It started with Jack Kerouac, unfortunately. I was a performatively masculine seventeen-year-old, like most people reading Kerouac, and I read On the Road on the train back to London. A famous passage flew off the page: “The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time…”
That passage, I thought, was the summit of lyrical achievement. That passage, I thought, could stir vast crowds, resolve conflicts. I was seventeen. I knew little about little, nothing about much. I remember putting On the Road face-down on the tray table, as though unable to carry on, as though the beauty of that passage rendered me incapacitated.
I’ve had that put-the-book-down-in-awe experience many times since. I remember some of the words that have forced my hand: the last lines of Mary Oliver’s The Summer Day, aphorism 341 from Nietzsche’s Gay Science, the opening to chapter 49 of Moby Dick, the first stanza of Hope is the Thing with Feathers, and Cymbeline, Act IV, Scene II. But I’ve only put one book down more than once. I put Samuel Beckett’s Molloy down three times: at the end of the stone sucking sequence, during the lines on life’s meaninglessness, and after the passage of the two fools.
I see my reading life as pre-Molloy and post-Molloy. The book is an unforgiving, bleak, and bewildering experience, with every variable crying out for attention: the plot, the narration, the philosophy, the tone, the language. Beckett demands an attentive reader. And I was once such a reader. Twenty-year-old me had an incessant need to consume great books, partly driven by a desire to assuage imposter syndrome, partly just to prove that I could. That drive turned into a greedy intellectual curiosity. I’d read three books a week, sometimes more, grappling with meanings and interpretations, taking notes in a never-ending supply of cheap notebooks.
I recently re-read Molloy. And something has become clear: I am stupid. Or I am more stupid, or stupider, than my younger self. The twenty-year-old fool who read Molloy in a day, captivated and alarmed, has regressed into a thirty-three-year-old fool who took a week, checking his phone every few minutes, binge-watching The Crown, even socialising on occasion. I often put the book down, not in awe but anguish, struggling to follow the plot, struggling with tone.
That begs an important question: where have I, as a person, gone wrong? I am tempted to blame the Internet. The Internet suggests that I should blame the Internet. I am increasingly convinced that my smart phone is the source of all my problems. I often fantasize about throwing my smartphone in the river, cleansing my mind of all worries and doubt: the red notifications of disappointment, the anxiety of the incoming call, the vulgarity of social media. No good can come from a smartphone. Smart phones make us dumb.
But the Internet and smartphones cannot take all the blame for my stupidity. Age is another likely candidate. I get bored more easily now. I recently read lots of books on boredom, because I fear my own boredom, and I became bored. Books used to carry me. When I threw tantrums as a toddler, my mum handed me a book. When I was a sullen or rebellious teenager, the same. And my desire to smash or scream or scrap dissipated. Books have always calmed my racing and restless mind. Books have always been a preventative cure against boredom. But, as I grow older, I have become resistant to books. I used to see hard books as a challenge. Now I just see them as hard. I used to see long books as a weekend on the sofa. Now I see them as decoration.
Maybe the problem isn’t smartphones or age. Maybe the problem is that particular book. Maybe Molloy is the problem. The plot, the second time around, failed to capture my attention. Molloy is an epic quest in which no goal is stated, no progress is made, and no one cares either way. The narrator from the second half is likely the narrator from the first half, only at an earlier and more lucid stage of his existence. The clues are abstracted but evident: the narrator(s) suffer the same ailments, employ a similar idiom, use profound poesy to discuss bicycles, reference paternity, fight dirty. Some critics deny this view, suggesting that Beckett would not engage with a method as simplistic as non-linear narrative.
None of the above matters, of course. The literary critic Harold Bloom aptly described Beckett as the “greatest master of nothing.” The point in Beckett is pointlessness. The first page reveals the total futility of everything that follows: the narrator aims to find his mother who, he admits in the first paragraph, is dead. The plot then follows a sordid parade towards ruin, a journey towards nothing but decay that the narrator describes as living. “It is in the tranquillity of decomposition that I remember the long confused emotion which was my life,” Molloy or Jacques Moran or whatever you want to call the narrator says. The narrator is not broken. He takes pride in that decay: “To decompose is to live, too.”
So, yes, the plot is nonexistent. Or, rather, the plot exists only to alert you to its nonexistence. And the tone and philosophy complement the plot. Beckett is a Schopenhauerian, consciously or unconsciously. Molloy actively makes an argument for meaninglessness, which ironically seems quite meaningful. It shows the value of decay and decomposition. It is not existential, not even close: existence over essence means nothing when existence means nothing. It is not nihilistic, because nihilism requires effort and explanation. It is simply an argument for nothing. That fact might go some way towards explaining my inability to focus. I may have found my smartphone preferable to a plotless argument for nothingness.
I’m gone thirty, so I happily discard books that do not capture me. This fact leaves me with another question about Molloy: why do I keep reading it, keep returning to it? The answer is simple: Molloy is brilliant. I may not be able to grapple with the pointless plot. I may struggle with its invocation of decay. I may have blanched at a pessimistic tone that makes cliffs seem attractive. But I have kept returning because of things that exist on each page, amid the pointlessness: words.
It is the language that beguiles, even the second time and, I presume, the third. Beckett uses all sorts of improprieties: dangling sentences, constant qualifications, grammatical indecencies, interjections disrupting discourse, re-corrective sentences, repetitions, repetitions, breaks in syntax, multi-lingual interventions, neologisms upon neologisms. God knows how it works. But it works. To take a handful of examples, because we can, because we should: “Yes, the confusion of my ideas on the subject of death was such that I sometimes wondered, believe me or not, if it wasn’t a state of being even worse than life. So I found it natural not to rush into it.” Or perhaps: “My life, my life, now I speak of it as of something over, now as a joke which still goes on.” Or maybe: “The fact is, it seems, that the most you can hope for is to be a little less, in the end, the creature you were at the beginning, and at the middle.”
Beckett’s words are dark and desolate, cruel and cutting. But, perhaps most of all, Beckett’s words are funny. Not necessarily laugh-out-loud-funny. Not slap-the-knee-funny. Beckett is laugh-in-the-library-and-hope-no-one-notices-funny. We laugh at Beckett as a defence mechanism, choosing joy in despair because the alternative is solely despair. So we laugh when the narrator ends up in a ditch, soils his trousers, compares himself less than favorably to a pig. And we laugh when the narrator kills a person, maybe two people. We laugh because it simply does not matter. Nothing really matters, at all. And that’s funny, I think.
I am not entirely sure what the above means. For me, I mean. I may not possess the same literary endurance as my twenty-year-old self—“What an abominable thing is youth,” says Beckett—but my capacity to feel awe at his language remains. I have decided, though, that I need to regain curiosity, regain endurance. I need to stop stopping. So I am doing the smart thing: buying a dumb phone. Beckett made me buy a dumb phone. And I am hoping the dumb phone makes me smart, or smarter. I am hoping the future is similar to the past, preferable to the present, whatever that means. It’s best to leave you with my favourite line from Molloy, one that forced my hand, one that just about sums up everything: “For in me there have always been two fools, among others, one asking nothing better than to stay where he is and the other imagining that life might be slightly less horrible a little further on.”
Ioan Marc Jones is a writer whose work has appeared in The New England Review, The Independent, Litro, openDemocracy, Wales Arts Review, and many other publications. He holds post-graduate degrees from Oxford University and the University of London and has previously worked as an editor at Penguin Random House and Oxford University Press.