STUDY A ROTATION of the second hand on your wristwatch. It has a shadow which it eclipses every 30th second. For half of its round the shadow follows the second hand, for the other half it precedes it. The shadow is at its maximum distance from the second hand mid-arc the two occlusions. The symmetries of this cunning hairline of a shadow can beguile your attention for as long as you want to study them. You have, for instance, an accelerated hothouse sundial that nips along 1,440 times faster than the real article; you have a simple model of the solar system; you have someting to keep you company.

Almost at the end of Samuel Beckett's new prose narrative we are told that if "numb with the woes of your kind you raise none the less your head from off your hands and open your eyes" we can study the second hand of our watch and "hours later" we have the relationship of it to its shadow worked out. This is the only action in the narrative, the only flex of plot.

Much else, nevertheless, is there in the text, suspended in uncertainty, approached with agonized hesitation. We know by now that any fact in a Beckett novel can be snatched away. Here, in Company, we are not even allowed the luxury of the author committing himself to a character, much less to a plot or setting.

We are instead invited to suppose (and identify with) a being lying on its back in total dark to whom an unidentifiable voice says, "You are on your back in the dark." The being cannot reply, having no power to speak. Nor can it know that the voice is speaking to it (and not, for instance, to some other being on its back in the same dark). The being has only this voice "for company."

Is the being on its back in the dark company for the disembodied voice? Such an unanswerable question generates other unanswerable questions. And then there is the suspicion that the voice is not from outside but from within: memory itself. For sporadically it (or plausibly the being, summoning memories and addressing itself as "you") recounts events from childhood. These brief scenes are like magic-lantern slides which appear on the wall without program or intelligible sequence, and leave the dark darker when they go away with the same arbitrariness as they came.

One of these Proustian glows from the past cannot be the memory of the being on its back, for it describes its father's anguish on the day of its birth, a remote day when a De Dion Bouton was a make of automobile. Moreover, it was a Good Friday. The father and the birthdate correspond with those of Beckett, as do other events which we can find in Deirdre Bair's biography -- such as the child Beckett launching himself from the top of a fir tree to see if he could fly.

So the being on its back, first introduced as a tentative character, as if to see what could be worked out in the way of a narrative, becomes the writer himself. This identification, however, is repeatedly rejected with the phrase, "Quick leave him." (The only punctuation in this book is the perod. Beckett gave up the semicolon years ago, and the comma several books back.)

Beckett's art has over the years dared itself to do without various neccessities. Here, for instance, he begins a game in which he denies himself the first-person-singular pronoun. This is a feint, for by page eight there it is, triumphantly necessary after all ("Yes I remember"). What this feint was hiding was the suppression not of "I" but the companionable "we."

A writer is a deviser. "Devised deviser devising it all for company," muses the text. Is the text by Beckett; that is, by an author telling us a narrative? Is the text devised, as, say, the text of Waiting for Godot, for an actor to speak? This problem is the plot of Company. It is the old problem of the dominance of the subjective or the objective in a work of art. The problem is footling: are we to meditate on the humanistic expressiveness of Michelangelo in gazing at the David, or are we to forget Michelangelo and pay full attention to the image of heroism, beauty, and piety which the artist worked so hard to show us?

In a sense Company is Beckett's reply to Deirdre Bair's biography, a book which could only have been embarrassing to him, and which seemed to many reviewers to be an outrageious invasion of his privacy. Yet he cooperated, in a way, with is writing. He agreed neither to held Bair nor to stand in her way. Company is a meditation on the creator and the created. The privacy which biographer seems to violate is inviolable. And whereas the biographer can only operate with reportage and surmise, the artist works on the same material with the one thing the biographer must eschew: the imagination.

Beckett's imagination has always been distinguished by what we might call comic alertness. Committed to his discipline of compresssion, exactitude of word and phase, of paring everything to the bone, he uses this absolute carefulness of composition as a breeding ground for the comic. No joke, however wry, is allowed to get away; no irony, however sardonic, is excluded.

Company replays Beckett's central problem in all his work. Man, whatever he is (cosmic joke? puppet of a divine puppeteer? mistake of a frivolous and cruel God? a creature a little less than the angels in majesty who has disobediently, stubbornly, and stupidly alienated himself from every blessing?), has no way of being certain about anything. The masterful plays Waiting for Godot and Endgame were written around the maddeningly teasing uncertainty of the Christian mythos. Mr. Godot sends to say that he won't be coming today but will most certainly get here tomorrow. What a nervewracking religion: it promises an arrival. It adherents have been waiting for 1,955 years for a return promised "soon." Or is it, 1,950 years, as the counters of time idiotically have Christ born on His fifth birthday? Has He already returned, say in 922 or 1934, and we stupidly missed the fact, as millions did when He first came?

Endame is a crucifixion in slow motion -- not all of it, only the moment when Christ cried out in despair. The being on its back in the dark in Company considers every possibility of knowing its identity and condition except that of being held against the wall of a centifuge, with the spin of time speeded up to hold him there (like, for instance, the speed of that second hand compared with the slower tick of time as we are damned to perceive it). And not a wall, but a cross. "What kind of imagination is this so reason-ridden?" somebody asks in Company. And somebody answers, "A kind of its own."

No character in Beckett has ever admitted that existence is other than a cruel joke. But here in Company Beckett reaches into a darker dark than he has hitherto plumbed, to ask if the poor jokester didn't after all, create us, his joke, to keep his lonely self company? This is a way of asking if in our profound and agonizing loneliness we have invented the jokester, God, to keep ourselves company? And what is company? What have we not done for its sake? For everything human we have made up, beginning with our names. Our laws, our quaint systems of kinship, our cities, our technology, a Victorian clergyman's carefully researched study of the Sumerian cosmology -- fiction all. We've made it all up, to hide a mystery in an idiotically decorated box. The only reality is that we became aware of the world on our back in the dark (the womb, the cradle), with a voice speaking to us, and will end on our backs in the dark (deathbed, grave). Beckett in Company connects these two points of existential helplessness. We are forever on our backs in the dark, listening to a voice (dreams, the imagination, philosophy, religion, Walter Cronkite). But, as he says, the voice is company, or we are company for it.