Milligan and Murphy – a review
Perhaps this is as good a place as any, as our heroes wend their way towards the future, to describe in some small detail the countryside through which they trudged. If I were to provide you with a simple-to-understand expression to describe where Lissoy was, then ‘in the middle of nowhere’ would be fairly accurate: somewhere dwindled into anywhere and the next thing you knew you were nowhere. The ‘nowhere’ consisted of bogs and moors with only a single road leading to the place and that road bounded by hedgerows along its full length as if to keep the inevitable at bay. The laws of scenery were not flouted but they were only paid lip service to. The landscape was one of emigration and emptiness, a thing trampled into the past. It did everything in its power to resist interpretation. It was as if anything that might have caught the eye had been eroded by time and this was all that it had left; that would vanish, too, one day but that day had not arrived. The mountain, Binn Moan, rose like a cry in the wilderness but, even so, did its level best to blend itself in with the sky and go unnoticed.
Jim Murdoch’s new novel, Milligan and Murphy, introduces us to two half-brothers, John Murphy and John Milligan, both of them forty years of age and still at home with their Ma. In the manner of Samuel Beckett we are introduced to a couple of accidental people living accidental lives. I mention Beckett in passing because Milligan and Murphy is inspired by Mercier and Camier, a Beckett novel in which two men repeatedly try to leave town without success
On the way to a local farm for a day’s work, the brothers decide to leave their lives behind and head for the coast. We, as loyal readers, are allowed to follow closely behind.
They arrive in Drumclaven, a shitehole according to Dervla Mahoney, the local barmaid. They have a brush with the local constable and take some refreshment in the form of half-pints of Guinness before moving on. There occurs, from time to time, a kind of merging of their identities which led me to see them as different aspects of the same being; perhaps the conscious and the unconscious mind:
‘Do you think we did the right thing?’
It was Milligan talking. For a second Murphy thought it was just one of the voices in his head.
The next town along the way was to be Rathnerth, but on the way they meet up with Aghamore Ahern, an artist, philosopher and dandy and, reluctantly, share a barbecued crow with him.
By the time Milligan and Murphy have reached Rathnerth and moved in with Mad Meg, their story seems to have come full-circle and moved to its end. The brothers soon fall for home comforts and begin to fade into the landscape. But it isn’t so; the end I mean.
Before long they find themselves in Portlow, a place colder and wetter than Lissoy. Milligan never imagined there ever could exist such a place. But he’d been wrong before.
In his novels and plays Samuel Beckett is keen to point out the double meaning of ‘enclosure’ for his characters. And Murdoch amplifies this theme in his novel. The box or room or place of confinement is at the same instant the loved home and the dark prison. Our characters’ need to escape from this prison/home is a constant desire.
What Beckett does over and over again is to take his characters and his audience from safe to unsafe places. And this is exactly what Jim Murdoch does with Milligan and Murphy. When we leave them they are on board a ferry to England:
Milligan stood clinging for dear life to the rail at the stern of the ship and looked back. He suspected that he was going to be physically sick before he stepped onto dry land again. He was neither here nor there and that was another feeling he didn’t like one bit. And alone. He had never felt so alone. The sea; the world; in fact all of eternity spread out before him from this point. He felt like old Noah or the Ancient Mariner must have looking out at limitless sea, unable to cope with the significance of what they saw.
The sea looks like nothing he has ever seen before. He and Murphy have escaped their confinement within the box of their Ma and Lissoy and and are in the process of leaving behind their cultural heritage. They are taking the journey from the surface of consciousness to the depths of the unconscious. And Jim Murdoch takes us along, too, down the same path, just as Beckett would have done. One part of us is kicking and screaming, wanting to stay in the safe place, but another part knows we will never be satisfied until we are properly born.