A shape-shifting fictional tribute to the novelist and playwright Samuel Beckett (1906-89), borrowing its structure from one of his works.
In 1976, the elliptical, Nobel-winning writer started an unfinished piece, “Long Observation of the Ray,” that proposed a method of writing around nine “themes” in a highly precise way, prescribing the number of sentences in recurring sections. Like Oulipo and other fussy literary organizational schemes, the end product risks becoming cold and abstruse, but Coffey (The Business of Naming Things, 2015, etc.) generates a decent amount of warmth adapting the concept and weaving alternating Beckett-themed story threads, distinguishable by different fonts. Among the strands: a critical essay on Beckett’s work; an unnamed narrator trying to imagine a story that’ll help his lover fall sleep; a fictionalized story of Beckett bemusedly attending a 1964 Mets double-header at Shea Stadium (“There’s a lot of futility in this game,” Beckett notes); and narratives of post–9/11 terrorism, from reports on treatment of Gitmo prisoners to recollections of the 2015 Paris attacks. Coffey doesn’t labor to make each section connect in obvious ways, but over the course of the book the fragmentary pieces help construct an overall defense of Beckett as more of a moral author than he’s given credit for. The abstract fatalism that defined works like Waiting for Godot was shaped by Beckett’s experience of World War II, Coffey argues, pushing him to contemplate both a sense of defeat and the need to press on after catastrophe, “an aesthetic credo that secured the moral ground enabling art to continue after Auschwitz.” Deep familiarity with Beckett's work isn’t essential to appreciate Coffey’s, but an affinity for Beckett’s worldview and gamesmanship helps; Coffey sustains a dark, contemplative mood but leaves a few cracks for humor and optimism to enter.
A complex but emotionally effective tribute to the Irish author.