Picture, if you will, Jonathan Payne, probably the last person in the world you'd expect to be the lead character in anybody's novel, a jaded bookseller nearing the end of a wasted life. We meet him alone in his flat in the seaside town of Rigby just waiting on Death to knock at his door.
But life has something else in store for poor Jonathan. Instead of Death he gets to spend an infuriating two days with the personification of truth who opens Jonathan's eyes to not only what his life has become but what it might have been. He discovers what he's missed out on, what other people are really thinking and the true nature of the universe which, as you might imagine, is nothing like he would have ever expected it to be.
By the end of the book, having learned far more about himself than he ever wanted to know, Jonathan finds out that it's usually never too late to start again. Only sometimes it is.
The whole book takes place in a landscape generated by Jonathan's memories of his past life. Everyone and everything is as he remembers it, not necessarily the way it was. In this pseudo-reality he has to face his mother and father, his past (presented as a film) and a conference made up of various Jonathans from alternative realities. Oh, and he gets to visit Truth's home plane, where he gets to meet some of the other Powers who have had a hand in messing up life as he knew it.
The book ends with a final confrontation with the love of his life where he learns that you don't always need to get answers.
There are no reasons for unreasonable things. So the protagonists of this novel are told having found themselves setting out on an adventure that they really didn't plan. Like many people, Murdoch has always had a great affection for the two lead characters in Beckett's Waiting for Godot. Have you ever wondered what Didi and Gogo were like when they were young and what led them to end up waiting for a man who would most likely never turn up? That's basically the premise Murdoch set out to explore in Milligan and Murphy but that was not the question he finally answered.
Milligan and Murphy are not Didi and Gogo, nor are they Mercier and Camier, Beckett's less-well-known "pseudo-couple" — they are very much themselves — but after an unexpected encounter on the road out of the town with an old man who has decided that searching for someone that will never be found is better than waiting for someone who will never turn up, they suddenly find themselves with big questions to answer and they're not very good with questions, big or small.
On their journey they meet a variety of eccentric characters: a priest who in a former life was a Roman centurion, an artist who now walks with a limp after venturing into the ring with a boxing kangaroo, a former inmate of the local asylum and a bartender who might well be Old Nick himself. The question is, whereas Beckett's characters walk round and round in circles and get nowhere, will Milligan and Murphy escape or be dragged back home by the mysterious man who has been cycling after them?
How do you make sense out of life? Some say that it doesn't and you shouldn't bother. Instead most of us try to impose a sense of sense on it. We dream up reasons, justifications or excuses to give our lives meaning. In this collection of short stories we meet twenty people who have nothing in common apart this need to make sense out of their lives. We have a murderer, a gambler, an adoptee, a stand-up comic, a teacher; we have men, women, parents and children, all doing their best to answer the self-same questions and where their five senses fall short they have to rely on their other senses: their sense of humour, of justice, of right and wrong, of decency...
I have been writing poetry for some 35 years. A long time. A lot of poetry.
In all that time I've never published even a chapbook. The reason? It sounds perverse but I could never find enough poems that I felt went together. I made endless lists but I always gave up thinking that if I just hung on for a bit that there would be enough. One can only keep that up for so long and so now — finally — I've managed to arrange some 80 poems into a sequence that pleases me.
After all these years the solution was obvious — a life. But not my own.
The seven sections of this book, when read in the sequence in which they are presented, show snapshots from childhood through to old age. Some of these are things that happened to me, others are things I've seen happen, that might have happened. This might be someone's life but not mine.
This second collection presents about a hundred poems starting in 1979 and ending in 2015 illustrating my lifelong fascination with the nature of poetry. What exactly happens when we read a poem? If we don't get it whose fault is that? How much responsibility does the reader carry on his or her shoulders?
Every poem — and this applies to prose too but especially to poetry — is a collaborative exercise. Not everyone will get every poem in this book. This is not a problem. They're all missing something and as everything is somewhere maybe you can fill in the blanks. Maybe there's something wonderful waiting to happen here.