By Christopher Lehmann-Haupt

IT is not exactly a rolling start that Iris Murdoch’s ultimately entertaining new novel, ”The Philosopher’s Pupil,” gets off to. There is the the elaborate and cumbersome plot machinery to get running. In the imaginary English spa of Ennistone one evening, George and Stella McCaffrey, while driving home from a party, engage in a furious fight that ends with the car, containing only Stella, plunging into a canal and nearly drowning her.

Whether George actually pushed their car into the canal or just imagined doing so, is known only by an eyewitness named Father Bernard, a homosexual Anglican priest, who, like almost everyone else in Ennistone, wishes to save George McCaffrey from the demons that seem to plague him. The most provocative of these demons, along with the too-forgiving Stella, is Ennistone’s most famous son, a philosopher and former teacher of George’s named John Robert Rozanov, who is about to return to his birthplace from America and set other lives besides George’s careening off course and spinning wildly.

There are dozens of characters to introduce – not only George and Stella, Father Bernard and John Robert, but also five other members of the McCaffrey family; George’s mistress, Diane; Rozanov’s granddaughter, Harriet Meynell, as well as various friends, townspeople, servants and animals, and the narrator himself – known as N – an elderly inhabitant of Ennistone, who has witnessed all these events with ”the assistance of a certain lady” whose name, one assumes, is Iris Murdoch.

And there are enormous boulders of symbolism to shoulder into place -not only the canal in which Stella nearly drowns, but also the baths for which the town is known and in which its people are forever dunking themselves in their quest for purification; the foxes that inhabit the grounds of George’s mother’s estate; the number 44; and, as so often in Miss Murdoch’s fiction, a dog, in this case a tiny, charming creature named Zed, who along with his young master, Adam, constitute one family’s Alpha and Omega.

Yet despite the weight of all this paraphernalia – or perhaps because of it – ”The Philosopher’s Pupil” eventually attains breakneck speed. It turns out that Miss Murdoch is in one of her antic moods. We get our first strong sense of this when we meet Emma, a beloved friend that George McCaffrey’s younger stepbrother, Tom, brings home from Oxford. Emma turns out to be Emmanuel Scarlett-Taylor, a brilliant Irish expatriate with transvestite leanings who can’t make up his mind whether to pursue his promising career as a historian or to cultivate his spectacular but secret countertenor singing voice.

But by and by we see that the plot structure, for all the weight it bears, is essentially a comic one. The comings and goings of the characters are so frantic as to approach the slapstick. The pattern of the many scenes is so repetitive that eventually we catch on that the author is intentionally striving for a mechanical quality. It even occurred to me once or twice that the manipulative philosopher’s initials are intended to be J.R. Considering that Miss Murdoch once named one of her novels ”The Sacred and Profane Love Machine,” it would not be the first time she poked fun at American popular culture.

In the not-so-long run, this machinery produces a marvelous concatenation of misunderstandings whose initial climax results in what might be described as a gentle riot (it is also mildly genital) that is brought to an end by Emma’s bursting into drunken but thrilling song. From here the plot lurches from one surprise to another, by turns funny and appalling.

What does it all mean? One would have said it represented the working out of the Oedipus Complex. But the narrator warns us early that people ”are in fact far more randomly made, more full of rough contingent rubble, than art or vulgar psychoanalysis leads us to imagine.” And on the penultimate page of the novel, N insists that ”More often than the ‘experts’ imagine, purely intellectual ideas and images can play ‘deep’ parts in human psychology.”

So, in addition to Oedipal clashes, ”The Philosopher’s Pupil” is about good and evil, chance and necessity, love and hate, mythology and fairy tales and the inadequacy of philosophy when it is assaulted by human passion. In fact the philosopher of the novel’s title has a number of pupils. All of them are foolish to a degree. So, for that matter, is the philosopher.

But unlike those occasional books of Miss Murdoch’s whose plots seem unintelligible if you don’t possess their metaphysial key, ”The Philosopher’s Pupil” works on its own terms. Its characters are vivid and memorable, and once its story gets moving, it seems to fuel itself with increasingly furious comic energy.

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