Let’s be honest from the start shall we.
If you are going to put exchanges in your novel such as:
‘”Where’s Barb?” Kate called to Pierce.
“Riding her pony,” he said’
You are going to lose me sooner rather than later. I do not own a pony. My friends do not own ponies. I do not move in pony owning circles, nor do I aspire to. I have never had need to say, or think things like:
‘Pierce and Uncle Theo and Mingo were down on the beach together.’
Granted, Mingo is a dog, but somehow that just makes it worse. I can hear the home counties bray over the roar of the incoming tide – Min-go, Miiin-go.
Of course, my class prejudices are immaterial if a book is well written. And The Nice and the Good is well written. Murdoch understood prose. She understood that prose doesn’t need to be entirely fluffed up or completely pared down but can be allowed to flow both cleanly and interestingly. At times her writing is breath-taking:
‘A cuckoo called nearby in the wood above, clear, cool, precise, hollow, mad.’
But too often the novel strays into philosophical argument propped up as dialogue or lengthy descriptions of things that sound nice but can’t quite hold onto the import Murdoch imbues them with:
‘The pebbles gave a general impression of being either white or mauve, but looked at closely they exhibited almost every intermediate colour and also varied considerably in size and shape.’
The pebbles are on the same beach that they walk Mingo on by the way, though if you could not bring yourself to give a shit about that I completely understand. Trust me though, the descriptions are far more fun than the conversations. The endless philosophical conversations, the endless varieties of love affair, the endless, endless characters. The Nice and the Good must have nearly thirty of them, and many exist only to offer counter proposal or argument to others. The characters are constantly discussing and pontificating; they cannot even have sex without noting that they committed ‘sacrilege’ and that this is a ‘very important human activity’. Worst of all is how the characters are not really as different as Murdoch might like us to believe. Like those pebbles on the beach, they run the gamut from white to mauve. Bar a few terrible caricatures they do not step far out of class boundaries. They are all Oxbridge-esque.
It is also surprising that a writer so clearly concerned with intellectual powers and prowess would write a novel with such a ragged plot. My mother has a saying – very clever but no common sense. The Nice and the Good is very clever. It has no common sense. What reader, faced with a scene in which two characters discuss how they were surprised that the gun of a suicide was resting on a desk by his prone hand, would not question why the police had not already brought that up? Presumably Iris, as the policemen didn’t go to Oxford or Cambridge they lack the basic fundamental brain processing power to posit this introspection. Being plebs, they are forced to just assume it was definitely a suicide guv’nor.
Most annoying of all is the adventure of two characters stuck in a cave by the tide. The novel has put forward the question of whether or not it is possible to survive in this cave. Whether the tide fills it or not. But at no point do John or Pierce think to touch the walls of the corridors they explore to see if they are wet or dry; to see if they are covered in limpets and the like or not. Or at least not until the very end. No common sense you see. No common sense at all. Or rather, they are not allowed common sense because Murdoch wants the limpets arrival in the chapter as a final flurry of drama, as panache, and fuck you dear reader, if you happened to think of it five pages ago
The Nice and the Good is by no means a bad novel, but neither is it a great one. I’m not sorry I read it but neither do I feel compelled to read any more books by Murdoch.
What’s that you say? Shortlisted six times. Oh, fine. Oh jolly fine.