Beyond Story

The Unnamable from Three Novels by Samuel Beckett. Grove Press. 407 pp. $15.95.

Much to my chagrin, The Unnamable was too much for me. I was doing well with Beckett, reveling in the sentences, not letting the strangeness of his Three Novels bother me. Molloy did seem to be about Everyman, the way all of our grand projects are psychologically motivated, the way that, despite all we think we’ve done with our lives, we haven’t done anything. Malone Dies seemed an odd commentary on the creative process itself. A man realizes he is dying, he clearly sees the end coming, so he decides to tell some stories while he’s here, and to make some assessment of his property. I figured The Unnamable would actually be about death. Beckett doesn’t care about naming anyway; call your character Murphy, Molloy, Malone; who gives a shit? There is something beyond our own individual life that exists, but we can’t say what it is. As my Zen teacher says, death is inconceivable. No concept is adequate to it. Open mouth already a mistake.

“Where now? Who now? When now? Unquestioning,” is the opening line, and the unnamed narrator at times seems to make out Molloy, or Malone, in whatever shadowy space he or she or it is in. It isn’t even consciousness that Beckett seems to be describing. It’s something more primal. There is a kind of prologue about this unnamable space, but then our narrator takes a deep breath and launches into one of those immense paragraphs (pp. 298-407) that goes back into a past that sounds vaguely like what he’d described in the previous two novels. He was at that level where life and death are the same thing, contained in some larger thing called Existence, not that it’s namable. (As Suzuki Roshi once said, “You will always exist in the universe in some form.”) But there was no context for the sentences. They were just out there in the soup. I felt utterly lost.

There was one evening when I was convinced that I’d left my bookmark in the wrong place, I hadn’t read up to where I was. (When there’s never a new paragraph, it’s hard to find your place.) There was another when I kept reading the same thing again and again. When you’re picking up the book every evening with no idea what happened before, or what might happen next, it’s at the very least disconcerting. I’m a person who looks forward to his reading. I wasn’t looking forward to this.

Finally one evening I started a more conventional narrative—Mat Johnson’s Loving Day—and felt immediately hooked. A story! It sucked me in and I couldn’t go back.

I believe I understand what Beckett was getting at. Most of us think that our life is our story. David Guy was born in Pittsburgh in 1948 to loving parents blah blah blah. Some of us make a big deal of creating our story, to fulfill a certain image. That’s a lot of what Facebook is about. I have also read recently about a couple of rather different performers, Madonna and Amy Winehouse; one characteristic they shared was that they recorded huge amounts of their lives, as if they were their own Boswell (or as if a camera were their Boswell). Madonna began doing so for her movie Truth or Dare and has kept it up ever since. The filmmakers for the new documentary Amy had no trouble locating footage; Amy herself had recorded almost everything. It’s as if these women were creating the novel about their lives as they lived. They got to a point where they believed it.

But as my first Buddhist teacher Larry Rosenberg pointed out: the story that some little creature in your head keeps creating is not your life. Your life is what actually happens. You woke up this morning and stretched. You walked into your bathroom scratching your ass. You looked in the mirror. That’s your life. It is incomparably richer and more beautiful than any story you can tell about it. And what all the great spiritual teachers are trying to do is to get you to drop the story and live your life, without the narrator. Some pilgrims went to the great Indian teacher Vimala Thakar and asked her the meaning of life, and she said, “The meaning of life is to live.” Period. End of lesson. Now go do it.

No work of art can suggest the richness of a single moment of life. It is—to pick a word wildly at random—unnamable. I remember when I was young I thought that Tolstoy had done the best job of anyone I had ever read. I could not believe how much he captured in a single huge scene of War and Peace. It temporarily put me off from wanting to be a writer; I thought, if I live to be a thousand years old, I can never do anything like that. (I later realized I’d rather be a crummy novelist than the greatest at anything else.) But Tolstoy was still writing a traditional narrative, finding meaning in that tapestry. A writer like Joyce, with his stream of consciousness of petty little events, tried to capture the truth about life in another way, showing its moment by moment weird happenstance. Beckett, as Joyce’s greatest follower, may have even gone beyond the master. He left no story at all, and, in The Unnamable, no structure that I can discern.

Beckett tried to put life on the page, or maybe something more primal than life. He did an amazingly inventive job. And maybe the fact that I didn’t know where I was, that I didn’t know what the hell was going on from one evening to the next, was exactly what Beckett wanted. He succeeded.

But though life itself is incomparable, here to be richly and fully lived, there is also this other thing, called art, that is a great achievement of humankind. Somehow, for some reason, people drew images on the walls of a cave. People gathered together at the end of the day and related what happened. People sang about it, or created a dance. And human beings take solace in that, and pleasure from it. The narrative impulse is as basic to being human as anything I can think of.

I know, when I read a novel at night, that I’m not encountering life (except when I look up from the book). I’m partaking of art. But I like that. I’ve always liked it. And though it’s not a substitute for life—some people try to make it into that—it is an accompaniment. It enriches life.

Some artists, some of the greatest ones, get impatient with the old form of narrative and try to do something else. Beckett was one of those, and I greatly admire him. Maybe someday I’ll come back and breeze right through The Unnamable. Stranger things have happened in my reading life.

It is the famous book that ends—as my revered professor Wallace Fowlie once said—with the lines, “You must go on, I can’t go in, I’ll go on.” That’s like a credo for every Beckett character.

In this case, alas, I couldn’t go on.