For me, John Irving was a phase, one that coincided with frequent showers, acute anxiety about body hair, and pining after floppy-haired young men. John Irving was the novelist of my teens. I don’t think it’s immaterial, the way he smolders in his jacket photos, his knowing, virile gaze framed by that fratty, bountiful hair. Teenagers are very suggestible.
I felt a little wistful this summer, revisiting The World According to Garp and finding myself unmoved. The novel, which was once a revelation, now seemed a little bit smarmy and ludicrous. Maybe this is the way today’s teens will feel one day when they happen across a Bieber photo.
Fortunately, I can still count on The Water-Method Man. It’s also ludicrous. But it doesn’t try too hard, it’s up-front about its protagonist’s foibles and phallic preoccupations, and it’s still one of the funniest novels I’ve ever read.
Chapter 1 introduces Fred “Bogus” Trumper, lapsed graduate student, urology patient. Chapter 2 introduces Merrill Overturf, Trumper’s one-time familiar, one of the unsung heroes of literature. The memory of Merrill succors Trumper during his doctoral days:
Among his other kicks, Fred Bogus Trumper likes to remember Merrill Overturf, the diabetic… Such escapism. Listening to Merrill, in Vienna–while looks out of his Iowa window, through a rusty screen and a fat katydid’s wing; he sees a slow-moving, beshitted truck, brimming with hogs.
As the novel progresses, we learn of Trumper’s financial problems (“Please refrain from sending me further form letters about your famous Rising Rate Scale, and your awkwardly veiled threats of ‘constables'”), his woman problems (Biggie, Tulpen, and Lydia Kindle), his dissertation problems (a translation of Akthelt and Gunnel, from the original Old Low Norse), and, critically, his dick problems (his urinary tract is a “narrow, winding road”).
Trumper’s trials are legion, but he muddles his way through; his triumphs over adversity culminate in Throgsgafen, a free-spirited kind of holiday gathering in the best tradition of Akthelt and Gunnel (and the early seventies). As the novelist points out, “our own tame, dry-turkey version of Throgsgafen is indeed an embarrassing substitute.”
I love The Water-Method Man. Consider it my best suggestion for a holiday pick-me-up—a panacea for turkey fuck-ups, family dust-ups, and TSA feel-ups.
In the spirit of Bogus, Happy Throgsgafen. And, in his words, here’s “wishing you… infinite varieties of Hope and Freedom From the Fear of Doom.”
I have seriously mixed feelings about this book. First off, it is part of the group of post-war novels by/about American men who are peeved because getting old is boring and their wives aren’t very sexy. Please forgive my bawdy language, but let’s call them the My Dick novels, with major sub-genres My Dick is Great and I Feel Bad About my Dick. I used to read these without discrimination, but one day the veil fell from my eyes and I realized that these books could bring about a serious crisis of self-esteem for me, a lady who loves a man. One doesn’t need constant reminders that one’s significant other will stare in horror at one’s posterior fifteen years from now, and try to do it with the underaged person responsible for looking after the children for whom, theoretically, one will have compromised one’s parts in order to expel. Nor does one need to be told that, even if you should have the marvelous good fortune to keep your libido and your teeth and your satin skin and sense of humor, it won’t make a whit of difference, as the man in your life will be pulled inexorably toward sex with teens. I don’t care if these accounts are based on life’s hard facts, and are therefore imbued with a verisimilitude that some say makes art great. Some things are just tedious after the hundredth time.
I’m told that women get increasingly humorless as well as physically repulsive as the years go by, but I like these novels if they are really funny. The Water-Method Man, for example, is one my favorite novels, although John Irving is an important figure in the My Dick movement.
Deliverance by James Dickey, though, is the opposite of funny. The leather vest that Burt Reynolds is wearing on the cover of my copy is funny, but that is the only thing. Most people are familiar with the storyline, immortalized as it was by Reynolds and said vest. For those of you who haven’t heard the twang of dueling banjos, here’s what happens: the narrator has three friends, one of whom is very muscular (he’s the narrator’s favorite). The narrator also wants to fondle the girl who is a model at his ad agency and has a golden eye or something. The narrator and his three friends decide to go canoeing on a river without a map or a clue; they pack some beers and bows and arrows (naturally) and hit the road. It’s all very sinister from the get-go.
Then they’re on the river, and terrifying rednecks (who have done more toward furthering redneck discrimination than any other rednecks in art), rape one of them. The rednecks are about to assault the narrator, but the muscled one, Lewis, shoots one of them through the chest with an arrow. The other redneck gets away and hides, kills one of the friends, Lewis breaks his leg, and then it’s up to the narrator to stop being such a soft-living, house-having nancy all the time and find that bastard and kill him with his primal man essence. Which he does, after some feats of strength and things that sound like they hurt a lot.
All of this is told in a self-consciously poetic way, as if the author wrote it while sitting behind a duck blind with a camouflaged typewriter, looking at a picture of Walt Whitman and listening to Wagner. Sometimes I was (very marginally) enjoying it and sometimes I was thinking that if I must read about scary, disgusting things I’d rather get my copy of The Stand out from under the bed and at least have a good time. Then I wouldn’t have to read sentences like this one: “The standing there was so good, so fresh and various and continuous, so vital and uncaring around my genitals, that I hated to leave it.” Good grief.
Why is this book one of the best books of the century? Why, Modern Library? Really, the more I think about it the more I think it’s less “mixed feelings” I have about it than “fierce loathing.”
My main complaint is this: Bobby has been raped, Lewis the muscled one has killed the redneck, and they’re all four standing around talking about what to do, and the narrator goes ahead and says:
I moved away from Bobby’s red face. None of this was his fault, but he felt tainted to me. I remembered how he had looked over the log, how willing to let anything be done to him, and how high his voice was when he screamed.
What a super attitude to have about your friend who was sexually assaulted at gunpoint! Ecce homo! Basically the narrator is feeling pretty smug about not being the one to get “cornholed” (his charming term), and about the fact that dreamy Lewis was put out of commission and it was up to him to save the day! I’m not one of those literal-minded turds who thinks Lolita or, I don’t know, The Collector, are offensive, because I understand that you can write about things and not do them or think them yourself. It is not the novelist’s job to provide an edifying story or a lovable narrator. However, not only was I pretty lukewarm about the alleged Everyman of Deliverance, the writing style did not, for me, elevate things in any meaningful way.
It felt like a missed opportunity, in a sense. A novelist could use a moment like this to provide a neat example of how rape culture and victim-shaming hurt everyone, men and women alike. I mean, the narrator’s basic position on the issues is that sexual assault victims are embarrassing and gross, and the best thing to do is to a) shun them and b) kill everyone. There’s a lot of pithy stuff there.
I’m likely missing something. I think there is something zeitgeisty happening in the novel, something to which I’m not privy. Maybe it’s a generational thing. Maybe it’s a Vietnam thing. Obviously, it’s a dick(ey) thing.
On that note, Happy Thanksgiving.
I think it’s a symptom of the internet age, or my impending old age, or doom, that while I used to amble into a used book shop with no particular book in mind and leave satisfied with a bulging grocery bag, now I find myself a slave to a roster. Before, I would keep a vague running list of books I wanted to read, which basically encompassed the whole of literature as I understood it, so that any pile of two dollar books was bound to yield several items of interest. And now I want what I want when I want it.
Under the Net was a long-time bee in my bonnet. There are so many Iris Murdoch novels, in so many printings; they are a fixture in secondhand book shops. When I realized that this one, her first, was on the Modern Library list, I thought I was bound to come across it before too long. For nine months it eluded me, although in pursuit of that title I managed to read five other Murdoch novels. In the same way, I read Black Boy instead of Native Son, and Young Torless instead of The Man Without Qualities, and loathsome Henderson the Rain King instead of Herzog. Which is a good thing! I’m better for having read them all. But every year that goes by finds me less happy to cast the net in this haphazard fashion (hence my summer of discontent). I require specific titles now. I’ve undergone a paradigm shift. It’s kind of a bummer, actually.
(I do know all about libraries, and I cherish them. But I like to own the books that I read, and I like to read books that I own. In case there is an emergency. It’s a thing about me.)
Anyway, I wanted to read Under the Net, and I got sick of looking in vain and reading things other than Under the Net, and I finally outsourced the job to the internet. I felt sort of guilty about this, like buying a pet instead of adopting. I did it media mail, which seemed more virtuous, in the manner of hard church pews and wooden teeth. After eight days, the novel arrived. All things considered, the experience was obscenely convenient.
Someone once said (it was me) that Iris Murdoch wrote so many novels that if you are in the mood to read something by her, there is probably a fresh one available. It’s like having a harem wherein all the inmates are related to one another and look alike, yet retain sterling qualities of their own. I quote myself not because I’m the last word on Iris Murdoch, but because the metaphor has useful application here. If Murdoch’s huge oeuvre is a harem of related women, then reading Under the Net is like going in back in time to meet their matriarch, coltish and sepia-toned on the day she was plucked from her village.
I have always thought that The Sea, The Sea stands apart from the other Murdoch novels I’ve read, largely because of the spicy and pitch-perfect first person narrative. I thought, perhaps, that it was a prime example of late-ish Murdoch at the height of her powers. So I was surprised to discover find that her first novel, published in 1954, has more in common with The Sea² (1978), than any of the works published between (that I’ve read, of course). Like The Sea², Under the Net is written in the first person. The earlier novel’s narrator, translator and occasional writer Jack Donoghue, is kind of a feckless, easier-going, impoverished prototype of Charles Arrowby, who came a quarter century later. I suppose they really don’t have much in common, since Arrowby’s whole being is centered on being the opposite of feckless and easy-going and impoverished. But they are both educated, afraid of commitment, and very funny. They are memorable, varying somewhat from the stock cast of awful aesthetes and academes who populate the majority of her novels. Not that Donoghue isn’t one of those, but his way with words is considerably more amusing. Here, kicked out of one rent-free situation, he ponders the future:
It was certainly something of a problem to know where to go next. I wondered if Dave Gellman would harbour us. I fondled the idea, though I suspected it was no good. Dave is an old friend, but he’s a philosopher, not the kind that tells you about your horoscope and the number of the beast, but a real one like Kant and Plato, so of course he has no money.
The whole experience of Under the Net was surprising. Unless one has made a pointed effort to study them, one can have only a hazy sense of the zeitgeist of decades and places in which one hasn’t lived. That said, Iris Murdoch is so relentlessly urbane and modern that Under the Net seemed to me much younger than its 55 years. I’m aware that drinking and being feckless and running around was not unheard of in the 1950s–I did read Lucky Jim (also published 1954. In fact, I think Jim Dixon could conceivably have enjoyed a matey bender with Jack Donaghue and company). But the people of Under the Net seemed very hip, or at least as though they could have easily populated a later novel. Perhaps it’s not that Murdoch was cutting-edge, but that her eternal engagement with the pedantic, the bachanalian, and the emotionally stunted will never go out of style.
The plot of Under the Net doesn’t bear summarizing. It is farcical and, I dare say, “rollicking;” there’s even a dog who stars in movies. I am unused to feeling so little feminist rage during a Murdoch novel; this one was light-hearted and lacked the sinister undertones present in, for example, The Sacred and Profane Love Machine and Message to the Planet. Under the Net could even be called a buddy novel; Donoghue and his Irish familiar, Finn, reminded me not a little of my favorite John Irving book, The Water Method Man, and the adventures of Bogus Trumper (also a translator), and Merrill Overturf described therein.
I find it odd that this novel would make it onto the Modern Library list over TS². It’s a little fluffy. But, as we’ve been hearing so much recently, lists are problematic, and the Modern Library list is so problematic on so many levels that its defects no longer shock. Pluralities are weird. Still, Under the Net’s presence on the list caused me to hunt it down and read it, which not only caused me to have a nice Sunday afternoon (it’s short), but freed up a spot on the roster. That’s one for the list. Then again, the existence of a list only serves to codify things and thus intensify the need for a roster, which causes me to have fewer pleasant afternoons digging through bookshops, and more neurotic episodes on the internet. That’s one against.
Anyway, Under the Net was fun and I liked it. I’ll leave you with a word from Jack, who has troubles of his own:
I glanced hastily through the manuscripts. Once before, in a rage, Magdalen had torn up the first sixty stanzas of an epic poem called And Mr Oppenheim Shall Inherit the Earth. This dated from the time when I had ideals. At that time too it had not yet become clear to me that the present age was not one in which it was impossible to write an epic. At that time I naively imagined that there was no reason why one should not attempt to write anything that one felt inclined to write. But nothing is more paralyzing than a sense of historical perspective, especially in literary matters . . . But to return to Mr Oppenheim; my friends had criticized the title because it sounded anti-Semitic, though of course Mr Oppenheim simply symbolized big business, but Madge didn’t tear it up for that, but out of pique, because I broke a lunch date with her to meet a woman novelist. The latter was a dead loss, but I can back to find Mr Oppenheim in pieces. This was in the old days, but I feared that the performance might have been repeated. Who knows what thoughts were passing through that girl’s mind while she was deciding to throw me out? There’s nothing like a woman’s doing you an injury for making her incensed against you. I know myself how exasperating it is of other people to put themselves in positions where you have to injure them.