Beckett’s novel, How It Is, makes a lot of our supposedly contemporary experimental literature* seem decades behind. This dark (much darker than his other long prose–there are no comic gags here) book may be seen as an addendum to his trilogy. If the narrator of The Unnameable exists in a limbo or purgatory, this narrator may have been returned or shipped off to an earth stripped to mud and sacks of food no one needs to eat. The prose features no capital letters, no indentations, no punctuation of any sort. It reads almost like a series of prose poems, though it is a highly structured novel. You must read these passages slowly and carefully.
The narrator, sometimes named Bom and sometimes named Bem, has prosecuted a relationship with Pim, who has since left him. Now he records three distinct phases of life and loss: before Pim, with Pim, and after Pim. But are these really memories? His voice operates beyond his will: “I say it as I hear it” and “murmur[s] it to the mud.” This sort of compulsion to speak haunts Beckett’s work. Here that compulsion seems an interesting play on his generally maximal subjectivity. What demand is there to speak, to make words of experience? But it’s also too much to say that the narrator would rather lie in the mud. Want and desire seem disconnected from the brain or soul.
This becomes clear when Bom encounters Pim. Really, Pim just ends up glued to him. Pim can sing. Beyond that, he is a kind of doll whose anatomy the narrator can bend and shake however he likes. Bom trains Pim to sing and shut up, among other things, by what I might call behavioristic if it were calculated and what I might call sadism if he gained any pleasure from it. I cannot even call it cruel, because the narrator has no particular moral sense. He merely operates according to his lights, digging his nails into Pim’s armpits to prompt a song and stabbing his “arse not the hole” with a can opener to make him speak. For the most part, their relationship is a description of these tortures and their purposes. But something interesting happens toward the end of this section: the narrator begins to have intimations of another world “up there” in the “light.” In this world, he has a wife that he confuses with Pim. In another theory, his life is being observed by Krim and Kram, who are interested for reasons he cannot divine.
His theories take on new importance in the third section. Pim’s gone and the narrator seems to spin out the metafictional dramatization of loss. Loss apparently cannot have a purpose unless it edifies or at least speaks to the world above. Otherwise, he really is a pathetic creature
fallen in the mud from our mouths innumerable and ascending to where there is an ear a mind to understand a means of noting a care for us the wish to note the curiosity to understand an ear to hear even ill these scraps of other scraps of an antique rigmarole
At the same time, he gets an inkling of both his past and his future: Pim and Bom (or, sometimes, Bem) constantly exchange roles, the one time victim will become the torturer. Having just been a torturing Bom, he is now a Pim waiting for someone to come and train him. He is certain that most Pims and Boms in this world have no inkling of this repetition. Their between-relationship times are like blank spaces in which nothing can be remembered. All this plays well with the narrator’s brainless compulsions, but, left alone, seems like the baldest allegory for human relationships. Beckett will have no bald allegory. Indeed, as soon as the narrator works carefully through the implications of such a purely circular history, he curses its stupidity.
Now I can speak of a compulsion common to all Beckett’s narrators: the compulsion to make the world intelligible. Some of this novel’s greatest moments come when Beckett allows the narrator to fully articulate his theories and calculate just how many Bems, Boms, and Pims there might be in the world. But Beckett recognizes that this compulsion, while common, may never be satisfied. No theory can explain why we do what we do, and we are left to regret the loss of our Pims, and fear our future Pim selves.
*especially the cold psycho sexuality being plumbed in many quarters.