THE ENIGMA VARIATIONS by Brian Murphy

THE ENIGMA VARIATIONS

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KIRKUS REVIEW

Was first-novelist Murphy uncertain whether to make this book a campus murder-mystery or a middle-age angst-arama? So it seems, because what he has written, though occasionally engaging, is an uneasy, doubly unsatisfying hybrid--all of it focusing, more or less, on an increasingly unappealing protagonist: 50-year-old music professor Eliot Upton. Happily married to Anne and father of nice, 25-year-old Carice, Eliot's troubles seem to start when he's made part of a faculty/student board-of-inquiry: lesbian student Dora has accused swinish student Troyte of rape (the ""rape"" is the novel's unconvincing, unpleasant opening scene); but the committee--after familiar debates on the line between seduction and rape--exonerates Troyte . . . who is subsequently found shot dead in his car. Dora is the obvious suspect, along with her much fiercer lesbian lover Isabel. And Eliot is convinced she's innocent--so, when she's arrested, he announces, ""I'll play detective. I'm going to start from the hennaing and talk to everybody involved."" But meanwhile Eliot's placid home life has disintegrated: wife Anne has gone somewhat bitter and bonkers, falsely accusing Eliot of adultery; and indeed Eliot soon finds himself panting for young former student Mary, with airport-hotel consummation (""his happiness took the form of melting, rushing crashes of pleasure""). Furthermore, he also careens into bed with a sexy young faculty-type (""it was so utterly complete, they were so utterly together . . ."") and gets incestuous twinges for daughter Carice. Finally, however, by the time Dora is cleared (a muddled psychosexual solution), Eliot pulls himself together: ""He knew that Mary and he would love, and their lives, at least for a time, would be the richer, the quicker, the more beautiful for it, and there was nothing else--aside from eternity--one could possibly ask for--or even, he realized, imagine."" Such soppy passages pop up throughout, as do painfully arch ones (""He felt like shouting bravo! to his consciousness for finding the quote Juste to quell his surging subconscious""). And most readers will probably feel like throttling Eliot--who remains totally two-dimensional--as he fatuously muses on religion, music, or sex. Still, Murphy shows talent in some of the dialogue, in the campus ambience, and in the supporting characterizations. So though this is a sticky, pretentious kitchen-sink of a first novel--bland romance, clinical sex, middling mystery, and erudite showing-off--it may promise better things if Murphy can settle down and write the sort of modest, charming mystery fiction that peeks through here from time to time.

Pub Date: Nov. 1st, 1981
Publisher: Scribners