What drives Under the Net is the clever way Iris Murdoch uses elements of a mystery novel to develop her theme. Jake Donaghue, the narrator, is content with his role as a mediocre writer and book translator until forced to vacate his London flat. His search for new lodgings takes him on a more important and personal journey.
Jake takes his friends for granted: his Irish roommate Finn; Madge, the landlady who has romantic yearnings for him; Hugo, whose conversations Jake has plagiarized to write a book for which he takes sole credit; and Anna, the only woman who has come close to touching his heart. As Jake seeks shelter from one friend after another, he discovers that they have moved on with their lives. His reactions range from bafflement, to disappointment, to jealousy.
That’s where the mystery comes in. Inexplicably, Anna and Hugo have become partners in a mime theatre. Anna’s movie star sister Sadie seems involved in a scheme to cheat Jake out of the film rights to his manuscript. There is comedy as well, particularly in a scene in which Jake and Finn struggle to abduct a caged dog from a flat owned by one of Sadie’s admirers.
Days and nights pass as Jake rambles about London, drinking in pubs, swimming in the Thames, or following new trails in search of his suddenly inaccessible friends. Eventually Jake winds up in Paris to find that the minor novelist whose works he has been translating has won a major literary prize. This revelation is but one clue that Jake knows far less about the people in his life than he realized.
The only bothersome element of the novel is a brief excerpt from Jake’s book that I found too murky to understand. What I admire most is Iris Murdoch’s creation of an allegory that invites us to reflect on the personal trails we all follow. This is my third Iris Murdoch novel. Her distinctive style can be challenging at times, but rewarding to anyone who appreciates the craft of writing.