iris murdoch, “the message to the planet”

the message to the planetIris Murdoch
The Message to the Planet
(Chatto & Windus, 1989)

The Message to the Planet, Iris Murdoch’s penultimate novel, feels like any of a number of any other novels by her. There’s an enchanter figure; there’s a cast of interrelated people with a clear romantic dilemma; there are characters who are outwardly together but inwardly lost. The economics are left vague; everyone is well-educated and seem to be living in nice spaces. We start with singing of madrigals; later there will be outdoor swimming. There’s a lot of stress on how people can make moral choices and how they are essentially good. Having read the rest of Murdoch’s novel (except for her historical novel and Jackson’s Dilemma), it felt like I was treading overly familiar ground: if you fed an AI Murdoch’s previous novels and told it to come up with another, only longer, there’s a very decent change you’d end up with something like this.

What’s initially confusing about this book is when it was published: 1989, though there is very little to indicate that at all. None of the characters behave as if the social upheaval of the 1960s ever happened; we are in the same quasi-academic pastoral in which most of Murdoch’s novels operate, though there are a few elements which stick out. Some new age travelers show up in the middle of the book; none of them have anything to do with pop culture – they can also sing madrigals – though it might be presumed that the setting is sometime after the late 1960s. There’s a theme of anti-psychiatry, though this doesn’t seem to track that well with how the movement played out in the UK; that might suggest that this takes place in the 1970s. There are a number of Jewish characters, almost entirely secular; it is stressed repeatedly that none of them know anyone directly involved in the Holocaust. The enchanter figure seems to be in his sixties; by almost any reckoning he would have been adult when World War II and its aftermath happened, though this doesn’t directly figure. Instead, he reads a number of books about the Holocaust having not found out about it before. It’s vaguely possible that this might have been the case for extremely secular Jews in the UK, though it seems hard to imagine this being the case in the 1980s.

Where this book feels distinctive is in its sheer length: it might not be the longest of her novels, but it feels like it. There are two plots: an enchanter and his apprentice and a love triangle that will be reconfigured. The resolution of the love triangle is predictable for anyone who’s previously read an Iris Murdoch novel; it’s not her most interesting treatment of the subject and it seems like it could have been resolved comfortably in a novella, though it mostly serves as bookends for this novel. The adventures of the enchanter and his apprentice are drawn out to astonishing length. It becomes apparent very early that the apprentice figure, Alfred Ludens, is delusional and in crisis, and that the enchanter, Marcus Vallar, is not going to serve in the way that Ludens wants. Ludens is an idiot; the bulk of the novel is his banging his head against the same wall again and again in the hopes that things will be different. (There’s an echo of this in the romance subplot: one of the characters is given the primary characterization of being longsuffering and gracious, which she continues to do well past the point where any reasonable person would: this also becomes tiresome.)

A break comes at the end, suddenly, and the apprentice realizes that what he had imagined was entirely wrong; that he had been mistaken about almost everything. The enchanter dies; Ludens is appointed literary executor with the sole duty of destroying all of Vallar’s writings. The enchanter does not have many writings; the few that can be found are dutifully burnt, with invocation of Max Brod. Ludens realizes that he has learned nothing; the effect here is not of Proust but rather of Henry James. (There’s a ridiculous American character who comes off as pastiche; she’s from Boston, has an immense amount of money, and the improbable name “Maisie”.) The suddenness of the ending is interesting: the actual change in Ludens, as he adjusts to his realizations about the world, will happen after this novel ends.

This is a long exploration of credulity, the will to believe in the face of copious evidence to the contrary. At certain points in the novel, events happen that could be described as miraculous; but whether they are miraculous is left purposefully unexplored, instead serving as canvases for different canvases to view in different ways. Change happens rarely among the characters; evidence has little to do with it, though something viewed as a miracle might.

What’s distinctive about this novel might be its durational aspect: the reader feels trapped with Ludens in his failure to understand the world. It’s an experience of suffering in the face of a lack of meaning. Whether this is intentional is hard to tell: read after a lot of other Murdoch novels, it feels like an unsuccessful copy of more dynamic books that have used the same themes. To me, it’s a bad late book by an interesting writer who’s written much better ones; in this, it reminds of of Anthony Burgess’s Earthly Powers, also long but overstuffed in a way that is the opposite of this book, an enormous space with very little for the characters to do. I imagine, however, that someone could make a good argument for this book; I’d like to see that.

august 1–15, 2022


  • Ling Ma, Severance
  • Hernan Diaz, Trust
  • Shirley Hazzard, The Great Fire
  • Dino Buzzati, Restless Nights, trans. Lawrence Venuti
  • Marie Darrieussecq, Being Here Is Everything: The Life of Paula Modersohn-Becker, trans. Penny Hueston
  • Raquel Salas Rivera, Antes que isla es volcán/Before Island Is Volcano
  • Niki de Saint Phalle, Harry and Me: The Family Years


  • “Ever Present: First Peoples Art Of Australia,” National Gallery Singapore

july 16–31, 2022


  • Evelyn Waugh, Scoop
  • Ken Layne, Desert Oracle, Vol. 1
  • Jonathan Meiburg, A Most Remarkable Creature: The Hidden Life and Epic Journey of the World’s Smartest Birds of Prey
  • Irmgard Keun, The Artificial Silk Girl, trans. Kathie von Ankum
  • Christopher Isherwood, Prater Violet
  • Raquel Salas Rivera, The Tertiary/Lo tercerio


  • The Broad, Los Angeles

july 1–15, 2022


  • Percival Everett, Grand Canyon Inc.
  • Carlo Collodi, Pinocchio, translated by M. A. Murray & G. Tassinari
  • Sylvia Townsend Warner, Lolly Willowes
  • Sylvia Townsend Warner, Mr. Fortune’s Maggot
  • Ludwig Wittgenstein, Private Notebooks 1914–1916, trans. Marjorie Perloff
  • Carlo Collodi, Pinocchio, translated by Geoffrey Brock


  • “City of Cinema: Paris 1850–1907,” LACMA
  • “Archive of the World: Art and Imagination in Spanish America, 1500–1800,” LACMA
  • “The Portable Universe: Thought and Splendor of Indigenous Colombia,” LACMA

june 1–15, 2022


  • Nell Zink, Avalon
  • Glenn Adamson, Fewer, Better Things: The Hidden Wisdom of Objects
  • Elif Batuman, Either/Or
  • Denis Johnson, The Stars at Noon
  • John Waters, Liarmouth
  • Naoise Dolan, Exciting Times
  • Gina Apostol, Bibliolepsy
  • Dionne Brand, An Autobiography of the Autobiography of Reading


  • The Great Buster, directed by Peter Bogdanovich
  • The World, the Flesh and the Devil, dir. Ranald MacDougall

elif batuman, “either/or”

Elif Batuman
(Penguin, 2022)

This is a complicated book for me to think about, for very straightforward reasons: I went to college with Elif Batuman, and spent my sophomore year living in the same dormitory that the protagonist of Batuman’s novel lives in, as did Batuman herself; that summer, I worked as an editor for the travel guide that her protagonist goes to Turkey to write for. While I wasn’t a close friend of Elif Batuman, I was (and still am!) friends with some of her friends. This matters because many of the details in Batuman’s novels accord with my (admittedly hazy!) recollections of the same period, where they overlapped; names have been changed, but if they had not, I would have happily accepted this if it had been published as a memoir. I read later sections of this books hoping that I wouldn’t turn up in the background doing the sort of idiotic things I was prone to doing at that point in my life.

All of which is to say that my reading of this book is going to be very different from the way most people read this book: it’s something of a roman à clef for me, as I can read it and remember the computer lab that Selin is sitting in, a computer lab that I also spent a lot of time sitting in; I understand the (rather uninteresting) historical contingencies that lead to the unexplained appearance of a bunch of random jocks; I see that someone who shared their name with a plant in real life has their fictional approximation given the name of another plant. The first Singaporean I ever met – a flamboyantly gay man who threw good parties and, in retrospect, gave me entirely the wrong idea aobut Singapore – has the name he shared with the hero of a medieval romance swapped for the name of the hero of another medieval romance. There’s a certain pleasure in this – many of these are people and places that I had not thought about in years – but it’s ultimately immaterial to what’s going on in the book. (Some bits of period detail might be more generally interesting: this book depicts the way the Internet was used in the instant before the web took over everything and wifi made it omnipresent: a degree of ignorance was still possible which seems impossibly distant when viewed from the present.)

What’s interesting here – and wasn’t so much the case in The Idiot, the book that preceded this one – is a textual interest in what makes a story fiction:

It wasn’t until high school, when I took my first creative writing class, that I began to sense trouble. I realized, with shock, that I wasn’t good at creative writing. I was good at grammar and arguing, at remembering things people said, and at making stressful situations seem funny. But it turned out these weren’t the skills you needed in order to invent quirky people and give them arcs of desire. I already had my hands full writing about the people I actually knew, and all the things they said. That was what I needed writing for. Now I had to invent extra people and think of things for them to say?

This quickly becomes self-reflexive:

The whole time everything had been happening with Ivan, I had always been writing about it in my notebook, or on the computer, and sometimes I wondered whether I would ever turn those pages into a novel. The thought made me feel ashamed. It felt shameful to be so unartistic and self-obsessed, to not want to invent richly fictional characters. It felt shameful to write a whole book about Ivan. What if he found out?

A bit later in the same passage, where the narrator is reflection on Nadja:

. . . here was André Breton, saying just the opposite: “I insist on knowing the names, on being interested only in books left ajar, like doors; I will not go looking for keys.” All the work-arounds I thought I had invented—turning two real people into one “fictional” “character,” turning one real person into two characters, changing people’s appearances and nationalities—he already knew about, and viewed as base tricks. He seemed proud of not changing anything, including himself.

and again:

I wished I could write a book like that about Nadja, where I could explain each line, and how it applied in such a specific way to things that had happened in my life. I knew that nobody would want to read such a book; people would die of boredom. Why was it that science and history could be boring, but other books couldn’t?

Characterization in this book is often through other books. This comes to a head at the end, where the narrator is reading The Portrait of a Lady:

. . . . In Isabel’s case, the death she postponed wasn’t her own, but Ralph’s, and she was living the stories, rather than narrating them. But as she lived them, they were narrated. They became the book you were reading right now.

Later in Selin’s consideration of the relationship between the characters, authors, and books – it feels a bit like Don Quixote is hovering over this:

Isabel, who had had the experiences, hadn’t written a book; Henry James, who had written the book, hadn’t had the experiences. He had had different experiences, and those, for some reason, he hadn’t written about.

And finally a quote from Portrait itself:

Now that she was in the secret, now that she knew something that so much concerned her, and the eclipse of which had made life resemble an attempt to play whist with an imperfect pack of cards, the truth of things, their mutual relations, their meaning, and for the most part their horror, rose before her with a kind of architectural vastness.

There’s more to unpack here, but I think it’s worth pointing out that this is more of a self-conscious Künstlerroman than any kind of memoir. One might find an inverted version of this book in The Education of Henry Adams, a book that’s a memoir that’s written as a novel, with Adams always referring to himself as “Henry Adams” as if to make the person he was a different person from the person writing who shares that name. And Adams’s memoir is famously oblique: the things we’d like to know about (his wife, his emotional development) don’t feature at all. Adams presents an earlier version of Harvard as a finishing school for the sons of America’s patricians; the students are depicted as being docile and bovine (the southerners debilitatingly drunk). There’s little real detail about Adams’s college experience apart from his weird excitement at being chosen the class orator. The experience was something to be skated over, a failure among other educational failures in his life. Looking at the same place more than a century later, Batuman is taking an opposite approach; where she’ll end up, I’m not sure, though I am interested.

may 16–31, 2022


  • Kurt Vonnegut, Bagombo Snuff Box
  • Kurt Vonnegut, Armageddon in Retrospect
  • Kurt Vonnegut, Look at the Birdie
  • Kurt Vonnegut, While Mortals Sleep
  • Kurt Vonnegut, Sucker’s Portfolio
  • Annie Ernaux, A Man’s Place, translated by Tanya Leslie
  • John Berger, Meanwhile
  • Renee Gladman, Calamities
  • Honoré de Balzac, My Journey from Paris to Java, trans. Barry Winkleman
  • Stephen Crane, Maggie: A Girl of the Streets
  • Arno Holz & Johannes Schlaf, Papa Hamlet, trans. James J. Conway


  • パーフェクトブルー (Perfect Blue), directed by Satoshi Kon
  • Illusions perdues (Lost Illusions), dir. Xavier Giannoli

may 1–15, 2022


  • Jenny Erpenbeck, Visitation, translated by Susan Bernovsky
  • Kay Dick, They
  • Annie Ernaux, A Girl’s Story, trans. Alison L. Strayer
  • Éric Vuillard, The War of the Poor, trans. Mark Polizzotti
  • Kurt Vonnegut, We Are What We Pretend to Be
  • Gianfranco Calligarich, Last Summer in the City, trans. Howard Curtis
  • Marcel Proust, The Collected Poems, edited by Harold Augenbraum
  • Lorenza Foschini, Proust’s Overcoat, trans. Eric Karpeles
  • Kurt Vonnegut, Timequake
  • Kurt Vonnegut, God Bless You, Dr. Kervorkian
  • Caren Beilin, Revenge of the Scapegoat


  • This Much I Know to Be True, directed by Andrew Dominik

april 16-30, 2022


  • Annie Ernaux, Simple Passion, translated by Tanya Leslie
  • Annie Ernaux, The Possession, trans. Anna Moschovakis
  • Shirley Hazzard, The Transit of Venus
  • Anthony Veasna So, Afterparties
  • George Seferis, Collected Poems, trans. Edmund Keeley & Philip Sherrard
  • Iris Owens, After Claude
  • María Gainza, Portrait of an Unknown Lady, trans. Thomas Bunstead
  • Victoria Chang, Obit


  • Dimanche à Pekin, directed by Chris Marker
  • Sans soleil, dir. Chris Marker
  • RRR, dir. S. S. Rajamouli
  • Hiroshima mon amour, dir. Alain Resnais