a Review of Samuel Beckett’s MURPHY
A Great Leap in the Dark—Thomas Hobbes’ last words
“The horse leech’s daughter was a closed system.” (70)
“A decayed valet severs the connexion” (85)
"From the spermarium to the crematorium" (47)
"Avoid exhaustion by speech” (24)
“A perfume thrown on the horehound” (128)
“The guillotine sterilized” (128)
“Take salts of lemon” (34)
“The clock of Chelsea Old Church ground out grudgingly the hour of ten” (10)
“Considering alternately the sky and a sheet of paper” (9)
“[a] matrix of surds” (68)
"The hall was doorless” (73)
“All these particulars” (9)
The diction is of dust and oblivion; a tenor and tone in terms of speech (the rhythm) that, as Beckett himself writes, might be adopted “by exhibitionists for their last words on Earth” (25). Murphy, published in 1938, now championed an absurdist chef-d'oeuvre if not masterpiece, would first suffer from a succession of rejections. After a period of evasion on part of publisher, the first domino to fall would be Chatto & Windus, who had published Beckett’s Proust (1931) and More Pricks Than Kicks (1933). Beckett then bore a train of dismissal on both sides of the Atlantic with occasional sparks of interest, but an interest that would require adjustments and changes and amendments for wider appeal. These, of course, Beckett snubbed or flat out forbid, too busy himself being stabbed in the chest and nearly put down in the streets of Paris—purportedly by a notorious pimp who (of all names) went by “Prudent.” The reasoning?—Beckett purportedly (as Murphy so many times had) rejected Prudent’s solicitations and advances. It would be James Joyce who, after the 1938, January 7th incident, oversaw Beckett’s medical treatment.
Further, just to add to the absurdity, it was from hospital bed that Beckett managed to read over the final page proofs, sent by Routledge, the publishing house that, thanks to Jack Yeats’ enthusiasm, ended Murphy’s 2-year gulf of limbo and (finally) went along with printing the novella. Of course, sales for Murphy proved poor. The Guardian records, “568 copies [were] sold in 1938, 23 in 1939, 20 in 1940 and 7 in 1941,” finally allowing the work in March 1943 “to go out of print.” Such is comprehensible enough, recognizing as the years advanced into Hitler’s blitz of fear, horror, sharp terror, few could stomach a novella bringing its reader to a final chapter, which (in turn) reduces its central character to oblivion’s dust. (For those unfamiliar, after resigning from a game of chess, Murphy literally sets himself on fire.) However, unlike its protagonist, from the ashes, the book endures. As Wallace Stevens reminds us, Beckett’s clenched but playful tongue of dark semantic humor is the stuff of what continues to suffice. For the reader willing to risk the endeavor, turning through the pages of Murphy will feel like advancing up one of the less commercialized Himalayan peaks; slow, operose, surely taxing, yet somehow (for some) enjoyable; the effort will be gratifying, the images stunning, but know, dear reader, that you’re going into the death zone, and without a sherpa to guide.
Broken into thirteen chapters, Murphy as with Molloy (1951), Malone meurt (1951) begins with the thirteenth letter of the alphabet. Until the eighteenth century, the letter was known as ‘W,’ a letter itself that recalls Beckett’s second published novel, Watt (1945; 53). While ‘M’ or ‘13’ harbors pop-culture’s darker marks (Friday, the 13th most of all), notwithstanding some biblical scars (the dragon, a sign for Satan, or the devil responsible for all revolt against God we find 13 times in the book of Revelation), there are less doomed, disaster-prone associations. The one that speaks most directly to the solipsistic backbone of Murphy is that people marked by such number or born beneath M’s scar will be branded by laziness, an intolerance towards other people. On their best days, they can also show themselves to be very determined, unpredictable, tough to contain, being tied to their own chaos—as when Celia finds Murphy hanging off his hinges—his rocking-chair on top, his figure overturned. In the pitch dark. Like “a very inexperienced diver” with his arms hampered behind him, barred from breaking any concussion (18). Yes. Just there. Quite determined. Licking his lip. Transferring his other cheek to the dust. His mind in the dark, "just beyond the frontiers of suffering" (47).
The capturing image—that of intimate shipwreck follows the opening scene of Murphy, where we find the protagonist naked and strapped by seven scarves (7, the mark of inner-wisdom, intuition, spiritual maturation; the union of the physical (4) with the spiritual (3)) to his rocking-chair, anchored in a sea of tedium, disquiet, unrest that so often we associate with the lugubrious flow and ebb of Fernando Pessoa.
Though perhaps startling to some, Murphy’s self-prescribed discipline of restraint, while not as stoic as the flagellant, does invoke the personal habit of chastisement, a sort of Vaudevillian scourging used to exhaust, to keep the loathsome body and poor mind free from the world “of nuts, balls, sparrows” (24), that he might arrest his physical wants, bring the carnal body to the lapse, which then allows him "[to come] alive in mind, set free to move among its treasures" (67), in quest of "what he had not ceased to seek from the moment of his being strangled into a state of respiration--the best of himself" (43).
When read in this vein, Murphy’s character, far from perverse, can be more carefully rendered, obtained, followed, studied. Suddenly, one realizes the shiftless lay-about for a laic monk who (beyond the company of Celia, his Mary M.) has given up the world, following not the cross-backed act of Christ, but that of an academic mahatma or sibyl: a Professor Neary whose own peculiar masochism entails the rare faculty of stopping “his heart more or less whenever he liked,” for situations that proved “irksome beyond endurance, as when he wanted a drink and could not get one, or fell among Gaels and could not escape, or felt the pangs of hopeless sexual inclination”(2). Besides Neary, Murphy turns solely to sky charts for any news, instruction, real guidance. It is a Mr. Suk who delivers Murphy’s heavenly projections or “little bull[s] of incommunication” (20), providing the solipsist (by black envelope, different-colored letters) dubious prognoses, estimates, predictions, the mercurial sort of astral guidance or spittle that while colorful, even hip (Murphy’s lucky color, for example, to ‘prevent calamity,’ is “lemon”) plays only farther into Murphy’s withdrawal.
One question to be answered upon breaching the private world of Murphy is 'what treasure is to be found?' One might respond that there is none to be found, that the mind of Murphy is mostly barren, an unfertile alogical palace devoid of elements, of states with “nothing but forms becoming and crumbling into the fragments of a new becoming.” A lava-lamp like fortress free of “love or hate or any intelligible principle of change” (68). A Hobbesian patch of mind-surface & vat turf, which is “all figure and ground” set against “the big blooming buzzing confusion” (3), where (to borrow from Hobbes’ Leviathan) there are "no instruments of moving, and removing, [as] such things require much force."
For our anti-hero, such environs can only be summoned, reached, obtained after the carnal body has been winched, hoisted (for completion) seven times. Such a romping yet dire set-up heralds the black and white cinema of post-modernism’s finest De Stijl (Neoplasticism) productions. For those unfamiliar, I’m thinking of Eraser Head most of all, which in terms of film may provide the most convenient way to welcome one to the dark happy land of Murphy’s 'willlessness.' It is there where the individual registers as “but a mote in the dark of absolute freedom” (68), chewing the cud of existence, in his “wandering to find home” (3).
But what in Murphy’s mind is to be found? What treasure? No particularity or necessity or want, but the potent tincture (venom) of possibility; the sort of treasure that, by some invisible hand, keeps itself out of reach with Murphy rocking for more. Moreover, it is possibility’s gleam of glitter that keeps Murphy astir; such cushions his aimlessness, shields his constant rocking for escape from employment, buffers his avoidance from any method, rank, any concreteness.
It is through the beginning passage of chapter six, which begins with the epigram “Amor intellectualis quo Murphy se ipsum amat., that Beckett briefly illuminates the contorted halls and candle-lit chambers of Murphy’s mind. Readers are permitted to quickly dart around, explore, poke at the walls. Regardless, we are told so much and then so little at all with concern to Murphy’s mind, which “picture[s] itself as a large hollow sphere, hermetically closed to the universe without.” Beckett does follow up to offer a little more clarity, explaining “This was not an impoverishment, for it excluded nothing that it did not itself contain. Nothing ever had been, was or would be in the universe outside it but was already present as virtual, or actual, or virtual rising into actual, or actual falling into virtual, in the universe inside it” (65). Murphy is then in intellectu the world he takes in, shapes, distorts, the world which he even consigns for his own stab at a little concreteness, breaking his Cartesian realm into three separate supernal zones—light, semi-dark, and dark. Of course, it is the dark where Murphy seems most pleased, fixed by “a perpetual coming together and falling of forms” (68).
(It is worth mentioning that trailing these three stages of light, half light and dark, Murphy’s place of residence changes three times, mirroring such order down to the amount of light each dwelling admits and allows for. Further, much of the genius of Murphy stems and branches from how these given environs quietly parallel and correspond to the inner workings of Murphy’s world.)
As the novella develops, one picks up on how the storm of the book swirls around Murphy, his dullness, his fatigue, his boredoms. For Beckett the lack of action is deliberately planted as a challenge, testing his prowess as writer to keep readers attentive and curious enough to keep turning the pages into the life of a once-theological-student and singular example of one of academia's most misplaced failures. Murphy, a man who would rather darkly moan in a corner as Nihilism's greatest cheerleader than shepherd and shower the world with riddles of salvation. What’s more, by renouncing the world Murphy becomes an unlikely Savior, one who only the great war could spring out, operating for Beckett as a messiah for the 'broken' and the 'quit,' in a suit that is "not green, but aeruginous," with trousers "broken by miles of bitter stair." While laughable, Murphy’s standing with the patients of Magdalen Mental Mercyseat (13.13.13--Murphy’s final residence and place of employment) strengthens this argument. He becomes their shepherd, bearing their “trays, beds, thermometers, syringes, pans, jacks, spatulas” (103), and even the screws that might have fallen out of their heads.
As with the horse leech’s daughter, the mind of Murphy is a closed system, one that divulges only so much, shares only the slightest of hand, standing out, and (in a very specific way) anticipating the cerebral cinema and economic films of David Lynch; specifically, the red room from his acclaimed Twin Peaks. Similar to Lynch’s three-season series, Beckett provides unresolved ontological glimpses into the skein of existence, becoming, reality, which in turn operate like syringe-fed dosages into Murphy’s more metaphysical demesne. (The most extensive being chapter six where we peek past the velvet curtain: you drop in for maybe half an hour, fifteen minutes, the ripe half of a second; however, no matter the exact measurement of time, all unfolds tremblingly; without notice or warning, one is brushed out of Murphy’s mental sanctuary lacking the time to lick the wall, back into the free-sample world of “toilet soap, foot salts, bath cubes, dentifrice, deodorants and even depilatories” (81)).
As one might have worked out, themes of avoidance, escape, proud misfortune, gloom-swept passage are the most profound threads readers will comb through, pick apart while weaving through what to the eyeball feels (at certain moments) for delicate paragraphs of sequential bilge; the diction is at once afflicted, ill-sorted yet inexplicably learned, darkly sublime. In this sense Beckett’s singular command of diction and overall knack for invention forgives what the average writer would stage for insufferable frustrations—in terms of construction of sequence, development of character, threading of plot. In other words, Beckett’s difficulty is part of the design, a design in which “might not the truth be snarled” (128).
There too are clumsy glimpses of Beckett the playwright, which I do find hard to forgive as when he cuts mid-passage from Miss Counihan and Neary’s unspectacular reunion (we find her sitting on the clearing of Neary’s bed “as though [the bed] were a bank of bluebells somewhere in the country”), but he does so only to break the fourth wall and unspectacularly inform the audience that Neary’s hot water bag hath “burst” and so “water is oozing towards the centre of the floor throughout the scene that follows” (124).
(Of the 800 pages from the original manuscript, one questions why such admissions made the cut, but we can be grateful for how such stage-direction does provide us with broken windows into the novella’s invisible scrim—for they allow one to briefly glimpse the masterpieces that will follow, i.e. Waiting for Godot.) Anyways, our toil while sweating over the text, (its peculiar import of worth, voucher of value, vein of meaning: “Any fool can turn the blind eye, but who knows what the ostrich sees in the sand?”) merely serves as a rite of passage after which the novella convincingly represents the unspoken fetters of art; the bothersome yokes and perspicuous bounds of consciousness; the nominal limits of language, and (finally) language’s assembly to any meaning at all.
Contained within 170 pages, Murphy is a maze of intricacies whose difficulty (far from a failure) tills the ground for its very triumph. It is Beckett’s refusal to follow any clear sequence or thread of order without entangling that thread into a greater snare of yarn (remember, the manuscript runs 800 pages) that makes for the tactful hysteria of the novella, the comical impression of Murphy’s other characters—whom I’ve grown to appreciate now more as book-dolls: Neary, Celia, Wylie, Cooper, Miss Counihan, Mr. Endon, Ticklepenny are the first to pop to mind for how we find them all, by some mad-puppeteers design, sniffing for the heels of Murphy. Their dubious mad quest(s) after the broken lad (and for God knows why) confirming that everything swirls about Murphy. It is Wylie who goes as far to declare, “Our medians […] or whatever the hell they are, meet in Murphy” (127); Meet in Murphy? At first take, one might digest this merely for one of Beckett’s syntactical farts; however, “what truth has not its ballcock” (128), for even the prosody and semantical soupçon entails a rummy, singular abstraction that further solidifies that, in intellectu, Murphy contorts, even the linguistics, the faculty, the minds of all the world(s) he takes in. “Like Darwin’s caterpillar,” even the most styptic (biting) of readers will have to go back to the beginning of the text if they wish to set things center or left or right again. But warning should be signaled: this comes with little hope of unearthing a convincing gospel for Nihilism’s savoir, of digging up any resounding narrative for why, throughout the plodding course of book, Beckett’s dolls continue so fervidly to sniff for any trace of Murphy. For he surely isn’t going to save them, let alone himself.
If one were to ask who stands out next to the magnetic charm of Murphy, Neary follows in height. Near the text’s outset, Beckett places the academic quack lost of all sense, propelled by the reins of inanity, and later fortified with the “great look of Luke’s portrait of Matthew, with an angel perched like a parrot on his shoulder” (128). At the bottom of all this [sic] dumbfoundry, we find Neary punctured by a covetous jealously, one spawned by how the lady he so covets (a Miss Counihan) could possibly hold her carnal fidelity (well, on second thought, never mind) for such a ropey solipsist, Murphy. Regardless, Neary makes quite the show. Most deeply this is felt in the shoals of chapter four, where we find the intellectual sage flung aside, behind reason itself, springing forward; brisk as a sloshed zebra, going to battle per se. Too bad for Neary—he’s declared war with the granite statue of Cú Cuchulainn, the demigod and savage warrior with seven fingers on each hand, seven toes on each foot, seven pupils each eye, etc. In all seriousness of anyone or ‘thing’ to do battle with, aiming one’s bitterness, outrage, bile toward such Übermensch [overhuman] is simply a horrible idea. (Fun note: the mythic warrior is quite renowned in times of rage and ire for turning himself into “an unrecognizable monster,” during which he as ‘unrecognizable monster’ takes on the qualities of a Scandinavian berserker.) But moving along to some point, Cuchulainn stands as the central force of the Ulster cycle, and, by some faint parallel, holds firm as the analog for the monumental attraction, which Murphy commands throughout the text.
Further, the world of hero (with Cuchulainn's brief entrance) flexes into the world of antihero. Keeping this in mind, it can be said that Neary’s exchange with the other-worldly hero foreshadows Neary’s greater pursuit of Murphy. For it is Neary who assembles the other book dolls into a gang of muppets (Wylie, Cooper, Miss Counihan) to plot along with the whole nutty affair, which attempts to incircle and triangulate and enmesh the world of Murphy to that of Neary, Miss Counihan, Wylie, notwithstanding Cooper, who does the legwork of Neary’s, Counihan’s, Wylie’s respective biddings. Funny to note, it is Cooper who is repeatably found like a two-legged hound throughout these thirteen chapters, attempting to limp together any clue to Murphy’s whereabouts, but tracking only a few unworkable scents of “the ruins of the ruins of the broth of a boy” (134).
(I now ask forgiveness from readers as I let out a mental belch and steady my hand to peck out any definitive closure to this twelve-sided story.)
Before closing, questions over Murphy’s reluctant thirst for companionship (or at least companionship’s locum) should be explored, as such questioning holds value, proves seminal worth for purchasing the true weight of Beckett’s debut. To explore such we best are served by drawing attention to the uncanny chess match between Murphy and Mr. Endon, a committed patron of Magdalen Mental Mercyseat and the particular darling of Murphy. The match (which will prove Murphy’s last) can be read as a modernist’s last supper, one particularly to which no one is invited and nothing is served, that is except for the occasional “foul’s mate,” “coup de repos,” as well the peculiar stroke of aestivation, which make the chess match so humorous and pleasurably diverting. But back to the question of companionship, to Murphy’s yearning for such, to the hows and whys he finds comfort not in the bosomed embrace of Celia, but the glaucous sockets of Mr. Endon, which recall the eyes of a dead gull reflecting back the deadened puddles of Murphy’s own.
One might argue that there is ‘the nothingness’ they share, their access to its dark. Yet, sadly, any development of bond, or knot of kindred spirit unravels then dissolves; mainly, this stems from how both Murphy and Mr. Endon suffer from the same allergic reaction to friendship. While one is completely amiss (Endon), the other (Murphy) finds himself overwhelmed to point of disturbed; more specifically, by what such attachments might do to Murphy's allegiance or loyalty to the dark. For Murphy this allegiance is directed to an unintelligible gulf of solipsism that Murphy alone has ploughed, planted, and sewn. Beckett more twistingly (though tellingly) paints this double-sided yearning and hesitance by the following flip of psychology’s weighted coin:
“Mr. Endon [end, a play on Murphy’s demise] had recognized the feel of his friend’s eye upon him and made his preparations accordingly. Friend’s eye. Say rather, Murphy’s eye […] Mr. Endon would have been less than Mr. Endon if he had known what it was to have a friend; and Murphy more than Murphy if he had not hoped against his better judgement that his feeling for Mr. Endon was in some small degree reciprocated. Whereas the sad truth was, that while Mr. Endon for Murphy was no less than bliss, Murphy for Mr. Endon was no more than chess. Murphy’s eye? Say rather, the chessy eye” (144).
It is tragic that Mr. Endon’s potential for friendship stops short, but both are who they are—servants of their own permanently frosted worlds. And so they both go about it alone, each the roaming ruin of the ruin of the broth of a boy. It is worth addressing that this heartbreak is cushioned (perhaps to a fault) by the match’s collective absurdity, and Beckett’s notable resolve to include each and every agonizing position of the match’s affence, Zweispringerspott, and pernicious two-jumper mockery:
“White (Murphy) P—K4; Black (Mr. Endon) (a) Kt—KR3; White (Murphy) Kt—KR3; Black (Mr. Endon) R—KKt1; White (Murphy) R—KKt1; Black (Mr. Endon) Kt—QB3; White (Murphy)Kt—QB3; Black (Mr. Endon) Kt-K4; White (Murphy) Kt-Q5 (c),” (145) and so on into the near infinite ebb and flow of etc.
When just breezed over, the reader (even our most rapt) will be left only recalling the match’s outrageousness, and (consequentially) is robbed from the ability to build any real connection, let alone empathy for either opponent. As for the match itself, it boldly suffers from most peculiar gaps and stops, those which go beyond the typical match’s permitted pause. It is worth knowing that Beckett presents these stops with a surgical absurdity (again, nodding to the Lynchian cinema which will become; remember, Eraser Head & Twin Peaks) so that what’s created is a suspension from time, which required me to be reminded, at certain moments, that I was not locked inside a mortuary’s freezer-box.
It is Mr. Endon who, without stated reason, insists upon these spells of wantum, and Murphy who, quite instinctively and without question, obliges for them. Comically, Murphy uses the time lapses to make his dutiful round of laps about the ward, shepherding to Magdalen’s other manic and catatonic ewes and lambs and sheep. Adding to the dark humor, upon returning, our protagonist discovers the following: either no “change having been made,” that or the match’s board shook by “a torrent of moves” (145). It’s following the forty-third move (yes, we’re told so much) that Murphy's head boldly flops over and crashes on his miniature toy field of battle. The match then concludes with “his head [dropped like a bomb] on his arms in the midst of his chessmen,” (147) which then are blown about—all of Murphy’s king’s horses, all of Murphy’s king’s men.
The broken egg-shell of Murphy’s yolk (state of mind) remains in this unique position of despair, amidst his and Endon’s armies, for quite some time; long enough for Endon to walk from the creaking bed where their match took place and leave his padded cell and roam the asylum’s white halls, bathed in the iridescent light—probably following the marching movements of a famous ant on the ceiling of his, Mr. Endon’s, own airless world.
Unfortunately, for Mr. Endon, any freedom to lurk is short lived: Murphy is provided wind, puts himself back together (yet again) to eventually locate his lost lamb “gracefully stationed” in front of a fellow [sic] hypomanic’s cell, calmly turning switches (some to lights, one to an indicator) with the same numb, gratifying expression used when moving or turning over his own knight, castle, or bishop. Rather than scold or kick the poor bastard, Murphy shows mercy, tucking Endon back to bed, locking the respective padded cubicle, before truly losing his own shit.
The graphic recital of Murphy’s collapse toward ‘freedom,’ to his trusted rocker of mercy, his raised squat of ‘dark’ makes for quite the episode. The drama pulls to mind a bootlegged pilot episode that, while brilliant, punctilious, precise, will never see the day’s light. Such is fitting considering how the night proves starless, under which our old boy tosses into various waste bins what by dawn will add up for the course of his shoes and socks, even the work clothes not belonging to him. In Murphy’s mind such items are deemed and certified as superfluous, of the world he begs (again, the laic monk) to do without, yet finds himself nightmarishly stuck in. And so, in the Magdalen Mercy Seat’s company of psychotics, without peril or reluctance, Murphy commits the holy act of shedding to his onion-pale skin; one by one, over and again, ‘til there is nothing but the flesh--and just to feel, once more, a peculiar, rummy freedom. Moreover, without shame, he literally and figuratively sows the earth, plants a message to the world that he’s leaving them behind.
One should not be blamed for their want to dissect the mindset behind this. I’ve thought of several motivations, but ultimately reserve Murphy the license that there may not be any central spur, spring, or kick of impetus to tweeze out, logically. If anything, his grizzly performance simply acts out the following—that he is done with the Earth and heading for its stage’s exit; that or Orchestra’s pit. Further, it is hard to counter the argument that the entire time Murphy’s separation and divorce from the world was already pounded by gavel and dutifully sealed. As Beckett informs, “in short there was nothing but he, the unintelligible gulf and they. That was all. All. ALL” (143). However, one salient idea I’ve well-though-out is that the catalyst for the strip-show stems from need to erase the man who Celia wanted him to become (with sober concerns, steady employment, a leash—not for him, but a dog). In other words, his performance (one might add spectacular mental breakdown) reinforces and confirms, bears out and backs up, fortifies and settles what Beckett has been building-up the whole time, that Murphy is Murphy: a creature without parallel, friend, equivalent; Nihilism’s M(essiah) who, by leaving his trail of earthly belongings, reverses the shameful course of Adam and Eve; quite triumphantly, into his dark garret hole of one ladder. While not cleansed, his body is shed, making room for the mind to be replenished, ready for its rocking into the subconscious, where there lies the dark treasure of falling asunder of forms.
Of course, I’ve touched only upon the prelude to what’s about to come regarding the echelons of farce and sharper stratums of absurdity, which blow out for “the world of the body broken up into the pieces of a toy.” I’ve already said too much, and will only add that the departure of Murphy’s existence into the beyond makes for a pleasurable show during which we recognize him no longer as a mote in the dark but “a missile without provenance or target” (68).
Anyways, Murphy returns to the birdcage of his garret (his third and most dark place of occupancy) just as bare as we found him at the novella’s start, and there, in his rocker, so awaits the gods of combustion and ‘super fine chaos.’ (To be fair, it is not clear if Murphy prepared to blow himself up by radiator, or if he thought it up on the spot, or if the whole event was merely the accident of a dunce, one who dies from shock, or some other symptom of being incinerated.)
Indeed, the whole scene reads for a verboten chock of uncircumcised noir: cold, oneiric, spiked with a clown’s despair; its substance surgical, precise, providing balance for what, if not equalized by Beckett’s command of language, would merely read for ‘looney cartoon strip.’ Further, Beckett should be celebrated for how he manages to keep his writing grounded to the foundations of the moment and, on the other hand, provide introduction to a turf a few leaps ahead of its time. Moreover, the action analogous to that of previous acts (Murphy rocking naked strapped by seven scarves, Neary’s bout with the statue of Cú Cuchulainn) predicts contemporary art’s performance artists. Particularly, the Belgian Francis Alÿs. This is mainly for how Alÿs’ work equally juxtaposes opposites: ideas of movement and immobility, action, the lack thereof, and through similar measures of absurdity. Along these lines, Alÿs' pieces span the border like Beckett’s book dolls into the cartoonlike; in “Fairy Tales,” Alÿs walks ‘til the sweater he wears completely unravels, leaving behind the poetic trace of a long, blue line of yarn. [In another titled “Duet” the artist wanders through the city of Venezia wears a white shirt labeled ‘A’ while carrying the upper half of a tuba, that is until he stumbles upon his opposite, ‘B’ who has been assigned to roam with the lower. Upon meeting, the two reassemble the tuba, which allows ‘B’ to carry out a single note while the other (Alÿs) claps for the duration of however long both can hold their breath.]
Indeed, such unravelling fits of spectacle fit into the strange world of Murphy. However, it is doubtful Alÿs could pull off the following: as when the body of Murphy has been identified post-mortem by Celia, Neary, Miss Couhinan, and the rest; his mind, body, soul turned to ash, then handed over to Cooper who, by pronouncement of Neary, has been named to dispose of them by any means he deems fit. Unfortunately, before Cooper can think of what to do, he falls into a bout of drunkenness for the first time in more than twenty years, so that the two-legged hound ultimately throws Murphy’s mind, Murphy’s body, Murphy’s soul at a fellow patron of a bar which he haphazardly entered, the bar wherein Murphy’s remnants are then “the object of much dribbling, passing, trapping, shooting, punching, heading and even some recognition from the gentleman’s code” (165). You can’t help but laugh at the event, how it leads to Murphy’s cinders congregating and (after a few hours) becoming one with the very society he sequestered himself from.
In the weft of Murphy’s universe wherein the square of “[the] moon has been obliged to set, […] the sun [not to] rise for an hour to come,” where the “Solar Orb afflicts the Hyleg” and “Herschel in Aquarius [has stopped] the water” (150-51), we can still spot the ladder to the garret drawn, hear the chair of Murphy’s mind rocking—faster and faster, away from the world, towards a final freedom. The only sound to be heard spouting being from the “gleam and grin” of “the dip and radiator,” which offers Murphy solace and the ultimate promise of “excellent gas, superfine chaos” (151).
The book closes not with the blast that sends Murphy to kingdom come, but on “a mild, clear, sunless day” of its aftermath; a pleasant outing between Celia and Mr. Kelly and his old kite, a “stained and faded hexagon of crimson” (167-68). Through the passage we’re informed little other than Celia has returned to her old profession of hooking before the scene is cut short—a police’s whistle sounds through the park, signaling not only their sudden departure from the park, but the reader’s eyes from the text. We put our copy of Murphy to rest, not knowing what to think, to say, to do. We could start all over again, back at where the novel begins with “The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new.”