Saturday, January 12, 2013

Book Review: Milligan and Murphy by Jim Murdoch

I’ve always been fascinated by stories of doubles, twins, doppelgangers, minds and actions mirrored (perhaps as a reaction against the profound truth that each of us is utterly unique, and therefore alone). Jim Murdoch’s short novel, Milligan and Murphy, is not really one of those stories, but it toys with the trope of twins who together make a single person. The half-brothers Milligan and Murphy (both named John!) are not twins but are enough alike that their non-twinness is just a technicality. Murphy, the firstborn, may be a shade more introspective, and Milligan a trifle more action-oriented, but essentially they are one mind, and the fact that they inhabit separate bodies is primarily a storytelling device. Without it, the extensive dialogues exploring their limited reality would become claustrophobic solipsism. Such is the reason for the respectable literary history of twins, brothers/sisters, bosom buddies, even the hero/sidekick construct: it works.

Murdoch, an active blogger, plainly acknowledges his interest in Samuel Beckett’s pairs of wanderers, and as we follow his unassuming Irish duo through a barren landscape, setting out on a whim to walk who-knows-where (doppelganger is German for “double walker”), we carry with us the phantoms of Vladimir and Estragon waiting on the road for the elusive (illusive) Godot. But there are other phantoms as well: the mythological twins Castor and Pollux, whose inseparability is immortalized as the constellation Gemini... Lewis Carroll’s Tweedledum and Tweedledee, whose convoluted conversations feel simultaneously demented and true... and for me, the image from my childhood of Mormon missionaries, young men dressed alike going two by two about the world on a philosophical, impractical quest -- tilting at windmills, one might say (and Quixote had his Sancho Panza).

Speaking of Quixote, another lens through which to read Milligan and Murphy is the picaresque. In current usage, that term refers to “an episodic recounting of the adventures of an anti-hero on the road” (Wikipedia). So M. and M. is picaresque x 2. Critic Daniel Green writes, under the title One Thing After Another, “There's not really a sense of progression in the picaresque narrative, just a series of episodes, and usually the protagonist remains more or less unchanged, undergoing no transformation or ‘epiphany.’” I agree with him when he goes on to say that a revival of the picaresque is in fact, a welcome break from “the tyranny of story--the creation of narrative tension by which too many stories and novels are reductively judged...” and that this form (not “formless” at all) frees the writer for effects not generally available in today’s conventional “workshopped/crafted” psychological narrative. Murdoch has handled the form masterfully, which comes as no surprise if you’re familiar with his other works, not a conventional tale among them.

Perhaps the key factor in Milligan and Murphy’s success is Murdoch’s confident use of a narrative voice that is all too rare these days. It is a variety of third-person omniscient that some critics have dubbed “universal omniscient.” The difference is that the universal omniscient narrator reveals information that the characters do not have, and makes clear the fact that the narrator is not involved in the events of the story. This is sometimes called "Little Did He Know" writing, as in, "Little did he know he'd be dead by morning." (Wikipedia) Murdoch’s narrator observes both inner and outer action from a bit of distance (more than arm’s length, less than bird’s eye), with a dash of wry wit and an almost paternal fondness for his protagonists. This narrator likes the hapless brothers but never spares them when their behavior is less than stellar.

But Murdoch takes third-person a step further. Much to my enjoyment (because I appreciate multiple levels of meaning), he mysteriously, occasionally introduces the first-person pronoun so that we wonder, who is this unnamed being who knows all? There is no answer. This is a narrator who shares some of the dry, witty tone, with asides and commentary, of Lemony Snicket (A Series of Unfortunate Events), but unlike Snicket, is never revealed as an actual character in the story. This is a narrator who acknowledges he is telling a story to “you,” the reader. It’s fun to read, but it’s more than that. Murdoch is using a postmodern metafictional device to thrust us into the midst of a Big Question. Every meditating yogi is facing something similar: who is the Observer?

The mysterious “I” first appears on page two with this sudden insertion in an expository passage about the brothers’ history: “I bore witness to each confinement and have followed the boys’ lacklustre progress with something of a paternal interest over the years.” Then again on page six: 

Our story, such as it is, begins with our heroes, such as they are, sound asleep in bed. That is to say, they were asleep in their own beds. I’ve mentioned that they were close and I’m not about to take that back but it is equally true to say that it had been many years since they had enjoyed the one bed, nevertheless they continued to retire each night to the same room, the bedroom they had shared since infancy.
This charming self-referential witness appears perhaps another half-dozen times throughout the book’s 169 pages, doling out information, opinion, and wisdom, and adding immensely to my reading pleasure.

From a philosophical point of view, I can’t be sure what Murdoch intended, but I can say what he actually did, on the level of emotional subtext. He wrote an anti-atheism book. I won’t say a religious book; it thankfully stops far short of that. But in Milligan and Murphy, Murdoch posits a universe in which we are not alone. It is a universe with a Supreme Being. If the narration had been strictly third-person omniscient, this would not be so, because the reader would not have been given an explicit reference to an observing consciousness. In M. and M., there is a Someone, a super-character, the “I,” who watches over our simple heroes (naifs, everymen). This Someone knows everything about everything, but does not participate in the action. The “I” remains unnameable, a benevolent, ever-present mystery.

A skeptic might say, well, in every book there is the obvious parallel: author/creator = god. However, I am not referring to the author here, but rather to the persona “hired” by the author to narrate this particular story. Within the world of this book, there is a God. I am not a “believer” but I do not find this objectionable. Rather, I find it true to my felt experience as a human on this strange planet. Murdoch has personalized Awareness, the field in which all experience exists.

A sly bit of evidence is at the end of a scene in which the brothers meet an old man who has been waiting by the road, waiting for someone who never arrived, waiting even beyond the death of his longtime companion. Of course, if we know Beckett (which the brothers don't), we recognize him... is it Didi or Gogo?  As they turn to go, Milligan says:

“...I wonder who he was, Murphy.”
"God alone knows, Milligan. God alone knows.”
 That He did.
After the two John M.s wander the muddy roads under rainy skies, from town to gray town, and encounter a handful of characters who equal or surpass them in grit and wackiness and homespun wisdom, their final act is simply... to keep going. They’ve reached the sea, and perhaps here, Beckett’s couplet applies: “I can’t go on, I’ll go on.” There is a ship in the harbor needing hands and the brothers get lucky (and, let us remember, the twins, Castor and Pollux, are the patrons of sailors). As M. and M. gaze at the dark waves, I’m reminded of Knut Hamsun’s unnamed hero in his seminal 20th-century novel, Hunger, who starved and suffered senselessly until he was done, finished with this phase of his life, then simply got on a ship and sailed away into an unknown future.

It is then that Murdoch’s benevolent observer appears one last time to deliver the book’s beautiful final lines:
Neither of them moved. The ship sailed on regardless; the earth kept spinning on its axis and circling the sun whilst the whole universe continued a sigh begun twenty million years before. And that’s the end of our story as much as any story has an ending.
I, of course, know exactly what will become of of them but that really is another tale, the ending of which you more than likely know already.
Milligan and Murphy is a quick read and fun, but it is never shallow. If you look for alternatives to the garish and trendy, this book’s for you.

Perhaps irrelevant, perhaps not, here’s a final note: two local treasures here in Woodstock, New York, Mikhail Horowitz and Gilles Malkine, giving us their own Beckett homage: “Rappin’ for Godot” (video by Stephen Blauweiss). Enjoy!


  1. I think I’ve met my ideal reader. You really have got this book. I am so impressed by this review. There’s more, of course, like the two one-legged men who make up a composite whole, but you’ve got the idea. That Didi and Gogo are two halves of a single personality is not a new thought but I do talk about it in this post: Beckett's pseudo-couples (part one) and specifically Mercier and Camier—the prototypes for Vladimir and Estragon—here. I don’t ever say who the tramp is but I do suggest who he might be in this post in which I discuss the writing of the book and explain who the narrator might be too. The first post also talks about the narrator in Mercier and Camier which was my template after all. I mention all of this not to say that your review has fallen short—I cannot imagine anyone writing a more thorough or insightful one—but I thought you might be interested.

  2. Thanks, Jim -- I'm pleased that you're pleased. It's good that you supplied the link to your post about the writing of the book. I just read the post again and remembered reading it many months ago, but I'm glad I forgot about it before I read the book and wrote the review. So my reactions and ideas were fresh and unprompted (at least consciously). Also, I'm no Beckett scholar (often wish I was, but I've only read Godot and Krapp), so that allowed a more independent reaction to the book as well. I must say, I have appreciated your various writings on Beckett; I've learned a lot.

  3. What a well written review Brent. You have captured my imagination, so I'll have to get the book itself. Keep up the good work.

    BTW,I saw Krapp at the Abbey Theater in Dublin back in July of 1997. It was wonderful and haunting. Beckett really has to be performed to be appreciated. The sounds are so important.

  4. Krapp’s Last Tape is one of my favourite Beckett plays, Kevin, although Waiting for Godot will always be my first love as it was the first play by him I saw; in the early hours of the morning I got up to watch an Open University performance and was so blown away that the next day when it was repeated I made my wife get up to watch it with me. Have you seen Harold Pinter’s interpretation of Krapp? It’s not exactly a definitive performance—John Hurt’s comes close—but his stage presence is something else.

    And, you’re right, this is a great review by Brent. It is so gratifying when a reader gets you. If you’re looking to buy the paperback the best (and cheapest) place to go is the FV Books site; the ebook is available from Smashwords.