Thursday, January 26, 2012

Milligan and Murphy Goes Deep, Gets Funny

Note: I received a review copy of the following title from its author.

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 there I encountered Samuel Beckett's Endgame. While I wouldn't call the Irish author's bleak offshoot of existentialism my favorite 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 -- humor.

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 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 protangonists. 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 adverturous 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.

(Picture: CC 2011 by Ledbetter, Architect)

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