Living with the Truth Stranger than Fiction This Is Not About What You Think Milligan and Murphy Making Sense

Sunday, 14 September 2014

You & Me

You & Me

HAMM: We're not beginning to... to... mean something?

CLOV: Mean something! You and I, mean something! (Brief laugh.) Ah that's a good one!

-- Endgame, Samuel Beckett

It is tempting—and numerous esteemed and not so estimable reviewers have been unable to resist—so let’s get it out of the road: If you’re aware of the existence of Samuel Beckett’s play Waiting for Godot then the first thing that will jump to your mind when you begin reading You & Me [You&I here in the UK] is: This feels an awful lot like Waiting for Godot. Which it does. Now whether it was intended to is another matter but there are plenty of examples in literature (and film especially) of couples who natter away like this. All we know for certain is this:

Somewhere between Bakersfield, California, and Jacksonville, Florida—we think spiritually nearer the former and geographically nearer the latter—two weirdly agreeable dudes are on a porch in a not upscale neighbourhood, apparently within walking distance of a liquor store, talking a lot. It’s all they have. Things disturb them. Some things do not.

You&IWe never learn their names—one talks, the other responds but we don’t know who’s who nor does it matter—or their ages but if we accept that at least some of what comes out of their mouths is true then they’re probably in their seventies and have been friends for most, but not all, of their lives. This could been set in the deep South—imagine two rednecks in rocking chairs on a porch overlooking a swamp—or these two could be a couple of Jews perched on a bench in New York’s Central Park kvetching about life; they could just as easily be a pair of yokels leaning over a fence staring out over some field in East Anglia chewing on a piece of straw or even two teuchters sheltering under a tree ruminating on how many words the Scots have for rain. There’s universality to these two. We recognise them immediately. What sets these two apart from most old men is their marked lack of grumpiness. There’s a surprising—indeed refreshing—cheerfulness to these two; they actually moan very little although it would be too much to ask them not to moan at all and they do seem genuinely content with their lot—not that it is a lot—in life.

I first saw Godot when I was nineteen. I got up at the crack of dawn to watch an Open University programme knowing little about the play other than it was one of those things I would likely benefit from viewing. The next morning when it was repeated I insisted my wife and my best friend’s girlfriend who was staying with us at the time get up at the same ungodly hour to watch it again with me and I was frankly puzzled why they weren’t as excited as I was to have discovered this little gem. Had I read You & Me when I was nineteen I’d’ve been buying up copies to post to friends and family for birthdays and Christmases and been genuinely mystified when effusive letters of thanks and phone calls didn’t follow within a few days of receipt. I’m fifty-five now and know better. But I’m nineteen on the inside and it’s been a while since anything’s delighted me quite as much as this. Withnail and I did it. Lars Iyer’s Spurious did it. Cormac McCarthy’s The Sunset Limited did it. Sartre’s No Exit did it. The first time I saw Abbott and Costello do their ‘Who’s on First’ routine—that did it. I love banter. Beckett does it well but he’s far from being the only one.

These two aren’t even waiting for anything. There is no Godot equivalent. I thought “the codgers” who get mentioned in the opening few exchanges—you really can’t call them chapters—might be some people who were talked about but who never turned up to defend themselves but, no, that was never the case. No one turns up. No one’s expected. But it’s not awful. Of course ultimately they’re going to die but then we’re all going to shuffle off this mortal coil sometime it’s just that some of us have started to realise we’ve significantly less time than most and towards the end of the book I did wonder if Powell might not actually bump them off. This is, of course, assuming that they’re not already dead and this is some “antechamber to heaven” they’re in that Powell mentions in his quote from Barthelme at the start of the book and in the body of the text. It doesn’t matter. Wherever they are they’re enjoying themselves.

They have more props than Didi and Gogo ever had. And they do talk as if they’ve done things in between their confabs but it’s academic. Mostly they don’t talk much sense anyway. But it’s not all nonsense either, far from it:

    There is a fine line between humour and stupidity.
      The line is finer all the time.

They’ve lived a long time and have opinions—often not especially flattering opinions—on most things from film stars to politicians. They stand outside all of that so feel free to have their say. In an interview with Lee Griffith Powell talks a little about the conception of these two:

I had no visualisation. As characters, these two boys are not really distinguished from one another. They don’t have names for a reason. They’re just convenient position takers, taking somewhat oppositional positions in order to keep talking—more or less in the way that friends do. I tend to call this book a monologue as opposed to a dialogue because their positions are so suspiciously and conveniently similar. It is one mind having a little argument. [1]

And that’s effusive by Powell’s standards from what I can see of him and interviewers but then Beckett was not one for explaining his works either if one does insist (it’s fun to, let’s put it that way) we keep trying to compare the two. I’ve heard similar said about Didi and Gogo, that they’re “two sides of the same existential coin”[2] and the play should not be taken literally. So why should You & Me? At the end of the day what we have is nothing more complicated than an author talking to himself and writing that down for his own—and hopefully others’—entertainment. And I was fine with that. After much digging I did find this response from Powell:

The issue of Godot has certainly come up in America. They want to put that on the jacket but is it fair to say that this is reminiscent to a specific Beckett play when at best it might be called Becketty? Aren’t there other plays of Beckett in which two people talk for a long time? It’s a label and handy enough, but probably injurious in the long run.[3]

When I first watched Waiting for Godot at whatever unearthly hour it was all those years ago I didn’t get it. I didn’t get a fraction of it but I knew I was in the presence of greatness. Thirty-six years later having watched the play performed several times and studied it at length I can now see why it’s such a great play. Assuming I survive another thirty six years—55 + 36 = 91, so unlikely—I doubt I’ll be saying the same about You & Me because although this is a fun book—and it is great fun—that doesn’t mean it’s great-with-a-capital-g unless it’s hiding its greatness under a bushel. If I might illustrate:

      Is it better to have continuity of no content or discontinuous content?
      What is “content”?
      I use it as an irritatingly vague substitute for seriousness of purpose or meaningfulness in living, or something similarly perhaps as irritating as “content”—
      I get the drift. I would say it is better to have content without the continuity if the alternative is smooth unbroken vapidness such as the sort we practice in these dialogues every day.
      I’ll mark you down in the intellectual column. I am not surprised. I’m pencilling you in right beside Bertrand Russell.
      I’ll take it. One might be pencilled in beside, say, Jerry Lewis.
      Listen, I’d rather not talk today. I want to go watch old tennis players be displaced by young tennis players and the crowd weep as they retire and then start cheering for the new cocky-bastard upstarts who have sent them to pasture. This I want to do today, and nothing else. I want a cool soda water in my hand and a hat on my head and to not be overweight myself watching the elderly depart. I can from this position think gently of my own death.
      You almost got some content going on.
      I got it going on.
      You’ll look like a tennis groupie but you’ll have secret ponderment.
      No one will know.
      You’ll be a subversive in the stands, a thought arsonist. You’ll be like a Frenchman.

No one can tell me that exchange isn’t fun because it is but is it anything else? The mention of tennis inevitably reminds me of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern:

Is there great meaning in Stoppard’s exchange? Isolated like that it doesn’t sound like it. It just looks as if they’re having fun with words and much of the time you could say the same about Powell’s argy-bargying pair but when you consider all the other references to questions in Stoppard’s play you start to realise that this might be a part of a bigger picture. I’ve only read the book the once but I’m not sure a similar search of You & Me would be as rewarding; I’ve tried but would be pleased to be proved wrong. I think for the most part Powell is simply having fun with words and he could just as easily have been influenced by Norman Mailer and Gore Vidal because in a 2006 interview[4]—so six years before You & Me was published—he himself cited this exchange from the Mailer, Vidal and Janet Flanner interview on The Dick Cavett Show:

MAILER: I would not hit anyone here, you’re all too small.

CAVETT: Smaller?

MAILER: Intellectually smaller.

CAVETT: Perhaps you’d like another chair to help contain your giant intellect.

MAILER: I’ll accept the chair if you’ll accept fingerbowls.

CAVETT: Fingerbowls? Fingerbowls. I don’t get that. Does anyone on our team [Vidal and Janet Flanner] want that one?

MAILER: Think about it.

CAVETT: Fingerbowls.

MAILER: Why don’t you just read another question off your list, Cavett?

CAVETT: Why don’t you just fold it five ways and put it where the moon don’t shine?

But let’s not be too quick to trivialise Powell’s book. In a more recent interview[5] following the publication of You & Me Royal Young gets Powell talking about the lost art of the conversation:

POWELL: Conversations are the most direct way to connect with people. There's conversations and violence. There's a lot of phones; but I'm out of that field. They make me feel like a prisoner of war; there's not going to be any texting for me. The pre-paid phone is the frontier of my technological advance. I already had one voided by AT&T, cause I didn't pay as I went.

YOUNG: They want you to keep talking.

POWELL: They do. It's hard to say conversation has become a minimal thing, because look at the rise of mobile communications in the last 10 years. It used to be only the President had a mobile phone. Now everyone on earth, even if they have nothing else, they have a cell phone. It's a larger anthropological shift in my mind than even the tattoo age in the United States.

We live in a world where conversation exists as a thing in its own right. You & Me could easily be chat log. For the most part you can’t tell they’re in the same place. Nor does it matter. So although on the surface You & Me feels old fashioned it’s also one of the most contemporary books out there and I’m a big fan of its bare bones approach to communicating a message. Calling it postmodern only does it a disservice.

Much of the time there is no great message:

      Why do we talk?
      Why would we not?
      I suspect that is why we talk: what would we do if we did not talk?
      Precious little else, darlin’.
      My point.
      Your point is that we do nothing but talk . . .
      And that if we cease, we do nothing, are nothing.
      Well, given how little we talk about, we are next to nothing already.
      I dispute you not.
      You brought this up, suggesting you might dispute it—I’m sorry, here I am talking inaccurately, doing the next-to-nothing thing we do sloppily. I mean to say: your bringing this up might suggest you are concerned with how little or nothing we are.
      No, I am content to be nothing.

but again there’s more here than meets the eye because what we are talking about—who is doing the talking—are old men who are working their way towards being nothing. There’s no indication that either of these men is demented but they freely admit to being senile:

      God I feel small and dumb.
      Anything happen?
      No, the usual small and dumb.
      When, what I want to know, did we feel otherwise?
      When we were five.
      When we were small and dumb.
      Yes, then we did not feel small and dumb.
      Were we large and smart?

You & Me rambles; it’s not in a great rush to get anywhere. Our two curmudgeons lose the thread, pick it up a day or two later or forget about it completely. The “old codgers” vanish after about thirty pages never to reappear whoever they were. Towards the end the conversations do veer towards fears—or at least concerns—about death:

      I’ve about had it.
      Me too.
      I’m done.
      The battle is over.
      Not lost, or won, but over.
      Amen. Take me to funky town.

The review in The Metro says, “'Powell … holds a mirror up to what we have become and what we have lost, giving voice to a yearning that avoids sentimentality.” It’s a cracked mirror to be sure but within its fragmented images it does indeed paint a picture of modern society and not always a pretty one but there’s no point crying about it. It holds your attention more than a nice, clean, polished, full length, frameless wall mirror from Argos ever will.

Not everyone’s loved this book. Thomas Mallon in The New York Times Book Review wrote, “[S]scattershot aperçus do not make a novel. Any number of this book’s offhand insights and hypotheses could be developed into full-blown stories that move instead of meander, that do more than click their way from one YouTube morsel to the next,” and Dwight Garner in The New York Times said that the sound the book “mostly makes is that of a writer not hitting a dead end, exactly, but of a writer not appearing to try very hard. This short book, with its short chapters each topped by an ampersand, is mostly winding filler, talk that doesn’t seem quite worthy of the name.” They are, of course, entitled to their opinions. All I have to say in answer is: Remember the early responses to Godot.

In 2009 Dan Halpern interviewed Powell following the publication of his previous book, The Interrogative Mood. The book consists of 192 pages of nothing but questions and, as one might imagine, was also not well received by all. At the end of the interview Halpern makes this comment which I expect stands well today:

During my visit, Powell had been loath to defend himself from any criticisms, mostly happy to confess that if the stories had broken no hearts it was probably their own fault — that he’d just failed. But now, back from fishing, having caught no mullet and gearing up, finally, to shoot the raccoon, whose carcass he’d promised to the fisherman with the worm in his mouth, Powell said: “If you do what you mean to, if you ever can, that will come out on the page. But if you go around saying anything that seems preposterous is bad, that anything that doesn’t look the way it’s supposed to look is false and heartless — well, I think, I think — I think you do lose something.”[6]

You can read extracts from the book here and here.


Padgett-Powell-author-photo-credit-Gately-WIlliams1Padgett Powell has taught writing at the University of Florida since 1984. He has published six novels and two collections of short stories. His debut novel, Edisto (1984), was nominated for the American Book Award . His fiction and non-fiction have appeared in The New Yorker, Harper’s, Paris Review, Grand Street, Esquire, The New York Times Book Review and Magazine among others. Powell has won the Prix de Rome, the Whiting Writers Award, and the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, the UK’s oldest literary prize.




[1] ‘An Improbable Business: PW Talks with Padgett Powell’, Publishers Weekly, 20 April 2012

[2] John L. Kundert-Gibbs, No-thing is Left to Tell: Zen/Chaos Theory in the Dramatic Art of Samuel Beckett, p.80

[3] Quoted in ‘Padgett Powell, author of You & I – interview, The List, 18 October 2011

[4] Interview with Brian J. Barr in The Believer, September 2006

[5] ‘Padgett Powell by Royal Young’, Interview Magazine

[6] ‘Southern Discomfort’, The New York Times, 16 October 2009

No comments:

Ping services