Stuck on the misery-go-round

Hugo Barnacle fights his way through the Murdoch Zone; Jackson's Dilemma by Iris Murdoch Chatto & Windus, pounds 15.99

In our world, it is a matter of record that the lesser country houses often changed hands, even during the gentry's heyday, and in the post-war period they were mostly abandoned, demolished or put to non-domestic uses. Those that survive as homes tend to be inhabited by business types. But in the Murdoch Zone, a world strangely like our own and yet also strangely different, none of this applies.

In the Murdoch Zone, there may be cardboard cities and congested motorways, but young Edward Lannion is still living at Hatting Hall as his family have done for centuries, and just up the hill his neighbour Benet Barnell is still master of Penndean by the same divine right.

Benet was a civil servant before he inherited, but neither of these gentlemen does a stroke of work nowadays except for writing never-to-be-completed books, Edward an historical novel, Benet a study of Heidegger. Both own, besides their country places, vast Kensington pads with, can you believe, off-street parking. Neither has a financial care in the world. Remember, the world in question is not the real one.

Even odder, from Benet's garden at night you can still see all "the innumerable crowding stars of the Milky Way", a feat rendered impossible anywhere else in southern England these 30 years past because of the longnecked sodium lamps strung along every byway. And even though the local rector visits the parish only once a month, the Georgian rectory still belongs to the church, not to a car-phone salesman or a US diplomat.

The novel's plot concerns a bolter, a traditional figure in tales of romance among the quality. The girl doesn't literally leave Edward standing at the altar, but she does send a cryptic note, the night before the wedding, to say it's all off, and then vanishes. This is the cue for Edward, Benet and their circle to indulge in an operatic misery-go-round, with everyone blurting "I love you" at everyone else, weeping buckets and, inexplicably, debating the role of mysticism in the development of Western thought.

Virtually every character, we find, has been orphaned at an early age. This too was once a common device in popular fiction because it allowed bright young things the independence to have adventures. It derives from the childhood fantasy of parentless freedom, and lends this novel a deeply juvenile tone, which is reinforced by the writing style.

There are lots of exclamation marks, lots of italic emphases, lots of words and phrases placed in twee inverted commas for no good reason, and, at the end, after a rash of arbitrary surprises, when even the humble bookshop assistant turns out to be a millionaire in disguise, there are lots of guest lists for celebration feasts and, no doubt, lots of jelly and trifle for happy-ever-afters. It reads like the work of a 13-year- old schoolgirl who doesn't get out enough, or else like a cruel parody of Iris Murdoch.

But who is Jackson? He is a supernatural being in the form of a homeless person who materialises one night on Benet's London doorstep, offering his services as a handyman, and taken on after many refusals. He has no first name, claims to be 43 but could mean 43 lifetimes, and allegedly radiates a mysterious charisma. Murdoch hints that he might really be Shiva, Caliban, the Fisher King, one of the Tibetan Mahatmas, Jesus Christ, or a reincarnation of Lt-Col TE Lawrence, DSO, late of the British Army Arab Bureau.

No, seriously. He could even be all of the above, though the scarring on his back favours the last two possibilities. His dilemma is whether to give the bolter, Marian, a note from her secret Australian lover which might wreck, or rectify, everything.

In the Murdoch Zone, money may grow on trees, preferably the "centuries- old trees" of one's Capability Brown garden, but life still holds more questions than answers. "Where is the Ultimate and what is it?" asks Murdoch. "Where is Knowledge?" Certainly nowhere to be found in this book, which never begins to make the remotest kind of sense.

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