THE MESSAGE TO THE PLANET by Iris Murdoch, New York: Viking, 563 pp., $22.95
WHEN one casts an eye over the crowded, grayish cityscape of postwar fiction, Iris Murdoch's work looms lush, green, and restorative as the bounteous, crime-free Central Park envisioned by its original planners. Civilized, yet romantically wild, Murdoch's fictional landscape is recreational in the best sense: re-creating reality and reviving our sense of our possibilities.
Now in her eighth decade, Murdoch (recently, Dame Iris) has written 24 novels filled with fully developed characters for whom ideas, emotions, morality, and human relationships really matter. Whatever criticisms one has must be set in the broader context of her remarkable achievement.
Looking back on my experience of reading her last four novels, I cannot help wondering at Murdoch's capacity to enchant and exasperate me. I found ``The Philosopher's Pupil'' (1983) rather exasperating, ``The Good Apprentice'' (1986) entirely enchanting, and ``The Book and the Brotherhood'' (1988) an exercise in irritation. Her latest novel, ``The Message to the Planet,'' leaves me suspended between the desire to pay tribute to the richness of her imagination, the aliveness of her characters, the unselfconscious beauty of her writing, the depth of her spiritual insight, and the temptation to give vent to my vexation at the scores of little blind spots that mar her luminous vision.
This long and fascinating novel is composed of two interwoven story lines. The dominant one is the dilemma of Alfred Ludens, a shy, brilliant, young historian whose devotion to the mysterious, magus-like mathematician and philosopher Marcus Vallar becomes a kind of obsession. Murdoch's fans will instantly recognize some familiar themes and situations: The magus-figure has a motherless, wild-child daughter to whom his disciple is also attracted. Young Ludens and his friends (painter Jack Sheerwater and ex-priest Gildas Herne) spend a lot of time debating whether Marcus is a genius or a madman, a true or false prophet, good or evil - or beyond good and evil. The magus's own daughter, Irina, insists that her father is simply crazy, which makes Ludens's belief that Marcus has a message for the planet rather at odds with her wish to keep her parent happy and pacified.
The second storyline focuses on Jack Sheerwater's wife Franca, who has allowed her husband to maneuver her into a m'enage `a trois in which she is consigned to the role of saintly, sexless, domesticated mother figure, while Jack's mistress Alison provides - and receives - all the erotic excitement. Jack goes around boasting about the perfection of this arrangement, insisting that all three are living an idyll of love, selflessness, and harmony - although what is selfless about his position is hard to imagine.
Beneath the smiling surface, however, as we soon learn, negative emotions are seething. Franca's self-scrutiny is subtle, profound, and ultimately circular. She always blames herself: ``What had her motives been for keeping quiet then, for not behaving as (perhaps) most women would have behaved? ... Her main motive had been simply her love for Jack ... not to cause him any pain.... But had love been right?... She reflected upon ... her sense, in forgiving Jack, of in some way devaluing him, accepting and loving him as something less than the perfect being she had married. She had sided with his lower self. Should she not have fought him ...? So ... she had acted not just lovingly, but selfishly in choosing peace!''
Who - apart from the great Russian novelists she so admires - but Murdoch could paint such a complex and ambivalent portrait of the selfishness of selflessness? And where else but in her fiction might we find a passage like this, about Ludens: ``This was a feeling he sometimes had, when he pictured his friends as `stationed,' like auspicious stars, close to him, protecting him, and offering him the privilege and pleasure of performing, in their respect, good deeds.''
One of Murdoch's great strengths is her ability to make us undergo the emotional, spiritual, and intellectual experiences of her characters. Not only does she take us inside their hearts and heads, but she also portrays every twist and turn of their psychic journeys in brooding detail. If a character feels anxiety about a dilemma, guilt over a misdeed, infatuation with a lover, Murdoch seldom gives us one or two scenes to reveal this emotion when she can give us a dozen to wallow in it. Wallow may be too harsh a word. There's certainly method to her excess: Wallowing is a way of representing the obsessiveness of the characters' feelings.
IN ``The Good Apprentice,'' the hero's long tribulations seemed a necessary and soul-transforming expiation of his initial sin in feeding his best friend a drug-laced sandwich that led to the friend's death. But in other of her long novels, including this one, the repetitiveness becomes an artistic flaw, which, after a while, drives the reader to withdraw imaginative empathy: Where once we were intrigued and hypnotized, after repeated exposures, we feel bludgeoned and finally a bit bored.
Without giving away the ending, suffice it to say that after much emotional Sturm und Drang, elements of the resolution are oddly unsatisfying: Franca's fate, for example. You don't have to be a militant feminist to get the feeling that the women in Murdoch's novels are almost a species apart from the men, and slightly duller at that. Although this novel features an exemplary feminist, Maisie Tether from Boston, who tries to open Franca's eyes, the route she represents is never allowed to be more than a bland, if admirable, abstraction. Five hundred sixty-three pages is a long time to spend watching supposedly intelligent characters repeatedly making the same mistakes, even in the hands of a master magician like Iris Murdoch.