Goodbye to Godot
Time, February 28, 1964


by Samuel Beckett.
147 pages. Grove Press. $3.95.

AMID PANTINGS AND GROANINGS and the passage of "vast tracts of time," a nameless subhuman progresses on hands and knees across a sea of mud at a fixed rate of 40 yards a year. He is teased by quavery memories of a nightmare picnic and a life with a woman somewhere "above."

Clear as Mud. Is this hell or is this life? Characteristically, in Samuel Beckett's world it seems to make little difference. But wherever his creature is bound, Beckett is clearly bent on re-creating the spiritual history of man. The crawler encounters another crawler called Pim and begins to "educate" him. "first lesson ... I dig my nails into his armpit right hand right pit he cries I withdraw then thump with fist on skull his face sinks in the mud his cries cease end of first lesson." Pim learns not to cry but to sing when he is jabbed in the armpit. Why? Because, his tormentor reasons, he must say to himself, "this man is no fool, what is required of me that I am tormented thus not sadism pure and simple not that I should cry that is evident since when I do I am punished." Eventually, Pim and his tormentor, who admits to the name of Bom, exchange a few basic phrases, among them, "do you love me?"

Just as an unwary reader is about to decide that Pim is man in the hands of a tyrant deity, Bom himself embarks on a chilling step-by-step proof of the existence of some sort of God above them both. He remembers (or projects) an endless series of couplings like his with Pim and then a vast, ordered switching of partners as each Pim crawls on to find and torment a new Bom, and each Bom waits to be found and tormented by a new Pim. This elaborate pattern of exchanged cruelty, Bom cagily reasons, suggests a supervisory being.

"No, It Ain't." Abandoned here, Beckett's book would have been a maddening parody of all human effort to pose the existence of God, either from man's need or from the ordered complexity of the universe. But the author presses on to a familiar clench-jawed conclusion. Bom has imagined it all—the encounter with Pirn, the divine listener, the grand design. He is alone in the mud with arms spread in the pitiful shape of a cross. His only solace is the belief that someday he will die.

The bland assertion of Beckett's title—How It Is—is likely to engender the irritated reply, "No, it ain't." Yet the real fault of this book and of Beckett's recent works is not the question of whether God exists or whether life has meaning. It is that despite Beckett's ingenuity, his touches of great eloquence, his flashes of brilliant wit, he simply has nothing new to say, and what he says over and over again does not much need saying. As with most of Beckett's metaphors for the human condition, How It Is begins as a small shock and ends as a small bore.