Friday, September 11, 2015

Review: The Bell and Jackson’s Dilemma, by Iris Murdoch

I was keen to get back to some Iris Murdoch over my summer vacation this year (a nice long trip home to PEI, which explains, if explanations are needed, why I haven’t updated the blog in nearly a month), as I’ve loved other books I’ve read of hers, and figured she would make for great holiday reading. I picked up The Bell and Jackson’s Dilemma more or less at random, not knowing what to expect beyond Murdoch’s penchant for off-kilter love entanglements and deep philosophical/moral cores in her books.

Both novels were, in a way, a disappointment. The Bell (1958) is by far the better of the two books: it was dull and hard to follow for about the first third, before it miraculously pivoted during a two-and-a-half-page section and became engrossing. It tells the story of a religious community ensconced around an Anglican abbey in rural England and the motley assemblage of characters involved with it. Its protagonist is the adulterous wife Dora Greenfield, who reluctantly returns to her lout of a husband, an art historian, just as he needs to travel to the abbey on a research project. We meet other characters in the process: Michael, the closeted homosexual who makes a pass at young Toby, who in turns has a brief and torrent tryst with Dora while in the community; the alcoholic Nick and his nun-to-be sister, Catherine.

The thematic landscape of The Bell is clear. We have a crew of deeply flawed and even immoral characters piously parading around a religious commune and getting into all manner of mischief. The image of the abbey’s bell – a new instalment aiming to bring much-needed attention to the church, and its competition with an older bell submerged in a nearby lake – is as an effective symbol of sire-call morality as anything. Despite its dry and often predictable turns, this novel was enough to keep my attention at a crowded beach.

I could not say the same thing about Jackson’s Dilemma, which I didn’t even get to until vacation was over. Published in 1995, just a few years before Murdoch’s death from Alzheimer’s, it is a rat’s nest of poor planning and weak prose. It’s basically about a woman named Marion and how she came to abandon her fiancĂ© Edward at the alter. The key to this “mystery” is a needlessly complex tangle involving Edward’s servant Jackson, a former lover of Marion’s from Australia, and a bottle of wine that has been tainted by what is essentially a date-rape drug. (Murdoch makes no commentary on its use. There is even a unintentionally comic scene in which Jackson accidentally drinks some of the dregs of this tainted wine.)

The machinations of the plot bring about an array of cringe-worthy melodrama and twists and turns that even the most tolerant reader will find dull. Jackson’s Dilemma contains virtually no tension; the characters are drawn with the most ungenerous flicks of the wrist; and the ending, such as it is, just kind of peters out. It’s a shame, since this was Murdoch’s last published novel before her death, and is an embarrassingly bad capper on an otherwise extraordinary literary career.    

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