Saturday, October 6, 2007

Iris Murdoch's 1973 novel The Black Prince was marketed as a supermarket aisle checkout book. Most of the late 1970 editions the cheap sluts in my book club ordered off half.com and ebay featured a Harlequinesque cover depicting lovers entwined with the seductive pull quote: "An astonishing tale of passion gone awry, intrigue, and mystery."

Though it's pretty apparent five seconds into the novel that this is not the written equivalent of One Tree Hill. It begins with an editor's foreword-- a fake editor's foreword-- explaining his mysterious relationship to the supposed author of the text, Bradley Pearson, a man who has lived out the incredible tale that is to follow, and automatically gets douchetard status for claiming he will do the impossible:

Although several years have now passed since the events recorded in this fable, I shall in telling it adopt the modern technique of narration, allowing the narrating consciousness to pass like a light along its series of present moments, aware of the past, unaware of what is to come. I shall, that is, inhabit my past self, and for the ordinary purposes of storytelling, speak only with the apprehensions of that time.

(If only Tom Clancy protagonists had such lofty literary ideals perhaps American readers would be smart enough to realize the Angus Beef Third Pounder is a reaaaally bad idea.)


I have a love/hate relationship with unreliable narration. On a basic level I enjoy trusting and liking my characters since I'm going to probably end up spending some depressing Saturday nights alone with them. But unreliable narration has its seductive traits too-- it's like a big street sign that announces "Get ready--this is going to be something BIG MEAN and META about the purpose of literature and art, and, by extension the ultimate meaning of life!!!!" Then again, as a construct, that can get annoying.

All the characters consider themselves artists. Bradley Pearson is an unsuccessful writer because his obnoxious philosophical pretenses about writing render him absolutely unable to put a word down on a page. His frenemy Arnold Baffin, is a wildly successful mainstream author who churns out endless piles of stupid shit like he was simply going to a 9-5 job at the factory every day. The women who "love" them consider themselves stifled artistic souls who, trapped in the shadow of their husbands, are prevented from achieving greatness.

It's funny that the book is outwardly marketed as a "tale of passion." As far as the plot is concerned I suppose it is-- Bradley begins a torrid affair with Arnold's wife, Rachel, as well as Rachel's daughter, Julian. (There is lots of modern-day porn about this type of arrangement) Arnold falls in love with Christian, Bradley's ex-wife (there is also porn about this). There are secret rendezvous, some mildly hot sex scenes, long monologues of adorations.

But they're all too self-conscious of their constructed identity as artists to actually feel anything. Bradley begins the affair with Rachel, thinking perhaps that experiencing the emotion of the affair will help him "write the book I've been waiting all my life to write." During their lovemaking Rachel announces that their bond is just like the love in "the great novels" of their age. There is no passion free from intellect even in the most intimate scenes. The love scenes are simply mutual masturbation.

They are all pretentious sociopaths. I hated all of them. Gossip Girl, the book, was like this too-- full of unsympathetic characters. Thank God the TV show makes Serena and Dan goodish. (Dan- spotted Friday night at the taco stand in Soho. He wasn't that cute.)

The dialogue in The Black Prince is amusing. All the characters are trying to push one another into their own theoretical Jello molds, because that's what meglomaniacs do. I overheard things akin to this dialogue multiple times during college. I mean, who are these people?

Of course, in this instance, these people are Bradley and Christian's brother, Francis, who obviously has a sweet little gayish crush and goes about expressing it with mind-numbing egoism. I loved this conversation:

"Have you ever realized you're a repressed homosexual?"

"Look," I said, "I'm grateful to you for your help with Priscilla. And don't misunderstand me, I am a completely tolerant man. I have no objection to homosexuality. Let others do as they please. But I just happen to be a completely normal heterosexual--"

"One must accept one's body, one must learn to relax. Your thing about smells is a guilt complex, because of your repressed tendencies, you won't accept your body, it's a well known neurosis--"

"I am not a neurotic!"

"You're trembling with nerves and sensibility--"

"Of course I am, I'm an artist!"


It's hard to find Iris Murdoch in any part of The Black Prince. In some ways she is similar to Bradley-- a writer with deep philosophical ideals and a philosophy background, in others she is like Arnold-- this was her 15th book, she popped them out faster than Anna Nicole popped in pills.

I'm pretty sure, if I can trust her husband John Bayley's memoir, that she had an extremely good marriage. I want their marriage so so hard one day. It seems totally lovely.

Someone once asked John what the secret to their perfect union was and he replied "We had cats instead of kids."

I think I want kids, not cats, though.

2 comments:

liz said...

Besides the unpredictably bizarre weather of the Upper Midwest, and though I'm learning to like it here, there are many hundreds of reasons I am often sad I don't live on the East Coast. The inability to participate in your book club/hear these pearls of wisdom from the horse's mouth, as it were, is certainly one (2?) of them. The fact that I'm exponentially less likely to see Penn Badgely at a taco stand (Little T's?) is another. Unless he's in that movie the Coen brothers are going to be shooting in St. Louis Park...

Perfect Ratio said...

What I can't figure out re:Penn is that all of us, upon sighting, were so inefficient with our technology. I mean we all whipped out our cells and started mass texting, and hello, CAMERA PHONES?

If you were here, Liz, you would be dictator of Book Club you'd be so good. If you ever feel like forgoing your commie Midwestern lifestyle and amassing some power, you know where to go. (my house next month)