My Urge to Fail and Fail Again

This is why I must write—to make these searching guesses and to justify all the time my parents put into seeding my brain with the ideas that were meaningful to them.

An illustration of an arrow pointing to a foot tattoo
Alex Merto

My daughter, West, just texted me and asked what I thought about her getting a tattoo—tasteful and small, monochrome, she doesn’t know where yet (uh-oh)—of a Samuel Beckett epigram from Worstward Ho: “Fail again. Fail better.” This brings me to tears. That she would ask—she’s 21; she can do as she pleases, but she also knows that I know she knows the quote through me. It’s between us. She knows I wrote my senior thesis at Princeton 1,000 years ago on Beckett’s novels. Why his novels, you might ask? An excellent question. Well, when I was 20, I saw that so much had been written on Beckett’s plays and that critics had kind of avoided the novels. So that left the field clear for me of brilliant, inhibiting elders while also cutting down on my research, a win-win. I don’t think I ever told her (no reason to scare the child) that the hardbound paper, well over 100 pages, was titled “The Schizophrenic Critique of Pure Reason in Beckett’s Novels.” What does that even mean? I’m not sure I remember, but it’s something along the lines of neurotics are boring, and psychotics are exciting.

My kid does know that I’m half in love with failure, a kind of connoisseur of failure, and that even at a young age that must have drawn me to Beckett, as it later drew me to acting, and writing, and music—endeavors in which perfection is an impossible target. I’ve always loved the mistakes. The energy created by hamartia, the near miss. The crackling freedom and electricity when you forget your lines. To create is to fail. And to fail is to fall. And to fall is to be human. When we fall, we reach out our hands to all of humanity, going back even to that first wacky keystone couple who slipped on an apple peel and fell flat on their faces, Adam and Eve. I tell my kids that no one ever learned anything from success except how to imprison yourself trying to repeat it. I also tell them to try hard and work their asses off, that work is its own reward. Talk about mixed messages. It must be confusing. This makes me sound like kind of a bummer dad, but I assure you that this is all funny stuff. And that Beckett is as funny as the finest stand-up.

West wants me to write the Beckett out in my own handwriting. More tears from me. She already had me write out some lyrics to a song of mine that she then had etched on the back of her neck, where the fall of her hair obscures them: “Stay on the train, the scenery will change.” The fact that my daughter wants my words indelible on her person fills me with more deep joy than the four novels I’ve written, more than I can say, and makes me believe in eternity. I will go on, written on my daughter’s skin. I write for my daughter and my son because I have this belief/fantasy that when I am gone, if my kids could pulp my novels, make a kind of mulch of them—much as I imagine researchers do to spin out the DNA of pulverized ancient dinosaur fossils—they could get my DNA. From the pulpy mulch. That my kids, if they ran that book DNA in the lab, could see me there clearly: the footprint, the fingerprint, Dad/David. The mysterious, spiraled math of my heart and soul that hid part of itself from the light and casually spoken words. And maybe this will free them of something. These books are my way of talking once I’m dead, of speaking truth to the future.

Thinking of my kids and what is nameable and unnameable between the generations makes me think of my parents. It’s funny how time leapfrogs like that. My mother, Meg, will be 91 next month, and my father, Ami, died nearly 20 years ago. When I was a child and complained about anything—the food, the weather, the world—my mother would say in a kind of pidgin Gaelic: “It’s right better then a steen ahin the lug.” She’s Scottish, an immigrant, from a small fishing village where many of their men died in the boats coaxing a life out of the dangerous North Sea. This roughly translates to “It’s a lot better than a stone behind the ear.” What she meant was that whatever I was bitching about on 11th Street in Manhattan in the ’70s was better than getting hit over the head with a stone back in Scotland. Hard to argue with that. I’ve had a bunch of accidents in my life, knocked out teeth and nearly lost an eye, but I’ve never been hit over the head with a rock. So my mom was onto something. I still have no right to complain. Yet. She was keeping my expectations low, which was sound parenting in the 20th century. None of that “sky’s the limit” new-age hokum. As darkly funny as Beckett all the way.

My dad, a Jew born in Brooklyn to immigrants from Poland and Ukraine, when I would bellyache about school, my life, or how I needed some special item to make it all better—a new baseball glove, say—would mutter, “You need that like a moose needs a hat rack.” (This story makes me seem as if I did nothing but complain as a child, and I don’t believe that’s true, but it’s possible; you can ask my brother.) I didn’t, at the time, know what a hat rack was, and you don’t see them around much anymore, but I think now he also meant to keep my expectations low. Brooklyn Jew and Scottish Lutheran, my father and mother were in sync on this, perhaps one of the only things they were in sync on: Life hurts. Though I never got the tattoo, their sage words are written on me.

My mother was the first person in her family to attend college. This as a woman in the ’40s. “Lower class,” she saw education as the way out and up for a person without money or social status. Jacob’s ladder. Books, and the ability to write them, were magical objects and acts. The hard-won equivalent of being born with a Sir in front of your name was earning the B.A. after it. My dad, also the first in his family to go to college (on the GI Bill), told me that Jews weren’t allowed to own land throughout much of European history and that their possessions were always in danger of being confiscated, so they stored up jewels in their brains and wrote their coded word treasures into their books. They may take your things, Dad seemed to say, they may inflict pain on your body, but if you tend to it, no one can steal your mind. His father, Moshe, fearing Stalinist repression and anti-Semitism, fled Ukraine (then part of Russia) for the New World around 1920, but died at 60, the age I am now, when I was an infant. Moshe became a journalist at Yiddish-language newspapers—The Jewish Daily Forward and The Morning Journal—in New York City. None of his writing survives. I can only guess at him. My educated guesses fail. Fail again. Fail better.

This is why I must write—to make these searching guesses and to justify all the time and care my parents put into seeding my brain with the words and ideas that were meaningful to them. It’s my way of communicating with my ancestors; of talking to the dead, Ami and Moshe; of reaping what was so lovingly sown. When I write, I reach forward to a time when I won’t exist and backwards to a time before I existed. It’s a magical, light-year state to inhabit, and though the act of writing is brutal on the head, the soul, the confidence, the back, the shoulders, and the ass, the act of having written carries with it a blissful timelessness and quiet pride.

I published my first novel when I was 55 (my dad published his first novel at 73, a year before he died), which means I spent more than half a century avoiding writing, evading that failure, turning away from the yawning chasm between conception and execution—dodging the sound Beckettian advice I so confidently dropped on my daughter. When I was in grad school, my plan was to be a critic and professor and use the three summer months off every year to write. I was sitting in a seminar led by the legendary professor Harold Bloom, staring out the window at the winter dark descending (before 2 p.m., it would seem, just to fuck with your head) on an ever-gray New Haven. Bloom was asking a question I didn’t understand. No one answered until the lone undergraduate in the room, a precocious, genius young woman, said, “That would be like a world without adjectives.”

“Exactly, my dear,” Bloom chanted, “exactly.”

I hadn’t understood the question or the answer, and thought: Hmm, perhaps this writing and reading biz ain’t for me after all. Maybe I should … act. And all these years later, I’m still acting, but I also know that if I didn’t write, I would be living in a world without my father and mother, and their fathers and mothers, a world where I am already dead and silent to my children and the good people of the future—living, to borrow a phrase encoded with hidden treasure I am only now beginning to unpack, in a world without adjectives.