BOOK REVIEW / Our revels are unending

JACKSON'S DILEMMA by Iris Murdoch Chatto pounds 15.99

IN A beautiful and ancient country house, a group of friends gathers the night before a wedding. It is a much-wanted wedding and each guest has his or her own reason for wishing it, for celebrating it.

After supper, the guests wander out into the grounds, into the warm darkness. For a moment, a starry, benevolent chaos seems to reign. People murmur to one another, wander away. Hopeful of shared inclinations, someone risks a kiss. Back inside, in the light, a letter has been delivered. Marian, the bride, has jilted the groom, and each person's life will be crucially diverted by this decision.

Iris Murdoch almost always writes about people for whom money and work are an irrelevance and whose morality seems, despite an apparently contemporary setting, to belong in the leisurely security of the Fifties. Mostly, she gets away with it. Mostly, her characters' intricate and sophisticated emotional lives more than make up for an absence of - what? - the gas bill, the double-buggy, the shopping mall.

If you love her work - and I do - you know the rules. There is a country house, close (significantly) to water, and there are London flats with garages and terraces. There's a girl who's boyish, a boy who's girlish, at least one middle-aged, artistic man of wobbly sexuality, and an individual whose past no one knows.

The plot - and plenty of it - hinges on love, past secrets and blunders, religion, magic, philosophy. No one really works (here they ruminate on Heidegger or Maimonides) and there are endless taxis, telephones (answered and unanswered), hastily scribbled notes and consequent misunderstandings.

There's usually a drowning or near-drowning or both, and people with names like Tuan and Cantor stand on bridges, stare at water and greet each other with tears, exclamations of pain and sudden declarations of love: passionate love which often emerges from the chrysalis of intense dislike. But there's also a largeness, a sense - if not quite of God - of a universe arranged by an unseen hand, where sleep, faith and death (and sometimes marriage) are the great fixers.

Iris Murdoch is an extraordinarily, deliberately intelligent writer, whose capacity to chart a character's every shift of feeling, to lend credibility to the incredible (across six or seven pages of precise emotional cerebration) is startling, Normally we believe, forgive, adore her. Why, in Jackson's Dilemma, do I for once find this impossible?

Elements of this novel are spell-binding. It's a work of brilliance and shadow, about the search for stability, light and love in a darkly unsteady world. We begin in the dark. As the story unfolds, the gloom fills up with light and a sweet, Shakespearean-comic momentum builds. Men and women declare and reject love, move around one another like faltering satellites. Only Jackson - Puck and Caliban incarnate - can intervene.

Jackson is Benet's "servant". No one is sure where he came from, why he's there. Maybe he was magicked into being by the late Uncle Tim - a Prospero whose dead, benevolent presence suffuses the book. Maybe he's just an angel. And of course, Benet (middle-aged, concerned, seemingly sexless) does not want him, runs away, yet finally comes to understand what it is that he requires from him.

A loaded, intriguingly confusing presence, Jackson is at once "a huge dark slash, a dark thing", and also the light to Benet's monotonous dusk. This contrast might be beguiling, were Benet himself at all beguiling, but he is devoid of life, purpose, journey - a kind, bland individual whose dance with Jackson is unilluminating.

The other characters' melodramatic responses to Marian's decision not to marry become increasingly garish. They coerce, weep and rant about nothing in particular and, just for once, so much inherited wealth and leisure begins to grate. You catch yourself wondering why they don't just pull themselves together.

The novel lacks sufficient internal movement or believable explanation to render the characters or the dilemmas sympathetic. Is it significant that this is Murdoch's slenderest volume for some time? Scenes run out of energy, dialogue peters out; you wait hopefully, nothing happens. The resulting farce is tightly plotted, but simply not enough.

It's all rather sad in a novel crammed, nevertheless, with seductive pleasures. It can stun with heavenly, enchanting passages, pull you in deep, regardless of annoying inconsistencies (a character's surname changes inexplicably halfway through the book; a "devout Jew" has apparently married a Presbyterian). Here, you remind yourself, is a writer who knows how to build a dream within a dream and then shake the reader awake gently, selectively. Maybe we should hold on to that.

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