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Zone of Evaporation is a study of what Paul Stewart terms “modes of disjunction” in Samuel Beckett’s prose work from Dream of Fair to Middling Women to How It Is. Stewart argues that these modes are the means by which Beckett’s texts deflect schematic interpretation, the “chain-chant of cause and effect” that suggests the possible existence to the reader of accessible systems of meaning (12). Working from this premise, Stewart makes various entries into Beckett’s writing, moving from Proust to Derrida in six connected readings—the last connection signaling an end point in Beckett criticism. With the death of Derrida, Beckett dies. The assumed exhaustion of self-reference shifts to Stewart and becomes a burden that he carries as an awkward weight, and the repetitive questioning of the reader becomes an analytical deferral that detracts from the frequent intensity of his textual engagement. Stewart constructs this engagement subjectively, stating his personal sense for Beckett early in his introduction. Beckett wrote to the theater director Alan Schneider that his work had the ability “to claw” (9). This raking persistence leaves its mark throughout Zone of Evaporation, with Stewart observing a felt conjunction between the reader and protagonist of Beckett’s works. This is a telling convergence. A surprising reverence for Beckett as an autobiographical presence persists in Stewart’s deconstructive readings (a reverence that informs some of this book’s most acute asides, such as the reading of Beckett’s partial autobiography into Company—the child’s laugh dying with his father’s, an echo of the [End Page 442] trauma expressed in Beckett’s much earlier letters of his own father’s passing).
More problematic is Stewart’s idea that the later texts feel different from the earlier. Feeling, for Stewart, is the apprehension of “ontological or epistemological dilemmas” that “are not the preserve of the intellect” (11). This is an intriguing idea. It might be argued, to take one current example, that a genetic Beckett of manuscript, draft, redraft, and rejection might make the case for an art that refuses definitive meaning. This Beckett is not here; Stewart is working for the main part from printed editions of the texts. Another alternative might be to think of Beckett’s lasting fascination with painting, his visual sense a key attribute in all his writing (as the notebook drafts of Watt show Beckett doodling incessantly as he wrote). These zones are outside Stewart’s poststructuralist study.
The dedication to signs and their systems works best in Stewart’s reading of Beckett contra Proust. Proust’s method is to make the connection beneath the surface of things, forever setting moments in relation to one another, the vaguest past still traceable in the present. In Beckett, Stewart argues, the subject represented is the method of comparison, not the objects set in relation to each other. To Beckett habit (that accumulation of learned reaction that Proust rejects as the death of sensation) is near liberation, the mind’s numbness a freedom from variety, a purchase of dull security. From this point, Stewart skillfully connects Beckett’s early study of Proust to the first prose works. In this world, as in Dream of Fair to Middling Women, as Stewart intelligently points out, Lazarus was happy in death. The resurrection is a burden, as Beckett maintained all his life. A late translation of Nicolas Chamfort reads “Better on your arse than on your feet, / Flat on your back than either, dead than the lot” (30). The vernacular was one of Beckett’s great gifts. Consequently, the critical translation of his thinking is often awkward (and Christopher Ricks’s skill in negotiating this problem is one unexpected attraction for Stewart). This leads to some curious formations. The final lines of the insightful chapter on comedy in Watt are a good example. They consider the problem of “unknowability” between characters.
If only Watt could have laughed at all this incongruity he may have retained what little sanity he started out with. Unfortunately, he could only manage to suck his teeth. By so straining the...