(Once a month through 2012, CCLaP staff writer Karl Wolff is examining the question of what it means to "be human" through a diverse series of books, movies and television shows. For all the essays in this series, please click here.)
By Samuel Beckett
By Karl Wolff
(The Grove Companion to Samuel Beckett, by C. J. Ackerley and S. E. Gontarski and the 1970 monograph Samuel Beckett: a new approach, a study of the novels and plays by G. C. Barnard, have been invaluable in preparing this essay.)
Molloy embarks on a quest to find his mother. Moran undertakes an investigation to find Molly. An old man named Malone lies on his deathbed, telling himself stories. A legless man in a jar talks and talks. As far as plots go, the storylines of Samuel Beckett's Trilogy* remain rather thin. But before embarking on an examination of these three groundbreaking novels, it helps to understand the literary and global situation of the time. Written shortly after the devastation of World War 2, Beckett wrote these three novels in a period of feverish creativity he called "the siege in the room," roughly from 1946 to 1950. What followed were the three novels, Molloy and Malone Dies in 1951, followed by The Unnamable and the play Waiting for Godot in 1953.
What these novels attempt to do is wrestle with the ideas of existence, identity, and writing. Beckett wrote these spare, sparse, pessimistic works in reaction to Ulysses and Finnegans Wake by James Joyce, a major influence and early mentor to Beckett. As a novelist, what could Beckett do after Joyce's two novels? What he did was push the novel further than it had ever gone, stripping away character, plot, and setting. This is why critic William Gass has placed these three novels in what he calls "the permanent avant-garde." Regardless of the ebbs and flows of artifice and authenticity, formalism and naturalism, and the mainstream and the underground, The Trilogy will always be groundbreaking and will always be relevant.
In my introduction to this series, I asserted that Samuel Beckett was a science fiction writer. On the surface, this sounds like heresy, or at least grounds to start a flame war. But how is Beckett any different in investigating the riddles of identity than, say, Philip K. Dick? Both thrived as Mid-Century Modernists. The diptych of Molloy, with Moran searching for Molloy until Moran comes to resemble Molloy, reads like a variant of Dick's A Scanner Darkly, with Agent Fred and the drug user Bob Arctor swirling about each other in a dystopian California.
The story gets an added layer of complexity with Malone Dies, since Malone's stories may or may not be fictitious. He also refers to Molloy, Moran, Murphy, and Mercier, the latter two protagonists in earlier Beckett novels. When Malone finally dies, the narrative trails off into nothingness, with a few unfinished sentences that peter out on the page. In The Unnamable Beckett attempts to erase existence itself, the story, if one can call it that, a hallucinatory parade of images and scenarios. Stylistically, it reads like a novel-length version of the Molly Bloom soliloquy at the end of Ulysses, but that was easy: the reader knows who is talking and about whom she is talking. Beckett uses stream-of-consciousness but negates the "I", along with constantly shifting pronouns. There are no referential anchors to guide the reader, but the reader is inexorably pulled along. The propulsive nature of the prose forces the reader to read on. The third novel finally ends, after a tour de force of paragraphless pages that eventually shed full stops (.) with the famous words, "I can't go on. I'll go on."
While The Trilogy has been analyzed and critiqued from a highbrow literary perspective, I want to look at these three novels from the perspective of a science fiction fan. Molloy is about a quest (Molloy's for his mother) and a detective story (Moran for Molloy), but the Molloy-Moran pairing can be seen in the Tyler Durden-Narrator pairing in David Fincher's Fight Club. With The Unnamable and its shifting perspectives, we have a novel very relevant to our hyper-mediated, app-obsessed, avatar-laden post-9/11 lives. One sees this with Zoe's avatar in Caprica, a personality created by collecting her online data. The premise of The Unnamable is a twist on old Cartesian assertion, "I speak, therefore I am." Beckett's profoundly pessimistic, occasionally physically disgusting passages are a prescient harbinger to the blather, word-vomit, and more-noise-than-signal tsunamis that populate Internet discussion threads and Facebook posts on an hourly basis. Internet users create and discard avatars in much the same way Malone creates stories and delusions. "Where now? Who now? When now? Unquestioning. I, say I. Unbelieving. Questions, hypotheses, call them that. Keep going, going on, call that going, call that on." When there is no narrator and there is no "I" to attach to a speaker, what is left? In the shadow of the World War 2's devastation and James Joyce's verbal excess, Beckett wrote The Trilogy to see what was left of humanity when it was stripped of its possessions (as in Molloy), its life (in Malone Dies), and its ability to speak (in The Unnamable).
* Beckett disavowed the use of the word "trilogy" in reference to these works, opting for Three Novels instead.