Opening a novel with a quote, particularly one from a writer as universally celebrated as Samuel Beckett, risks much. A reader is apt to spend a good deal of the novel comparing the works of the writer before him to those of the great master, fall into a reverie about how great was the work of the great master, and lose track of what the book in hand is going on about. Jim Murdoch, the author of Milligan and Murphy (Fandango Virtual, 180 pages), assumes that risk.
The heading quote, taken from Beckett’s 1946 novel Mercier and Camier, that Murdoch chose for his novel announces that Milligan and Murphy will be a pastiche of M&C, considered by many contemporary critics to be a key transitional work between modernist and absurdist Beckett. Murdoch borrows Beckett’s tropes from M&C: the two peripatetic, chatterbox tramps; the vaguely mid-20th century Irish setting; the occasionally snarky omniscient narrator; the riffs chock full of cracker-barrel philosophy; the yearning to escape provincial life.
Murdoch certainly puts on a fine pastiche. Obviously he put a great deal of effort into nailing Beckett’s tone and rhythm. Often, he succeeds:
“For the love of God! What is it now?”
“Tell me a story.”
“I’ve run out of stories. You’ve heard them all.”
“I have not.”
“Do you want to hear The Piper and the Pooka?”
“Not that one.”
“What about How Thomas Connolly Met the Banshee.”
“Are you trying to scare the bejaysus out of me?”
“Well what story would you have me tell you?”
“Something new, Murphy, something I’ve never heard before.”
“There’s nothing new under the sun and all the sun does is cast shadows to remind us we’re mortal. It’s the oldest story in the book. It’s the only story in the book. Now, go to sleep, Milligan.”
It is fun to read passages like this. Indeed, it takes me back to the time that a friend and I caught a production of Waiting For Godot at the Moore Theatre in Seattle about a half-dozen years ago. Five actors from the Gate Theater of Dublin performed Vladimir, Estragon, Pozzo, Lucky, and the Boy. The jokes play so much better with an Irish lilt. Did you know that Samuel Beckett’s assistant was involved in the production?
I’m sorry. I’m supposed to be reviewing Milligan and Murphy.
And therein lies the problem. As a pastiche, Milligan and Murphy hugs Beckett so tightly that it’s hard to read it without starting to reminisce about Samuel Beckett and forgetting Jim Murdoch altogether.
I don’t have any aesthetic objections to pastiche per se, but it seems to me that for a pastiche to work as a strategy, clear evidence of its author’s point of view must at some point hove into view. It is the duty of the author of a pastiche to reassemble the materials borrowed from the antecedent work into something new that expresses a distinct vision. The pastiche can’t simply reflect its ancestor; it must respond to it. Otherwise, however clever its imitation may be, the pastiche novel can never develop into anything more than a series of well presented signifiers, like dioramas at a museum.
As I turned the pages of Milligan and Murphy–and let me assure you that it’s not a great chore to turn them–the thought that never left my mind was I can see that writing this pastiche of Mercier and Camier is important to Mr. Murdoch, but I’m not sure I see why it’s important to him. Through all the Beckett-inspired fencing, I kept hoping to be convinced that Milligan and Murphy was more than just a well-handled bit of literary resurrectionism, but I finished its final sentence with my skepticism intact.
Milligan and Murphy needed to start a dialog with Mercier and Camier. Instead, it just sounded an amusing echo.
—Jim Snowden, author of Dismantle the Sun, 2012
Excerpt from Milligan and Murphy:
All of a sudden Milligan stopped in his tracks having spied something in the mud.
“What’s that?” he said.
“That man there.” He pointed.
“A penny. It’s a penny.”
“Find a penny, pick it up,” began Milligan.
“And the day, you’ll have good luck,” finished off his brother as bent to retrieve it.”
Murphy froze. “What for?”
“It’s only a ha’penny.”
Murphy peered closer. “‘Tis not. ‘Tis a penny and heads up too.”
“I saw it first.”
“But I recognized it first.”
“That you did,” he conceded. “Still, there’s not a lot of luck going around, Murphy. We should be careful.”
“In what way?”
“Well, is it the finding of the penny that brings the luck or the act of picking it up?”
“Ah, I see.” Murphy retracted his hand, stood up and stroked his chin. He considered the matter for a moment or two, then a moment longer and then suggested that it might require both the discovery and the recover of the coin for a portion of luck to be devolved upon the fortunate individual.