The Magazine

Beckett Turns South

An existential dialogue between two ‘ weirdly agreeable dudes.’

Jul 30, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 43 • By EDITH ALSTON
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And if a landscape of ultimate human loneliness is where the characters of Powell and Beckett intersect, the Didi and Gogo of You & Me never slip into a Beckettian whine. In an online interview, Powell shines a possible light on this difference, in his account of the origins of The Interrogative Mood. According to its author, the interminable list of questions was never planned as a novel, or presented to a publisher as one, but began as a sort of absurdist response to some of his email, and possibly as a way of writing himself out of depression. When it had reached a substantial length, he sent it off to the Paris Review, where he had been previously published, but without any thought of it as a finished work. Sometime later, an editor who had left the Paris Review for a larger publishing house presented Powell with plans for the book as a fait accompli.  

A quintessential storyteller, Powell mentions no further effort in the form of revisions or shaping of the work, maintaining the surprise acceptance as a moment of grace to warm the cockles of any struggling writer’s heart. Underlying the success of The Interrogative Mood, though, is the point that for all its apparent randomness, the book is no one-trick pony, but a cadence-rich work, resonant with recurring themes right up to a final musing on Jimi Hendrix and what the reaction might be if he were to walk into the room. And then there is that irascible ending:  

Are you leaving now? Would you? Would you mind?  

Ruled by the rhythms of the banter filling each of its short scenes, You & Me is almost as storyless as The Interrogative Mood. But dip anywhere into the earlier book and, however whimsical or ironic or terse its questions become, there is a sense of aloneness as stark as a night spent isolated in a dinghy on a roughly undulating sea, with the sky split by lightning and water sloshing in over the gunnels. You & Me—as musical and as existential as either it or Waiting for Godot is in its preoccupation with ultimate concerns—is also, in a sense, the author’s answer to both. Born into this raw new century, though, Powell’s Beckettian offspring wait for no one. And if, in their cosmic landscape, they are no more free of anxiety than their predecessors, the way these dudes choose to face the fraught human condition is through a perfect dialogue.

Argumentative, but cheerfully so, in a low, backwoods-holler vernacular flecked now and then with a touch of high academia, and advancing toward better agreement on point after point, they arrive time and again at the perfect harmony of “we.”

Edith Alston is a writer and editor in New York.