IN HIS SEMINAL 1961 work The Theater of the Absurd, Martin Esslin warns against reductive attempts to demystify Waiting for Godot, Samuel Beckett’s masterpiece and one of the defining texts of twentieth century literature. Hasty explanation goes wrong with any work of lasting merit, but Esslin contends that it’s especially senseless when confronted with the soul-rattling complexity of a play like Godot — a play that is itself partly an articulation of our inability to understand ourselves in a cosmos off kilter. Beckett himself could not point to who or what Godot was supposed to be. “If I knew, I would have said so in the play,” he told Alan Schneider, director of the inaugural American production in 1956. And yet it is a testament to the play’s bewitching command that we have been for six decades trying to decode the thing, to decipher the cryptic message at its core that stares us down like fire-lighted hieroglyphs. Beckett arouses in us our human rage for explication, our madness to impose order wherever disorder plants a flag, to clarify the recondite. We are eagerly irked by the unexplained, galled by Keats’s negative capability. Pen a perplexing masterpiece open to a hundred avenues of interpretation and scholars will without tire set themselves to work.
If the pedantic cabal of philosophers and critics has insisted upon Godot’s interminable difficulty as an utterance of our existential dread — as the quiddity of our existential condition — then there was at least one group of theatergoers who received the play by mainline, who required no assistance from obfuscating academics. Esslin begins The Theater of the Absurd with the extraordinary story of Godot’s 1957 production at San Quentin State Prison just north of San Francisco. The director, Herbert Blau, was atremble with anxiety: “How were they to face one of the toughest audiences in the world with a highly obscure, intellectual play that had produced near riots among a good many highly sophisticated audiences in Western Europe?” (If the only crime committed by “highly sophisticated” Europeans was their propensity for near riot, civilization in the twentieth century would have been a less barbarous affair.) In an act of either condescension or assuagement of his own nerves, Blau introduced Godot to the inmates and compared it to jazz, “to which one must listen for whatever one may find in it.” But his introduction was for naught because “what had bewildered the sophisticated audiences in Paris, London, and New York was immediately grasped by an audience of convicts.”
Esslin goes on to speculate about why these caged men might intuitively comprehend a plotless play about abject wastrels conversing obscurely on a country road, waiting for someone who will not appear, someone about whom they know only rumors. Either the circumstances in Godot paralleled the men’s incarceration and they merely identified — “merely” because your identification with or distance from a work of literature says nothing at all about the work and everything about you — or their paucity of critical apparatus rendered them especially susceptible to Beckett’s meaning, a meaning that must be, in the end, emotional as well as intellectual if the work is to succeed. Esslin suggests that the San Quentin inmates might have been “unsophisticated enough to come to the theater without any preconceived notions and ready-made expectations, so that they avoided the mistake that trapped so many established critics who condemned the play for its lack of plot, development, characterization, suspense, or plain common sense.”
There’s nothing unsophisticated or reductive about this convict reviewing Godot for the prison paper, the San Quentin News:
It was an expression, symbolic in order to avoid all personal error, by an author who expected each member of his audience to draw his own conclusions, make his own errors. It asked nothing in point, it forced no dramatized moral on the viewer, it held out no specific hope. [….] We’re still waiting for Godot, and shall continue to wait. When the scenery gets too drab and the action too slow, we’ll call each other names and swear to part forever — but then, there’s no place to go!
A goodly number of book critics now writing can stand to learn something from this prison newspaper at San Quentin. The reviewer’s insight about “error” is marvelous because it unveils Godot’s emotional engine: the tramps inhabit an erroneous world without succor, a world gone wrong, and they themselves have gone wrong, helpless to say how or why. In one of the most memorable lines from The Anxiety of Influence, Harold Bloom writes: “Error about life is necessary for life.” But some errors cannot be corrected, and existence itself is the most egregious error of all. “Life is something that should not have been,” said Schopenhauer (the young Beckett read hungrily in Schopenhauer; often he could read no one else — the German philosopher meshed well with his developing sense of human calamity). Beckett’s hobos and the convicts at San Quentin might have a polished perception of error — both the errors they have committed and the errors of justice committed against them — but Godot’s universality resides in the fact that we are all, to one extent or another, waiting for the erroneous to right itself.
Elsewhere Bloom has written that “it is hard to go on living without some hope of encountering the extraordinary,” which is precisely the reason Godot has been seducing audiences for sixty years. Vladimir and Estragon perfectly embody the oft-quoted sentiment at the end of Beckett’s novel The Unnamable: “I can’t go on, I’ll go on.” Why can’t they and we go on? Because our lives are barren of hope for the extraordinary. Why will they and we go on? Because we must revivify hope for the extraordinary. Everyone has his Godot. The San Quentin convicts perceived the absent Godot as “society” or “the outside”; others perceive him as God, as the christos who never comes. Considering Beckett’s emphasis on enigma and the uselessness of language, Godot for the tramps might be any source of understanding, of clarification, of correction in a world rampant with error.
Who deserves, has earned in heart and mind, the title of American Beckett? Padgett Powell’s newest novel, You & Me, is described as “a hilarious Southern send-up of Samuel Beckett’s classic Waiting for Godot,” and anyone who’s been delighting in Powell’s distinctive gifts since his debut novel Edisto in 1984 will feel no surprise at this overt homage to the master. A one-time student of Donald Barthelme at the University of Houston, Powell has been shucking convention since the outset. Even in his more orthodox early work his narrative technique and implementation of language have about them an unobtrusive air of not giving a damn what you think, which is the only way to write. Barry Hannah once opined that Powell was the only exciting force in American fiction. Across six novels and two story collections he confects a world recognizably ours but always somehow aslant, asunder — a world in which our consciousness is at bottom both heartwreck and hilarity.
His last novel, The Interrogative Mood (2009), unfurls in a barrage of questions, a kind of gleeful bastardization of the Socratic method, a perversion of dialectic in which one side takes place silently in your smiling mind: “Do you realize that people move on steadily, even arguably bravely, unto the end, stunned and more stunned, and numbed and more numbed, by what has happened to them and not happened to them?” That inquiry alone encompasses much of Beckett’s warped cosmos. Take the Beckettian, replace several degrees of European existential damnation with self-aware Southern wit, and you have the Powellian. “Life is missing things, not getting them,” says narrator Simons Manigault in Edisto Revisited (1996), and no one in Beckett would argue with that.
You & Me elevates the Southern art of front-porch badinage to metaphysical heights and then drops it into depths of the ridiculous. A native Floridian who spent much of his youth in South Carolina, Powell has a roundabout relationship with the South. He has admitted to occupying “a liquid fey interface between ‘believing’ in the South and making fun of folk who believe.” One senses the regnant matriarch of Southern lit pulsing just beneath Powell’s every page; he refers to Ms. O’Connor as the “goddesshead,” and they make a superb pair: recalcitrant, fed up with the pharisaical, ambivalent about the South, absolutely certain and unashamed of their fought-for convictions. You & Me is not distinctly Southern any more than Godot is distinctly French or Irish — you won’t be sure where, when, or over how long a period this persiflage takes place (the whole short book happens in dialogue devoid of quotation marks, not a nonce of description). The italicized prologue is as giving as Powell gets here:
Somewhere between Bakersfield, California, and Jacksonville, Florida—we think spiritually nearer the former and geographically nearer the latter—two weirdly agreeable dudes are on a porch in a not upscale neighborhood, apparently within walking distance of a liquor store, talking a lot. It’s all they have. Things disturb them. Some things do not.
Those four lines deadpan in vintage Powell: the priceless “we,” the only half earnest “spiritually,” the everyman use of “dudes,” the insouciant adumbration of “it’s all they have,” and what should be a final thought parceled into two for dry comedic cadence. Powell’s prose — like that of Hannah and another Southern maestro of style, Allan Gurganus — immediately distinguishes itself from the ruck of barely-there sentences polluting so much paper. “People are hungry for new utterance,” he wrote in A Woman Named Drown (1988), and the hunger he means is born of ennui.
Unlike Vladimir and Estragon, Powell’s two unnamed front-porch dudes have nothing to wait for, no pipedream of a Godot-like messiah en route. Senescent and reposefully self-righteous, they have substituted talking for waiting and don’t seem bothered that the distinction rather lacks a difference: “What would we do if we did not talk?” “Precious little else, darlin’.” When the one asks what indefatigable losers such as they are supposed to do with their lives, the other replies: “Live until we die, without any more pondering than a dog,” and still they ponder away, high and low, as if discourse alone has the charms to ward off expiry of every kind.
But in true Godot fashion, their discourse stutters, falters, peters out, switches back. Godot is, among other things, a linguistic manifestation of our spiritual state, our ontological circumstances: pauses, platitudes, paradox, tautologies, non sequiturs, redundancies, contradictions, dichotomies, neologisms, and general psychological mayhem brought on by incomprehension. (All those gravid pauses implemented to such effect throughout Harold Pinter’s oeuvre would not have been possible without Beckett, who served as mentor to the young playwright. Pinter wouldn’t put a play on stage until it had Beckett’s approval.) Humankind’s postlapsarian predicament announces itself most persistently in our use and misuse of language, in its restless inadequacy — “a jangling noise” and “hideous gabble,” as Milton has it. One of Powell’s dudes says, “Life will not be explained,” and the duo seems determined to contribute to the perennial mystery or else be at ease within it.
Iyuh hayev ayuh mayarble.
It’s my new language: two-cylinder instead of one. Two-stroke.
We are insane.
We are inSAYane.
Insane enough continually to call one another by names not theirs — names perhaps from a past they can no longer grasp — because what’s a signifier in a world bereft of significance? What’s in a name when the sweet-scented rose has withered, when nothing matters anymore?
It doesn’t matter that it doesn’t matter.
What doesn’t matter?
I guess I am saying that nothing matters.
I have no idea what you are saying, but when you say “it doesn’t matter” what is the antecedent of “it”?
I don’t know. It doesn’t matter. If it doesn’t matter, it doesn’t matter what the antecedent to it is.
You have lost your mind.
Yes, and it doesn’t matter.
When the one says, “We are going to hell,” the other replies, “We’ll enjoy it,” except they might very well have arrived already on perdition’s porch, an eternal rack not of Dante but of Sartre in No Exit — of course hell is other people: what they do, what they say, what they are. Powell’s two gents might be “agreeable” in one regard, and yet they are also each other’s loquacious tormenter:
You said irrigible?
What does that mean?
I don’t know, I’ve never heard it.
It sounds like it should be a word, though.
The irrigible thug. Almost the opposite of the incorrigible thug. Is corrigible a word?
I think not.
If Beckett’s tramps pass their lives waiting, they also spend an inordinate amount of time misremembering or else trying to remember. Part of Beckett’s mission in Godot is an accentuation of how memory and its missteps cannot be extricated from the daily business of knowing ourselves. (In an interview Powell has said, “It is very hard for us to comprehend who we are,” and although he referred to Americans, he meant everybody always.) When a boy who may or may not be Godot’s page meets Vladimir and Estragon on the road each afternoon, he doesn’t recognize the pair, nor does the pair recognize Pozzo and Lucky even though their confused colloquy plays out day after day. Pozzo’s memory doesn’t work either: “I don’t remember having met anyone yesterday. But tomorrow I won’t remember having met anyone today.” Vladimir tells Estragon, “You forget everything.” These men don’t inhabit a land in which anything is worth remembering — victims of both telluric and otherworldly imprecations, they wait in a slate gray limbo where north might be south, the past an inferno and the future impotent.
Powell’s dudes have the same memory deficiency but it doesn’t seem to bug them much. “I forget you’re here sometimes,” one says, and an early chapter begins, “I forget where we are,” another with “Where exactly are we?” Someone mistakes T.S. Eliot for W.B. Yeats, and the poetically minded Powell means this as a colossal bungle indeed: you might as well mistake George Herbert for the Earl of Rochester. “I don’t know anything at all, you get right down to it,” but both know that “the lesson of civilization is that sooner or later we will fuck everything up.” Throughout this dialogue are nuanced suggestions that these men abide in a post-apocalyptic nowhere or else their own purgatorio: “Did we leave the earth, or were we never on it?” “We tried to be on it.” (In Beckett’s Endgame, Hamm says: “You’re on earth, there’s no cure for that!”) When one dude asks, “Why can we not live real lives?” the other responds simply, “I don’t know.” Four pages later there’s this exchange:
We are fools to even try to be alive now.
We are not, really, alive now.
No, we are not.
We are not miracles either.
Miracles as in resurrection, redemption, eternal life? And is this really a short dialogue between two, or the fractured monologue of an isolato, a solitary psychotic? Powell seems perfectly comfortable with questions and perfectly content to let the critics spin themselves dizzy attempting answers.
Of course You & Me is not a novel, and Powell knows that; its joy derives not from the traditional pleasures of the novel — narrative, character, conflict, resolution, lives made lyrical — but from a spell inside Powell’s unwonted mind. His trademark facetious swagger and splenetic breed of comedy are on abundant display here: “Does the hippie want hemp in everything he uses?” ; “Tang. What a drink that was” ; “Jejune Longing is the chewing gum of life. It’s what they named Juicy Fruit after.” With each book Powell moves farther away from the forms of traditional fiction because he aims to find, in Beckett’s words, “a form that accommodates the mess.” As Beckett offered in conversation in 1961:
One cannot speak anymore of being, one must speak only of the mess. […] What I am saying does not mean that there will henceforth be no form in art. It only means that there will be a new form and that this form will be of such a type that it admits the chaos and does not try to say that the chaos is really something else.
The mess, the chaos: it lurks everywhere. Padgett Powell does not shiver before that fanged truth, and we all — from critics and convicts to college seniors and senior citizens — require his resplendent theater of the absurd, his artistic stretching for the extraordinary. It’d be a hard life without it.