Monday, June 29, 2009

Book Review:
Mercier and Camier by Samuel Beckett

Mercier and Camier was my first reading of Beckett, and it threw me for a loop. I knew he was a well-respected author who played with writing conventions, but I didn’t expect to be as amused as I was, nor did I expect such a literary experience based on two oddball, directionless stragglers. To exaggerate a bit, nothing at all happens in the book in the most glorious way. The two of them are convinced they have a destination or objective, yet they seem to wander about aimlessly. Their banter is the main thing that amuses me; the phrasing used is “off” just enough from what we might actually say, which makes for some head-scratching and chuckling. Just one example of many is when Camier asks, “Do you feel like singing?” and Mercier replies, “Not to my knowledge.” What? I chuckled, and then wondered what possibly could cause Mercier not to know whether he feels like singing. Little absurdities tucked away throughout the text draw the reader in, and yet give one pause to think about any possible deeper levels they may imply. Whether or not more meaning actually lies in waiting is another matter, and feels like part of the exploration the reader goes on. In that sense, we as readers/observers may have more direction than Mercier and Camier.

Some darker themes arise (likely due to main characters’ vagabond natures): futility, violence, illness – mental and physical, lewdness, drunkenness, rudeness, and a few others which escape me. Interestingly, these don’t bog down the story for me, nor do they make it too difficult a read. There are some books where I can barely read the text due to the rough subject matter. Only one or two passages in Mercier and Camier come anywhere near making me want to stop reading; however the episodic nature of the book keeps the pace moving which makes the scenes all the more fleeting.

I found it interesting I felt barely attached to the characters; usually it’s important to me that the author cares for the characters in some way, leading me to care. It’s not entirely clear to me in Mercier and Camier how Beckett may care for them, though the style of writing he employs and his non-traditional approach to the story may preclude the need for care of characters. He makes us complicit in the unraveling of the story, and allows us to see things from the narrator’s perspective (sometimes sarcastic and even acerbic) while rarely focusing on the characters’ perspective. I like feeling like I’m in league with Beckett, watching things happen. It may seem odd to say after all this that, while these two characters do exist in their own little world, their world is firmly entrenched in ours, with all the ethical and moral obligations intact. Their rejection of our world and their unwitting creation of their very own is one of many reasons why this book interested me. Their rejection of the usual social mores does not distance them from the reader any more than the narrator wishes, which I like; I wouldn’t want to feel totally removed from main characters.

I’ve enjoyed all the big words Beckett employs, which force the reader to refer to a dictionary for elucidation (even if I didn’t devote myself to looking up every one). These polysyllabic words give the characters a mad professor type of feel to them, which has a delicious tension with how absurd their banter and actions are.

While not an easy or even straightforward book, Mercier and Camier is a rewarding meander. And it’s brief—a novella—which makes it well worth the Beckett-curious reader’s time.

Review by Wendell "Scutopus" Edwards