Father Time, Lady Present

“I’m the Tympanum”: The Unnamable by Samuel Beckett

“This story is no good, I’m beginning almost to believe it.” — The unnamed narrator of The Unnamable

Samuel Beckett appearing on The Oprah Winfrey Show is a play that hasn’t been written yet, but should be. It is likely because, in his prose, Beckett is so terrifyingly and comically himself — or absence of self — that writers of more recent times must seek the mediated consolations and endorsements of not standing a chance alongside his work. As entertainment, yes, definitely; there are many things more entertaining than one hundred plus pages of unbroken text, the most basic possible description of the 1950s trilogy Molloy, Malone Dies and The Unnamable. But as serious endeavor, plea made before Father Time and his inscrutable glare, there are not many 20th century novels that can stand next to it without weeping, ‘No Fair.’

That ‘no fair’ begins with Beckett having served as James Joyce’s assistant in Lost Generation Paris. While ‘elitist’ is a label that gets bandied about these days on American talk radio, Beckett must have once fit the bill in his native Ireland: the young writer who went for his degree in a foreign capital before writing most of his novels in French because, well, it helped him to clear his head. Head clearing and Beckett are close to synonymous pursuits.

If an elitist, he was an anti-elitist’s elitist, the kind you could go out for a beer with, or, at least, whose portrait is most likely to be spotted on the wall opposite you and your designated drinking buddy in just about any of today’s Irish pubs. The trilogy culminating in The Unnamable may have been conceived as a down-market Finnegan’s Wake — if fiction was even conceived back then, rather than jack-n-the-boxing whole from the craniums of the presiding literary gods. And, no, ‘market’ was probably not at the top of Beckett’s list of concerns. Next to Finnegan’s Wake, though, The Unnamable is a downright summer breeze. A summer breeze on a dark and stormy day. A summer breeze along a cliff-side in the aftermath of a hurricane. Okay. Not much summer in Beckett, it’s true.

What there is are talking heads, blurred identity, haphazard motion forward, the body’s betrayal, gallow’s humor, contradiction, involution and self-loathing, sentences turning blue for want of a period and, oh yeah, rock star staring mortality to a stand-still (think Jim Morrison, with more bass, and if “The End” were an eight-hour song): “…It’s my turn, I too have the right to be shown impossible.”

David Gates attempts Beckett in his novel Jernigan, slanting the unfiltered intensity with which Beckett’s narrator seizes the mic, as it were, with the monologue of an addict up to no good. Charlie Kaufman’s movies Adaptation and, especially, Synecdoche, New York, also provide contemporary parallels. And there is Beckett in Infinite Jest too.

What the novel is at its heart — its raw, four-chambered, varicolored timepiece — seems to have obsessed Beckett somewhat. A novel by Beckett is a novel with the novel torn away and then torn away again, and again, until all that is left is a solitary speaker somehow utterly dominating and totally bedraggled, Lear-like in his madness: “Ah yes, all lies, God and man, nature and the light of day, the heart’s outpourings and the means of understanding, all invented, basely, by me alone, with the help of no one, since there is no one, to put off the hour when I must speak of me. There will be no more about them.” Terribly funny. Or totally mortifying. The Unnamable is a portrait of the artist in the deepest throes of creation, or else an absurdist tyrant glorying in masculinity’s very hollowness. Between the voice and the reader there figures hardly a character, only the possibility of characters, those appearing half-formed in the narrator’s mind, to be reshaped unceasingly on the sculpting wheel of the page.

Though a modern embodiment of artistic integrity, Beckett is not above dropping cultural referents, his brand shout outs, those things which fully exist in a world where nothing else can take root: The coast of Java, the Indian Ocean, dancing the Carmagnole, the periods of Ptomaine, Elliman’s Embrocation, Chinese lanterns, the Pillars of Hercules and the Pulitzer Prize.

Modern advertisers owe a fair debt of gratitude to the man. Whether they are conscious of it or not, he is their Moses; his prose shows how brightly a bright thing can shine in a sea of doubt and self-loathing, of self that is never quite self enough. It’s our fear of the inner Beckett that has us scrambling to keep up with the parade of the new: “Not to have been a dupe, that will have been my best possession, my best deed, to have been a dupe, wishing I wasn’t, thinking I wasn’t, knowing I was, not being a dupe of not being a dupe.”

How advertise The Unnamable then? How sing the novel’s attractions? It dares you not to finish reading it. But if you come out on the other side, as with the best testing grounds, going forward you carry a little of that with you. For writers in the grip of metempsychosis, here’s the metempsycho you’ve been waiting for.

“Contrails in the Upper Winds”: The Unnamed by Joshua Ferris


“They stared into the essential mystery of each other, but felt passing between them in those moments of silence the recognition of that more impossible mystery — their togetherness, the agreement each made that they would withstand the wayward directions they had taken and, despite their inviolable separateness, still remain.”
 — Tim and Jane Farnsworth

Joshua Ferris’s The Unnamed is about a lawyer named Tim Farnsworth who for the life of him can’t seem to stay put. He has a good job, a healthy marriage and a frightening disease: his legs locomote whether he wants them to or not. More than a helpless compulsion, it’s something his body just does, unpredictably, taking him out of his house, his neighborhood and New York City. It’s everything his dedicated wife, Jane, can do to keep catching up and bringing him back. When there is no other option but assigning someone to watch over him, his only daughter Becka punctuates the long, dull hours of his home imprisonment with disc after disc of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Joshua Ferris is Mr. Accessibility; his prose reflects light the way Mr. Clean’s smile sparkles: “What they used to call soul. What they used to call spirit. Indivisible, complete, that thing made of mind, distinct from body. He thought he had one — a soul, a spirit, a nature, an essence. He thought his mind was proof of it.” To find the slightest snag of inscrutability there is impossible. In Lady Present’s eyes, Ferris is a socks-off charmer.

Sure, Father Time stands to the side, looking threatening and blustery, but c’mon, everybody knows that guy’s a bore. Arch eminence Michael Cunningham mused in an October Times Op-Ed that all novels are works of translation; the great stories have already been written; an author’s work is to transcribe them from one language, or epoch, to the next. In this light, Lady Present rules the day. You don’t want to slip into her bad graces.

A large part of Ferris’s accessibility is how cleanly he renders interpersonal dynamics: hope, desire, the pleasure of consumption, shared or solitary. Worn down by his illness, Tim luxuriates in street vended wares: “The sandwich was hot as ore in his hand. His first bite of meat and juice and yogurt sauce and onions and diced pickles nearly made the deprivation of such a thing worth it. The sandy pita was a full-bodied pleasure. He took large bites that forced him to chew dramatically. He was eating the steam itself.”

What is particularly admirable about The Unnamed is that a writer whose forte is accessibility would attempt to rein in Beckett. Following the vogue in novel titles under the rubric of The _____’s Wife (Time Traveler, Alchemist, Kitchen God), it’s as if Ferris set out to write The Molloy’s Wife, a brave bar for anyone to have set. But The Unnamed is not a translation of anything Beckett ever wrote. Instead, it is about a Beckett-like taking over of a contemporary novel: to walk unstintingly onwards, as body, marriage and planet strain to breaking (see also Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom). The marriage is as much that between book publisher and popular audience as Tim and Jane. Which offers possibilities both of stunning comedy and pathos.

While comedy, in subtext, almost screams off the page (once, literally: Tim’s HA HA HA HA HA), the pathos does wear thin, especially in the novel’s finale. That section begins to read like a long list, montage of a reverse zombie movie, one man wandering undead in a blurry landscape. Lists are where the author Ferris lives, the world beyond them breaking up in static: “The fluorescent illumination of tobacco ads, power-drink displays, heat-lamp chicken, postcard racks, shrink-wrapped magazines, scuffed aisles of candies and chips, and the purgatorial shuffling transients that fed off it all. His laughter gave way to strained tears.”

Escalating in pop simulacrum, moments repeatedly lose their impact, sounding canned: “You had him! You had him! You had him!” shouts a former client of Tim’s, a man behind bars, the repetition accomplishing little on the page. Metaphor turns decidedly odd: “Geese with the white underbellies of bowling pins” pass overhead. To make remarks like this can seem petty when what is under examination, in part, is how the book was edited. But are there any editors out there with the wherewithal, or inclination, to play Gordon Lish, a sort of Beckett figure unto himself?

It seems only appropriate that Beckett should have the closing words:

To gasp what it is to have to celebrate banishment, beware. Having nothing to say, no words but the words of others, you have to speak. It’s the old story, they want to be entertained, while doing their dirty work, no, not entertained, soothed, no, that’s not it either, solaced, no, even less… And but suppose, instead of suffering less than the first day, or no less, he suffers more and more, as time flies, and the metamorphosis is accomplished, of unchanging future into unchangeable past. Eh? Another thing, but of a different order. The affair is thorny. I’m in words, made of words, others’ words, what others…

Let us go on as if I were the only one in the world whereas I’m the only one absent from it.

–Jeff Price is a Brooklyn-based editor and writer.

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