Befuddled by Bicycles in Beckett's Molloy [From BA 42-400]
Back in college I used to read Beckett to impress people. It is a similar idea to wearing a beret (which, for the record, I only did once). I felt that if I was seen sitting on the grass, leaning my back against a shade tree and thoughtfully perusing Waiting for Godot—every now and again taking my eyes off the text in order to patiently consider the words—it would lead to conversations that would in turn make me appear intellectual, and maybe handsome in a smart way.
Problem was, precious few are in awe of a guy reading Beckett (also similar to wearing a beret). Eventually, however, I tried every existentialist I could get my hands on: Camus; Sartre; I even went through a period with Kierkegaard. As a result, I was lost, confused, and carried a perpetually empty dance card, and so over the years I slowly abandoned Beckett as just another misused tool of college immaturity.
And yet you can’t ever really be finished with Beckett once you’ve started, and so I’ve spent the better part of the last month reading and rereading Molloy, attempting to discern a pattern regarding Beckett’s use of that seemingly innocent two-wheeled machine, the bicycle. Unfortunately for us, the book itself—and most of Beckett’s work in general actually—evades that type of scrutiny. So, sure, there are bicycles all over the pages, and they play a prominent role; however, their literary purpose easily and often slips into and out of focus.
Take for example the types of bicycles that appear in Molloy. There are broken bicycles and purchased bicycles. There is the act of getting arrested for lewdly resting on one’s bicycle and there is also misplacement of bicycles, the abandonment of bicycles, and a quite serious refusal to refer to a bicycle as a “bike.” But if these references mean anything other or “deeper” than their own confusing manifestations, the effort has been lost on me.
Which, in the end, is exactly the point. The bicycle winds itself through Beckett’s subconscious and therefore onto the page and rolls around as a humorous, slightly pointless distraction from the other parts of the story. This is vintage Beckett: so much happening, but nothing really happening at all. The bicycle seems important, but like everything else in Beckett’s world, it’s not.
Molloy was originally published in 1951 as the first part of The Trilogy, the second and third parts being Malone Dies and The Unnamable. Molloy itself is broken into two separate monologues, the first being delivered by Molloy, a crazy hobo with rheumatism and a peculiar attitude, and the second by Jacques Moran, a self-important private investigator with a penchant for anger who has been assigned the task of finding Molloy.
Molloy’s section (hereafter referred to simply as “S1” for clarity’s sake) is written entirely in two paragraphs, the first being a page and a quarter, while the second is the rest of 93 pages. This in itself plays a major role in K.O.ing the reader. Have you ever really read a 92-page paragraph? It feels rushed and without rest and succeeds in completely daunting and disorienting the reader. During S1, therefore, you simply cannot stop, not unlike getting dragged by a fast-moving and relentless train; which is to say it felt like Beckett was doing this on purpose. Inside the 92-page paragraph he jumps around in tense and Molloy has trouble remembering what direction he’s going (either walking or riding or talking). It’s infuriating, similar to a really complicated prank that turns out only to be funny to the prankster and maybe his apple-polishing friend.
But in this meandering literary diatribe, Molloy certainly rides some bicycle. He jumps on it a few pages in (and by “jump” I mean slowly strap his crutches to the top tube, rest his one infirmed leg on the front axel, and pedal sluggishly with his slightly less infirmed other leg). He tries to head over to see his mother, who is somewhere between life and death (even Molloy seems unable to determine if she is alive or dead), but before he can get there (in fact, it doesn’t seem like he’ll ever get there) he gets arrested for vulgarly relaxing on his bicycle.
At this point we are only 19 pages in and the arrest is convoluted and the conversation with the interrogating officer even more so. Then Molloy gets out of jail without explanation. Back on his bicycle he runs over a dog and kills it. The owner of the dog, a woman—“a Mrs. Loy, I might as well say it now and be done with it. Or Lousse, I forget, Christian name something like Sophie”—needs Molloy to help her bury the animal. This request ignores Molloy’s geriatric nature and his clear inability to shovel or lift or even move with any kind of alacrity. She then, it seems, drugs and imprisons Molloy at her compound, at which point the poor man refers to his testicles as “decaying circus clowns,” and I should have just given up there.
Upon leaving (escaping?) Lousse’s compound, Molloy abandons his bicycle. We’re never sure it was actually his bicycle to begin with and neither is he. All he knows is that it kind of looks like his bicycle, but the brakes have jammed the wheels to a stop and it won’t roll, but that’s okay because his bike didn’t even have brakes to begin with, so he just leaves it. As if the next step is a completely natural one, S1 ends when Molloy wanders into a forest and suddenly murders a man by blunt force.
Deep breath, utter bewilderment.
Section two (S2, Moran) starts off straightforward enough, with “regular” paragraphing, intelligibly constructed sentences, and a lucid narrator. Moran is a jerky private investigator who often pushes his son and chambermaid around. He is also quite obsessed with hiding his own masturbation from his son, an obsession that manifests itself in a really bad attitude (something nearing harsh discipline) towards said child. He is then (sort of inexplicably) tasked with finding Molloy by a guy (also inexplicably) named Youdi, and takes his son along (inexplicably). His health starts to diminish and with it progress in finding Molloy. He instructs his son to purchase him a bicycle to speed everything up a bit and it is at this point that the book descends into the depths of weirdness once more. Moran’s health deteriorates and he starts to lose his mind, but not in the funny way; in a way that parallels the madness of another certain crazy hobo with clownish testicles. The bicycle, then, as Beckett suggests by having both main characters and the stories themselves disintegrate once it arrives on the scene, is a maddening device capable of sweeping people off their feet both literally and figuratively.
Moran then abruptly murders a guy and hides the body in the forest. Sound familiar? What follows is of the strangest sort. The son goes missing, Moran starts to look like Molloy (crutches, transient-ish clothing, crazy-eye, etc.) and the text unfurls into long paragraphs, inconsistent tensing, and unreliable narrating; Moran is almost identical to Molloy, but not quite as corrupt. Like looking through broken glass, the stories bleed and dissolve into one another. Molloy had mentioned a son in S1 (born from a chambermaid, like the one receiving Moran’s jerkishness in S2) and the two murders are strikingly similar. The bicycles and the characters’ attitudes toward them are even alike.
The whole experience of reading Molloy is like riding in circles and may make you carefully reconsider how you act and talk and live when your bicycle is present. Then again, it may do no such thing. In the end, does it even matter? Beckett submits that it does not. But the combination of the two stories will certainly be fodder for many awkward and confusing conversations should you decide to bring the book up in passing, which, frankly speaking, I would not suggest you do.
Save it for a long, long ride into the desert by yourself.