This was, I’m ashamed to say, my first foray into the fiction of Iris Murdoch and I can’t say exactly what I was expecting. Only, it wasn’t this. Maybe I had visions of some gentle, august reflection on love and self a la Margaret Drabble, or a cerebral tour de force a la A.S. Byatt. What I got instead was a rip-roaringly hilarious voice novel, tongue planted firmly in cheek, and a love story that skillfully embraces and relishes its own wacky, preposterous plot line.
The particulars: Bradley Pearson (the ‘black prince’ of the title – the initials are the same, get it?) is 58 years old and by any measure a failure in life. Divorced young and never remarried. Published one unsuccessful novel at age 25 and a second at age 40. Then, for 18 years, nothing much else happened. Suddenly, the flood gates of Bradley’s past open up all at once. Francis, the brother of his ex-wife Christian, shows up at his door one day to inform him that Christian is moving back to London from America, and Bradley flies into a narcissistic panic attack over whether she'll want to contact him. Simultaneously, Bradley gets a desperate phone call from his friend and former protégé Arnold, a prolific and much more successful poplar novelist, asking him to hurry to his house: Bradley and Francis rush over to discover that Arnold has clobbered his wife Rachel with a fireplace poker during a domestic dispute and nearly killed her. Shortly after that, Bradley’s hysterically materialistic and mentally unstable sister Priscilla arrives in his life after fleeing her marriage from cruel-hearted Roger, who, unbeknownst to Priscilla, has impregnated his mistress Marigold and is intending to marry her. In the midst of all this, Bradley encounters Arnold and Rachel’s 20-year-old daughter Julian and, eventually, falls in madly love with her. She eventually returns his affection and Bradley goes on a Humbert Humbert-esque quest to seduce and marry the young nymph. But not, of course, before he has a little tryst with Rachel and is propositioned by Christian to return to their marriage after several decades apart. Oh, and Arnold has an affair with Christian. And Francis is gay, and so might Bradley be as well. (Many of the characters’ names are deliberately androgynous – Francis, Julian, Christian, etc – and the story’s atmosphere carries an understated homoeroticism.) The novel culminates with a suicide, a murder most foul, and Bradley (spoiler alert) ending up in jail.
Did you get all that?
I usually bristle at such improbable plot twists, but in Murdoch’s expert hands it all comes off as one big, satirical, lunatic farce. The title of the novel is of course a reference to Hamlet, a subject that Bradley and Julian discuss at length during their courtship. But Bradley is no Hamlet figure. Even within his own first-person narration, he is a repugnant and untrustworthy narcissist so lacking in judgment that we can’t help but root for him out of sheer pity. The Black Prince is not merely a self-referential novel; it is a self-conscious novel. Deliberately so. Bradley gives us a heads-up when something interesting or shocking is going to happen; he pulls himself out of his story on occasion to talk directly to us and plead for our sympathy; he undermines his own perspectives in countless small ways, which speaks to the bigger undermining that frames the story.
Murdoch sets her tale up with an “editor’s foreword” and then Bradley’s own introduction, as if what we’re about to read were an account of true events being published after the fact. This destabilizes the narrative from the get go, which paradoxically gives us permission to buy into the many absurd twists and turns of the novel itself. Then the book ends with postscripts from each of the key secondary characters, (as well as a postscript from the editor), all of which challenge the very veracity of everything we have just read. This technique reminded me a little of Life of Pi.
I don’t think it’s particularly important to focus on what Murdoch is clearly spoofing here – the stereotypical British novel of manners. Nor is it important to tie one’s brains into pretzels over how Murdoch takes the notion of an “unreliable narrator” and flips it on its head. The important thing here is to point out how The Black Prince so successfully makes us suspend our disbelief – another attribute it shares with Martel’s novel. You get absorbed into The Black Prince’s maniacal romantic entanglements, suck up its ridiculous improbabilities, and then you come for air wondering what the hell you’ve just read. It’s genius in it’s own way.
Don’t be lured into thoughts about “what really happened?” when you finish this book – who killed whom and who really loved whom and who was lying the whole time. Just sort of go limp and let yourself reflect on how Murdoch carried you off with this novel’s fully contained and realized ludicrousness. Phew!