Austin Gibson Grey is a bungler and a bumbler--someone you'd expect to be both harmless and innocuous. He can't keep a job; his most recent employment has been eliminated by computerization, at the recommendation of consultants he has been led to believe were interior decorators. He is a schemer whose indolence keeps him from accomplishing anything, and as he enters middle age he has survived for far too long on his good looks. Yet people around him, both companions and complete strangers, keep suffering from horrible injuries or even death, from paralysis to electrocution to suicide, and his role in each tragedy ranges from simple obliviousness to negligent homicide.
"Not doom, not fate, accident," says Matthew, Austin's brother, reassuring the sister of one of the victims. Well, not quite. Matthew, the exact opposite of his brother, is a globetrotting diplomat and Zen-inspired saint who has returned home to witness the final disintegration of Austin's life, and he spends much of his homecoming either making excuses for his brother's foolish carelessness or helping to cover up his latest ruinous catastrophe. "Bad luck is a sort of wickedness in some people," is the assessment made by another character, who commands her fiance to stay away from Austin entirely.
And that wickedness can manifest itself in any number of ways: several characters are guilt-ridden solely for what they didn't do. One witnesses a murder on the streets of New York, another avoids meeting a distraught friend just before she attempts suicide, and even Matthew himself helplessly see a demonstrator whisked away by the secret police in a foreign country. Every human being falls victim to a butterfly effect: we can choose to be heroes, accomplices, or bystanders, but we can't remove ourselves from the vagaries of life. Even a man who shuts himself away, Thoreau-like, from the whims and cruelties of society will end up hurting (or helping) those he left behind. There is no escape from our effect on others. As one character realizes, "Absolute contradiction seemed at the heart of things and yet the system was there, the secret logic of the world."
This is one of Murdoch's more readable and accessible novels. As in her later (and better) work, "The Good Apprentice," she creates comedy--sometimes drawing-room, sometimes slapstick, sometimes farce--out of a series of tragedies. True, the relationships in Murdoch's grand-scale soap opera can get a tad confusing. Not only are most of the characters related to each other across three families (the Gibson Greys, the Tisbournes, and on the sidelines the Odmores), but everyone is also in love with everyone else--and always with someone who doesn't love in return. But even the complications of all these relationships and relatives and randomly appearing acquaintances and strangers underscore the interconnectedness of everyone's lives. To emphasize this point even further, Murdoch includes several sections composed entirely of gossipy dialogue at a party or of letters among the characters. (These passages are among the snappiest, and sometimes funniest, in the book.) Everyone is part of the conversation, or being talked about, or being deliberately ignored--but they are always there.
So there are no true accidents here, and there are no accidental men (or women). Instead, in Austin's hands, obliviousness becomes a strategy. Austin's only area of expertise is his innate ability to play the victim; he transforms everyone else's tragedy into his own. "Of course he is a vampire . . . And he knows it and he knows we know it," one of his enabling friends thinks. "Aren't we all accidental?" Austin's so-called bad luck is a form of instinctive "cunning." He is the kind of social sponge who will never change, and in the end, amid the detritus of the lives he has had an "inadvertent" hand in destroying, "the stage has been set again by whatever deep mythological forces control the destinies of men."