Reviews: Milligan and Murphy
I have reviewed both Jim Murdoch's previous novels and have thoroughly enjoyed doing so. Rather than following that particular story any further, though, Murdoch has embarked in a totally new direction. Milligan and Murphy expressly refers to Mercier and Camier, a Beckett novel in which two men repeatedly try to leave a particular town without success, and the allusion is obvious as out two eponymous heroes first finally leave the town of their birth on a whim and then spend the rest of the book walking to other places which seem exactly the same, while debating why they left in the first place and dealing with their guilt about having abandoned their mother. In Beckett's book, Camier is a private eye, and in a nice touch Murdoch has the two boys successfully located by a private eye hired by their mother, allowing a few wry reflections on the nature of the detective's process.
There are other influences too. Surely the name of the first character is not accidental, for there are frequent whiffs of Puckoon, one of Jim's (and my) favourite books, and I thought I detected a sense of Jack Trevor Story in some of the dialogue. Jim's unique voice shines through, however, and just as well since he is a very fine writer indeed.
It is particularly impressive that he has managed to produce a novel which is so different in subject matter, style and characterisation from his first two. I can only begin to guess how many hours it must have taken to think himself into the minds of his characters.
I am not going to reveal the ending, not least because there is an amusing and thought-provoking passage about the nature of the end to a novel. In order to know the ending, the author argues, you have to know at which point in the story the writer decided to stop telling it.
I really recommend this book. Order it from your local bookshop ISBN 978-0-9550636-6-4
Originally posted on Pursewarden on 9th January 2012
Perhaps this is as good a place as any, as our heroes wend their way towards the future, to describe in some small detail the countryside through which they trudged. If I were to provide you with a simple-to-understand expression to describe where Lissoy was, then 'in the middle of nowhere' would be fairly accurate: somewhere dwindled into anywhere and the next thing you knew you were nowhere. The 'nowhere' consisted of bogs and moors with only a single road leading to the place and that road bounded by hedgerows along its full length as if to keep the inevitable at bay. The laws of scenery were not flouted but they were only paid lip service to. The landscape was one of emigration and emptiness, a thing trampled into the past. It did everything in its power to resist interpretation. It was as if anything that might have caught the eye had been eroded by time and this was all that it had left; that would vanish, too, one day but that day had not arrived. The mountain, Binn Moan, rose like a cry in the wilderness but, even so, did its level best to blend itself in with the sky and go unnoticed.
Jim Murdoch's new novel, Milligan and Murphy, introduces us to two half-brothers, John Murphy and John Milligan, both of them forty years of age and still at home with their Ma. In the manner of Samuel Beckett we are introduced to a couple of accidental people living accidental lives. I mention Beckett in passing because Milligan and Murphy is inspired by Mercier and Camier, a Beckett novel in which two men repeatedly try to leave town without success
On the way to a local farm for a day's work, the brothers decide to leave their lives behind and head for the coast. We, as loyal readers, are allowed to follow closely behind.
They arrive in Drumclaven, a shitehole according to Dervla Mahoney, the local barmaid. They have a brush with the local constable and take some refreshment in the form of half-pints of Guinness before moving on. There occurs, from time to time, a kind of merging of their identities which led me to see them as different aspects of the same being; perhaps the conscious and the unconscious mind:
'Do you think we did the right thing?' It was Milligan talking. For a second Murphy thought it was just one of the voices in his head.
The next town along the way was to be Rathnerth, but on the way they meet up with Aghamore Ahern, an artist, philosopher and dandy and, reluctantly, share a barbecued crow with him.
By the time Milligan and Murphy have reached Rathnerth and moved in with Mad Meg, their story seems to have come full-circle and moved to its end. The brothers soon fall for home comforts and begin to fade into the landscape. But it isn't so; the end I mean.
Before long they find themselves in Portlow, a place colder and wetter than Lissoy. Milligan never imagined there ever could exist such a place. But he'd been wrong before.
In his novels and plays Samuel Beckett is keen to point out the double meaning of 'enclosure' for his characters. And Murdoch amplifies this theme in his novel. The box or room or place of confinement is at the same instant the loved home and the dark prison. Our characters' need to escape from this prison/home is a constant desire.
What Beckett does over and over again is to take his characters and his audience from safe to unsafe places. And this is exactly what Jim Murdoch does with Milligan and Murphy. When we leave them they are on board a ferry to England:
Milligan stood clinging for dear life to the rail at the stern of the ship and looked back. He suspected that he was going to be physically sick before he stepped onto dry land again. He was neither here nor there and that was another feeling he didn't like one bit. And alone. He had never felt so alone. The sea; the world; in fact all of eternity spread out before him from this point. He felt like old Noah or the Ancient Mariner must have looking out at limitless sea, unable to cope with the significance of what they saw.
The sea looks like nothing he has ever seen before. He and Murphy have escaped their confinement within the box of their Ma and Lissoy and are in the process of leaving behind their cultural heritage. They are taking the journey from the surface of consciousness to the depths of the unconscious. And Jim Murdoch takes us along, too, down the same path, just as Beckett would have done. One part of us is kicking and screaming, wanting to stay in the safe place, but another part knows we will never be satisfied until we are properly born.
Originally posted on John Baker's Blog on 15th January 2012
Let me say straight away that I very much enjoyed this book. I found it an excellent read. It was necessary to get that in first lest you, dear reader, should take the wrong impression from what I am about to say, which is that the book begins very slowly. Indeed, for the first twenty pages or so nothing very much happens — and then nothing much happens at something less than walking pace. It is not a fault, this slow start, it is a necessary acclimatisation to the pace of the story about to unfold and to the pace and energy levels of its two heroes.
Reading these early pages I constantly heard — or thought I heard — echoes of Samuel Beckett. I began to fantasize that maybe Milligan and Murphy were two characters who'd proved surplus to requirements when he was writing Waiting for Godot or one of his other plays. Maybe that was just my own mind set — I had been thinking about the play not long before. Whichever way it was, rest assured Vladimir and Estragon, Milligan and Murphy are not. And as there is no firm reason why a review should be chronological or follow a logical course, it might be helpful if I say here and now that when I was a bit further into the book I suddenly realised that I was not hearing echoes of Beckett, but a different, and I believe original, voice.
There is, shall I call it a family resemblance, but nothing more than that. For one thing, there are levels of philosophical debate (home spun philosophy for the most part, it is true, but philosophy none the less) in their apparently vacuous talk. This for instance from the early part of the book (it is Murphy talking):
"Do you not think that Mary Maguire has the most magnificent breasts?"
"I think it is a bit early in the morning to be considering weighty matters such as those."
"They're massive, they truly are."
"It makes me thirsty just thinking about them Murphy. Can we go and get fed now? I'm so hungry I could eat a cow."
Somewhere a bit earlier than this I should have told you something about our two heroes. They are half brothers. Murphy was a little late in arriving in this world and sometime after the event his father disappeared in strange circumstances. Whether or not the two events were connected appears to be in some sort of doubt. Mrs Murphy, it seems, took off with Murphy Junior in search of an adequate replacement, but ended up with Mr Milligan. Milligan and Murphy are inseparable, still living with mum and still sharing a bedroom, if not a bed. In any other milieu we might have dubbed them layabouts, but so invisibly do they merge into the oddities of Lissoy, the little village in Ireland which is home to them, that such a judgement would seem harsh.
The story proper begins with Ma Milligan telling them that "O'Connor is on the lookout for bodies for his farm." Milligan appeals against the implied instruction in this on the ground that it is Tuesday, the day on which it is customary to collect their unemployment assistance. This argument is quickly shot down in flames and they set off for O'Connor's farm. They never arrive.
The last thing Milligan and Murphy could be accused of is being proactive. They do not control their lives. Stuff happens (like they come upon an unconscious tramp at the crossroads) and they take a certain direction, are nudged towards it. It is not quite clear how the event causes the result, but somehow that is what happens. They do not take the turning that leads to O'Connor's farm. The road they are on goes on, and somehow so do they. A pivotal moment in their lives passes unrecognised and vanishes for ever into the great blue yonder.
So begins their odyssey. During it they will discuss the meaninglessness of life with four strangers they will meet: the aforementioned tramp, a priest, an artist and an old woman. They are not without their humorous aspects, these conversations, as here with Jesse, the old woman, in her kitchen after she has befriended them and taken them to her home. Murphy says:
"Over the last few days three people have spoken to my brother and me, in brief and at length, about the meaningless of existence: a tramp, a priest of all people, an artist and now you: this can't be a coincidence."
"What, and you think that means something?" Her tone was sarcastic. "You think God is trying to tell you that he doesn't exist? Ha!"
Not wishing to give away too much of the story, I will just add that Milligan and Murphy ends with the two of them leaning on the rail of a ship bound for Southampton, they having at an earlier point in their odyssey decided that it was the sea for them - though somehow I don't believe that will be the end of the tale.
Originally posted on Pics and Poems on 23rd January 2012
I had a liberal-arts undergraduate education, one of those programs in which students take tons of classes outside their field of study. In addition to studying all sorts of literature, I filled my schedule with courses on rhetorical theory, world history, meteorology and drama. That last class was where I encountered Samuel Beckett's Endgame. While I wouldn't call the Irish author's bleak offshoot of existentialism my favourite philosophy, I learned to like his play about two lost souls struggling in a postapocalyptic wasteland. Now through his new novel Milligan and Murphy, long-time Beckett pasticheur Jim Murdoch has taught me there's something else to enjoy in the man's work- humour.
The two brothers Milligan and Murphy aren't exactly what one might call distinguished examples of manhood. Though in the middle of their years, they still live in their mother's house in [the] gloomy town of Lissoy. Despite dwelling all their lives in a hamlet drenched with ennui and rain, the two seem comfortable drinking, fornicating, lounging about, collecting welfare and generally avoiding any sort of responsibility. Then their mother shoos them to old O'Connor's farm for some day work, and the two trudge down the road toward it. And then past it. And then on to the next town and the next and the next. Milligan and Murphy have no clear goal in their heads, nor can they answer one simple question: What made them decide to abandon their home?
Milligan and Murphy goes in deep for theme, and like Beckett himself, it seems to espouse a sort of nihilism. At one stop on their aimless trek, Murphy notes, "Over the last few days, three people have all spoken to my brother and me, in brief and at length, about the meaninglessness of existence: a tramp, a priest of all people, an artist and now you: this can't be a coincidence." Of course, it is a coincidence, just like everything else in life. Not that the realization crushes the hapless protagonists. Rather, they see existential absurdity as an excuse to search out their own meaning. Murphy later opines, "There's nothing to be found if we go nowhere or if we go back there to spend the evenings, when one hasn't even the price of a pint to one's name, thumbing through Arthur Mee's Children's Encyclopaedia trying to locate photographs of half-naked Africans." Call it adventurous nihilism, if you like.
If the novel only had theme going for it, then it would likely garner hearty approbation or distaste, depending on each individual's viewpoint. Discussions on the significance (or lack thereof) of ultimate things tends to polarize readers. Fortunately, Murdoch's droll style keeps the proceedings pretty darn funny. For example, the narrator explains in the introductory paragraph how Milligan and Murphy aren't full blood brothers, but rather "they were half-brothers; each had been dragged screaming from the innards of the same mother though a different father had been guilty for them winding up there." Murdoch somehow also manages to make funny the killing of a crow for food, an-ahem-act of "solitary vice," and the preferred payment a less-than-comely wench exacts for her services. The brotherly pair may not be the most likeable sort and some may find their worldview dicey, but no one can deny Murdoch's writing chops. Milligan and Murphy is some kind of funny.
Originally posted on I Saw Lightning Fall on 26th January 2012
Jim Murdoch's novel, Milligan and Murphy, published by Fandango Virtual in November 2011, focuses on a pair of half-brothers who begin with a simple, short journey only to wind up on a much larger one. Inspired by Samuel Beckett's characters Didi and Godot in Waiting for Godot and Mercier and Camier, these two brothers start out living rather hum-drum lives who have never thought of the bigger questions of life such as whether they are happy, whether they should travel, whether they should find a greater purpose. This story is an enjoyable read and Mr. Murdoch makes it easy to travel alongside the brothers. Mr. Murdoch jumps in to explain the scenery and the characters in detail during the parts where the brothers are simply moving forward without much action other than their walking onward until they encounter a new town or a new character.
In the story, we find the two brothers living with their Ma who sends them to a nearby farm to lend a hand and as they walk down the path they stumble onto a man they've never seen before. The man leaves them with questions. Then, before they know it, the two brothers change their path and just keep walking without a true plan in place and ultimately decide they should find the sea which they have never seen before. Their Ma has no idea why she's been abandoned and the brothers themselves do not know why they've abandoned all they know for this journey. The story's ending leaves you to imagine the next steps the brothers take and perhaps there will be a sequel which I would look forward to reading. What I like is that the pair gives absolutely no forethought to things such as having money for travel or sleeping accommodations and must fly by the seat of their pants throughout their journey. In the process they stumble onto some memorable characters such as another seemingly aimless traveller like themselves, an older woman who puts them to work, as well as barkeepers and the tallest barmaid they've ever seen. I recommend this book as a good summer read, take it with you on your own travels and enjoy.
Originally posted on Poet Hound on 20th July 2012
The title may make you think of some crime fighting duo like Holmes and Watson or Starsky and Hutch, but Milligan and Murphy is something completely different. Jim Murdoch takes two middle aged brothers living somewhat meaningless lives before they set out on an insightful journey.
Milligan and Murphy are half-brothers that live with their mother in the town of Lissoy. They do not work but enjoy drinking, women and general idleness. One day their mother sends them to O'Connor's farm for some work. Though reluctant, the brothers do as they are told but instead of stopping off at the farm they continue on without reason and keep on going from town to town, meeting a variety of characters along the way.
Milligan and Murphy are not the most likable characters but they are harmless enough. Having reached middle age they are pondering marriage but the choice of women in Lissoy is minimal and the brothers have lived the same existence for so long that they don't know where to begin when it comes to changing and progressing with their futures. Their mother orders them to get out of the house and find work at a local farm and the brothers comply but when they set out on their walk something changes in them. They pass the farm and keep going, never turning back, though they feel bad for their mother.
There is no purpose behind the journey in the early stages of the book. Milligan and Murphy simply avoid work that is waiting for them at the farm and continue onto the next town and then the one after that, eventually deciding they want to reach the sea. Survival is a tricky affair with the brothers having to resort to finding vegetables and killing what they can out in the wild. The brothers meet some unusual characters including a poet, a priest, a mad old woman and a tramp. Each offers their perspective on life and what it means to them but Milligan and Murphy decide they want to find their own meaning. This is a journey of self-discovery and the brothers are almost like lost children as they traverse unfamiliar towns. They contemplate going home but with the knowledge that emptiness is back in Lissoy they continue ever onwards in search of answers.
Milligan and Murphy is a well written story with interesting characters conveying their insight to our naive brothers as they continue on their journey. There is a lot of realism to the story and no miracle revelations or insights. Looking for answers and meaning in life is no easy task and this is the same for Milligan and Murphy. From such a simple event they begin this fascinating journey of discovery.
Milligan and Murphy is an absorbing read from start to finish. The brothers are interesting protagonists with nothing spectacular about them in appearance or skills. They are just two ordinary men that have lived the same empty existence for so many years they know nothing else. They could so easily have worked at the farm and stayed home with little change but instead they step away from their familiar realities in search of ultimate answers.
Originally posted on Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dave on 21st October 2012
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.
Originally posted in Dactyl Review on 6th December 2012
I'm going to start by saying that Jim Murdoch really is a very talented writer. His wit is dry, his dialogue clever and realistic, his prose matter-of-fact and concise. However, despite Mr Murdoch's obvious talent, it really didn't excite me much. I understood it. I'm pretty sure I 'got' it, (or perhaps I didn't because I haven't read much of Beckett), but I just felt a little tired while I was reading, not bored, tired--there's a difference.
But you know, I'm giving it four stars because it's a success in its own right. The lives of Milligan and Murphy WERE DULL, and they live in a DULL part of the world. They are middle-aged men setting out on an adventure of self-discovery, wandering from town to town, meeting different characters along the way. It worked. It was realistic. I did not LOVE it. But I appreciated it.
That said, it's still a good book. It's a well-written and intelligent book. I'm sure others will like it a lot more than me. And it's worth a gander, even if just for the intermittent chuckles you'll experience over a great line here and there.
Originally posted on Goodreads on 9th December 2012
A perfectly fine novel in its own right. Trouble is, It invites too much comparison to the works of a certain Francophilic and Francophone Irish writer named Beckett and therefore sets itself a bar rather too high to reach for most of us mere mortal writers. Milligan and Murphy, then, can only be made the worse for the comparison with Mr. Beckett. A better technique, perhaps, would have been to have chosen unowned Irish (or better Patagonian or Portuguese) surnames, avoided an epigram from Mercier and Camier and feigned a beguilingly innocent originality: then critics (and imitation critics like myself) might have been happy, jubilant even, in discovering for themselves a bit of Beckettian similarity in the novel that they may have found praiseworthy. Instead, I feel saddled with this comparison, frustrated that I can't like M & M more than I do.
On the bright side, I enjoyed reading Milligan and Murphy for itself as an entertaining tale, but also because it helped me to clarify for myself exactly why I believe Beckett to be one of the best, if not the best, writer to have ever written in the English tongue: his use of language. This also, perversely, becomes the crux of my disappointment with M & M: the novel's language, although perfectly serviceable for the particular tale that it tells, in no way approaches the explorations in rhythm, meaning, ambiguity, and, ultimately, simplicity, that mark the best of Beckett's works-particularly those of the '70s on, beginning with the stunning How It Is and wrapping up with the late Nohow On trilogy-perhaps my favorite all-time read in English prose.
I am, of course, like all readers, complicit in this pseudo-judgment of M & M. As an author with enormous literary pretensions myself about to self-publish a collection of my own verse and prose, I set out on an internet search of authors similar to myself who have also self-published and was quite impressed with Jim Murdoch's blog. He is smart, literate, literary, and at a glance, we seemed to share a love for some of the same authors - notably Beckett, so I gleefully ordered M & M-such a situation certainly set me up for disappointment, as optimistic discoveries often do.
Still, attempting to leave this unfair--although invited--comparison aside, M & M is, as I have said, a fun read. It's entertaining, quite funny in parts, economically constructed and written, with a few dashes of philosophy and meta-narrative thrown in (particularly towards the end) to spice up what is a drab story--as it is surely meant to be, mirroring the world in which most of push on, repeating the same provincial/capitalist tasks day in and day out-these too, although not quite as hopeless as the often inhuman blobs laying in the dark of Beckett's later works, are akin to his earlier semi-comic vagabonds such as Watt, Murphy, Malone and The Unnameable. It is difficult to attack the dreariness of the human condition in a dramatic way-seeing as such a life's lack of drama is rather the point-so Murdoch deserves praise for succeeding in writing about boredom and futility in a manner that is neither boring nor futile. Lastly, although not as exciting or useful to me as Beckett's linguistic pyrotechnics, Murdoch is kinder to his characters than Beckett is and is probably, therefore, a much nicer fellow I imagine. There is something to be said for that.
Originally posted on Goodreads on 9th December 2012
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 ananti-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.
Originally posted on Ultimate Indivisibility on 12th January 2013