent novel, ``The Good Apprentice,'' the sprawling size of the narrative has precisely the opposite effect. To read it is to enter a labyrinth where every gate opens on a vista of possibilities.

The story begins when Edward Baltram rashly feeds his unsuspecting friend a sandwich containing a hallucinogenic drug, then compounds the wrong by leaving him alone for a brief period during which he is killed by a fall from an open window. It is hard to believe from this first scene that Edward will prove to be one of the most sympathetic heroes in Murdoch's fiction, but such is indeed the case. Plunged into hellish depths of grief, remorse, and paralytic misery, Edward embarks on a spiritual journey in search of a forgiveness he does not believe he will find and does not feel he deserves.

Edward's family and friends are understandably concerned. Yet they are equally disturbed by his stepbrother Stuart Cuno, a brilliant mathematics student, who plans to give up his academic career to pursue what he believes is the most important goal in life: to be and to do good. Both young men are advised by their handsome, shallow, well-meaning parent, Harry Cuno, to stop wallowing in guilt (in Edward's case) or innocence (in Stuart's) and get on with their lives. Both are encouraged, however, by their clever, psychoanalytic uncle, Thomas McCaskerville, to continue unraveling the mysterious threads that draw them out of their old lives into the unknown.

Murdoch, as Peter J. Conradi reminds us in a sensitive new study (``Iris Murdoch: The Saint and the Artist,'' St. Martin's Press), has described herself as a Platonist. In this novel, she clearly portrays evil as a lack, a negation, a failure to free the self from bad faith, self-delusion, and compulsive behavior. While many writers (from Milton to Dostoyevsky) have found that their evil characters tend to be more interesting and vital than their good ones, Murdoch has the unusual gift of being able to create good characters who are more interesting than evil ones, perhaps because she understands the difficult challenge of learning to apprehend what is real and the sheer amount of energy, intelligence, and courage that can go into being genuinely good.

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