Iris Murdoch and Frederick Exley

I recently read Under the Net (1954), Iris Murdoch’s first novel, and I was surprised by how much it reminded me of Frederick Exley’s cult favorite A Fan’s Notes, written about a decade later. I haven’t read anywhere about Murdoch’s influence on Exley, but I think it may have been considerable.

Under the Net is narrated by Jake, a young writer who’s spent years bumming around London and Paris, drinking and philandering with an assortment of bohemian friends, getting by on translation work while neglecting his own writing. He’s wildly ambitious but held back by his own lazy, anxious and self-critical tendencies, along with a considerable drinking habit.

At the time, Exley was just such a character himself, and A Fan’s Notes is his autobiographical novel of these years spent not writing. Each novel is a rambling series of drunken misadventures, odd jobs, dysfunctional relationships and missed opportunities. And there are strong similarities in the writing style, with certain passages in Under the Net that could fit right into A Fan’s Notes — like this one, where Jake describes his short tenure as an orderly at a Catholic hospital:

I was still more than a little nervous of my colleagues and superiors and very anxious to please. With the nurses, who were mainly young Irish girls without a thought in their heads, unless obsession with matrimony may be called a thought, I immediately got on very well. They were calling me ‘Jakie’ on the second day, and treating me with an affectionate teasing tyranny. I noticed with interest that none of them took me seriously as a male. I exuded an aroma which, although we got on so splendidly, in some way kept them off…
Beyond the Ward Matron into the stratosphere of the Hospital hierarchy my vision did not extend. It was with the intermediate portions of my small society that my relations were most uneasy. Under the Matron were three Sisters… and it was from these beings that I directly received most of my orders. The lives of these women, already far advanced, were made a misery, on the one hand by the Matron, who treated them with unremitting despotism, and on the other by the nurses who repaid them with continual veiled mockery for the pains which the Sisters, in order to recoup their own dignity, felt bound to inflict upon those beneath them. The Sisters found me hard to understand. They suspected me of wanting to score off them, not only because of my friendly relations with their enemies the nurses, but because, more than anyone else with whom I had contact in the Hospital, they divined something of my real nature. I presented them with a problem that made them nervous; and for them alone of all the women with whom I had to do in that place, I indubitably existed as a man. An electrical current passed between us, they continually avoided my eye, and when they gave me orders, their high-pitched voices went a semitone higher.

Those long and winding sentences, the breezy sexism, the sly tone that’s simultaneously self-aggrandizing and insecure: Murdoch may not have known Exley, but she certainly had him pegged.

Under the Net was far from the only great picaresque novel of the ’50s, and the others — among them The Ginger Man, Lucky Jim, and The Adventures of Augie March — were almost certainly an influence on Exley as well. At one point he even alludes directly to the famous opening lines of Augie March. But there’s something about Jake that immediately “clicked” with Exley for me, in a way that Augie never did. I couldn’t articulate it until I found this excellent paper on the character of Jake, which quotes some other passages that bring the similarity home. First, here’s Murdoch’s biographer Peter Wolfe:

The strong satirical interest and wide social sweep generally associated with the picaresque novel demand that the hero be roguish and cunning, but not meditative. If he reflects deeply, narrative movement is choked and the social panorama diminished and blurred. Jake’s defect is that he is simply not rascal enough.

Yes, exactly — what separates Jake and Exley from the standard comic hero is the way they’re both stuck in their own heads. As Mary Cantwell wrote of Exley:

If he was essentially sedentary, his mind raced as furiously as a hamster in a cage, and just as circularly. I doubt there was a moment in his life when Fred was ever free of himself.

And the two books also share a kind of circularity: in a way, each is the story of its own creation. Here’s Kiernan Ryan:

In a nutshell, Under the Net is Jake Donaghue’s account of how he became the writer who wrote Under the Net.

…and James Dickey on A Fan’s Notes:

This is the horrible and hilarious account of a long failure, but a failure which turns into a success: the success that this book is.

…and Christopher Lehmann-Haupt:

But all the while, part of [Exley] was groping toward an accommodation with himself and the reader knows from the opening page what his victory will be. He would, of course, finally come to write A Fan’s Notes.

Of course, there are some big differences too. Murdoch’s story is full of exaggerated comic scenes and wild set pieces, while Exley’s experiences are darker, raunchier and more realistic. But that may just reflect the difference between outright fiction and what is really more of a memoir.

Whatever the extent of the direct influence, Under the Net provides another angle through which to view A Fan’s Notes. Exley’s novel is often compared to The Great Gatsby as a commentary on the emptiness of the American Dream. But Murdoch, quite unburdened by the American Dream, drew a very similar narrative from a very different source. Her inspiration for Under the Net was the early analytic philosophers and their focus on the inadequacy of language to describe reality or lived experience.

Jake can’t write because he’s not sure that any of his ideas or insights are really meaningful or “true” in this pure intellectual sense. Exley can’t write because he can’t stop measuring himself against his father and other conventional success stories, particularly the football star Frank Gifford. In a funny way, he’s using football in the same way that Jake uses philosophy. But in the end, they’re both suffering from the same anxiety of influence and cycles of self-doubt that can afflict any writer. Americans can be a little too possessive about our “dark side of the American Dream” narratives; it’s good to be reminded that they’re just a special case of a more universal experience in the modern world.

[Another book that evoked A Fan’s Notes for me is the dual biography Ross & Tom (1974) by John Leggett. If you’re insufficiently depressed by Exley’s story of literary failure, Leggett offers a powerful reminder that literary success can be even worse.]