The Message to the Planet

by Iris Murdoch. Viking, $22.95. The characters in Ms. Murdoch’s latest novel include a historian with doubts about his profession, an artist determined to maintain an Edenic ménage à trois, a poet allegedly descended from seals on the west coast of Ireland, three discontented women, a suave Armenian psychiatrist, some young people who worship rocks, a self-defrocked clergyman, a couple of Catholic priests, and a rabbi. There are also a number of minor characters. All these people circle around a Faustian figure named Marcus Vallar, former mathematical genius, former successful painter, currently a recluse purportedly devising a new way of thinking that is designed to produce a panacea for the ills of the world. As this overambitious enterprise is plainly doomed to failure, the interest of the narrative depends on events along the way rather than on arrival at journey’s end. Episodes of action are interspersed with long conversations and equally long physical descriptions, none of which give the characters blood or bone. They remain abstract examples of illusion or delusion or dedication or obsession, although the invasion of the rock-worshippers is a satisfactorily solid brouhaha. Possibly the basic point of the novel is provided by the psychiatrist, who observes that “though it is our duty to seek for knowledge, it is also incumbent on us to realize when it is denied us, and not to prefer a fake solution to no solution at all.”