Tuesday, November 16, 2010

June Starr: Iris Murdoch's Bruno's Dream (1970 short list)

Since Murdoch had a novel on the 1970 short list, I thought I’d read it directly after finishing The Nice and the Good. I thought the comparison might be interesting and I certainly enjoyed my double dose of Murdoch.

One thing I liked about Bruno’s Dream is the sly way that Murdoch plays with the form and readers’ expectations about novels and their plots. We think this novel is going to be about a dying old man, Bruno, and his estranged son, Miles, reestablishing a relationship--but it isn’t. That relationship never really reasserts itself in the ways we might have forecast. And from this initial misdirection, Murdoch adds others, actively diffusing her plot even as she builds it: Various intrigues surrounding a valuable stamp collection come to nothing. Love affairs and their revelations do not issue in crises and big moments. Anticipated consequences give way to more unexpected, and usually much quieter developments and scenes.

Plus, there’s a flood.

As in The Nice and the Good, Murdoch gives us another large cast of characters, brought together by the demands of taking care of the bedridden Bruno: widowed Danby, the son-in-law with whom he lives; Adelaide, Danby’s housekeeper/girlfriend; her cousins Will and Nigel; Miles and his second wife, Diana; and her sister Lisa. All are disappointed or lost in some way, making due and marking time, unable to escape themselves or move forward. As Nigel (whom Murdoch makes a sort of zen master nurse) tells Diana when Miles forsakes her: “A human being hardly ever thinks about other people. He contemplates fantasms which resemble them and which he has decked out for his own purposes” (239). The only ways out of the stagnant solipsism and misery that afflict pretty much everyone in the novel, according to Murdoch, are love and forgiveness.

Love and forgiveness a la The Nice and the Good, are again what we get at the end--in a flurry of marriages and reconciliations. Murdoch may have liked to tweak the form and upset reader expectations but she clearly liked herself some happy endings, too.

I'll be reviewing all of the Booker short-listed books in the coming year at Reading the Bookers.

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