Inside Llewyn Davis is a beautifully crafted glimpse at the early ’60s Greenwich Village folk scene, and one broke musician who inhabits it. The Coen brothers’ latest movie opens and closes at the Gaslight Café on MacDougal Street, and follows Llewyn as he surfs from couch to couch and then hitches a ride to Chicago. While working on the movie, the Coens were worried that it didn’t have enough of a plot, and threw a scene-stealing tomcat into the narrative.
Ulysses, the ginger tabby who goes unnamed for most of the movie, acts as Llewyn’s furry spirit guide. He is, like many cats, prone to running out of barely open doors, sneaking out of open windows and down fire escapes, and roaming free on the open streets of the city. Likewise, Llewyn is all too aware that each day will end with an awkward phone call about a spare couch. The difference is that Ulysses is charismatic and friendly, and Llewyn isn’t.
What Inside Llewyn Davis is not is a realistic depiction of what it's like to go on the road with a cat. It’s not a grab-and-go adventure. House cats—and maybe this is why I feel so spiritually in tune with them—will not just pee anywhere. You need supplies: a small litter box, a crate, unending treats, and a steely reserve.
In 2005, I drove from the Midwest to my grad school on the East Coast with my ex-boyfriend and a wide-eyed, blue-gray tabby that wasn’t yet my cat. My ex-boyfriend wasn’t my ex-boyfriend yet, either, but he and I were floating in the nether world of impending long distance, and we had both already broken each other’s hearts more times than we could count on our combined four hands.
The plan was for me to cat-sit for six months while my boyfriend went on a business stay in London. After his six months were up, he was going to come back to the States, take the cat, and we would see if the three of us should be in one city together.
That cat would stand in his makeshift litter box and glare at me. He was holding it till Pittsburgh.
My ex-boyfriend, future cat, and past self drove 12 hours in one day, stopping in Pittsburgh for the night. The Internet had told me that when traveling with a cat, it’s a good idea to let the cat pee when you stop to pee. But this cat refused. He wouldn’t pee in St. Louis, Indianapolis, or even in Zanesville, Ohio, where I blew a tire. That cat would stand in his makeshift litter box—a biggish, clear Tupperware container—and glare at me. He was holding it till Pittsburgh.
When we unloaded for the night, he opened the floodgates. It was a message: This was to never happen again.
When we finally got to Washington, DC, he cowered in the closet for days.
Lately I’ve been worried that I need similarly precise conditions to write.
I had begun my writing career with visions cobbled together from sitcoms, memoirs, and professors of what it might be like to be a writer. But they looked nothing like what I found on the other side of an MFA: balancing a day job with a few freelance gigs on the side and eking out personal treatises at night. Spending too many nights choking down anxiety because I have too many balls in the air, and not enough Twitter followers to appreciate them.
A month ago, I decided—and emailed some friends to make the declaration sound more official—that I was going to take a break from writing “for a bit.” It wasn’t a decision born from a bruised ego, but exhaustion. I had started calculating how much bandwidth I would have if I wasn’t spending my nights and weekends writing or pitching ideas that I could be writing. I would start on a new idea, try to put a few paragraphs together, but it felt like I was just lining up notes after one another, and each fresh idea quickly started to sound like a hoary rehash of pieces I had already written. I was tired of examining my relationships to culture and cataloging my feelings about getting older. I was tired of hunting for impossibly current adjectives and viable metaphors. I was tired of my own lens.
As much as Inside Llewyn Davis is a slice of pre-Dylan Greenwich Village life, it’s also a wintry, muted tale of grief. Llewyn had been half of a folk duo until his partner threw himself off the George Washington Bridge. The gray tones of grief, of how to go about going on after death, wash over the movie’s vision of New York City. The Coens’ 1961 isn’t filled with the green shoots of beatnik-ism that Mad Men peeked in on from the 60th floor. It’s about one musician who is very good, but not great.
He picks up his guitar, braces for the cold, and leaves the cat behind in the back seat. I want to hate Llewyn for closing the car door.
It’s also about the struggle to determine at what point you should give up on a creative life. Llewyn is barely treading water as a solo act. His songs don’t have the transcendent, Simon-and-Garfunkel harmony that they used to. His new record is selling less than his recordings with his late partner, Mike—which didn’t sell much, either. He can’t afford a winter coat or a permanent address. He hears that a manager in Chicago is signing new acts, and he and the cat tag along on a road trip with a silent chauffeur and a heroin-addled, jabber-jawed jazz musician played by John Goodman.
Three hours outside of Chicago, the chauffeur is arrested, taking the keys to the Buick with him. The jazz musician is comatose in the backseat after overdosing in a bathroom at the Fred Harvey Oasis Dining Room. So Llewyn makes a choice. He picks up his guitar, braces for the cold, and leaves the cat behind in the back seat. As the cat looks at him expectantly, I want to hate Llewyn for closing the car door. That obliging cat is the last breathing thing that Llewyn seems to care about. After dragging the animal from the East Coast to the Midwest and trapping him in the freezing car with the latest in a long line of Goodman-Coen blowhards, Llewyn is closing the door on redemption.
My boyfriend never came back for the cat, or for me. He moved from London to Chicago and I stayed in DC. So, his cat became my cat. I had talked about wanting one, but I was totally unprepared to swap a boyfriend for a permanent feline companion. I didn’t even have a legitimate lease.
Sometimes the cat was the barrier to a better apartment, saving money, picking up and moving to London or California. I wasn’t ready for the responsibility of cleaning out the litter box every day. And then my dad died and I wondered how much easier my life would be if I didn’t have to take care of something else.
I loved that cat, but I was ready to give him up.
Then, one winter’s day when my then-roommate was continually poisoning the living environment with his alcoholic misogyny and unwashed dishes, the cat pooped in between the sheets of his bed. As if to say to me, This is what my loyalty looks like. I realized that cat was mine.
After nine years of sleeping with the cat in the crook of my knees every night, I could never give him up. He knows when I’m sick, his hearty purr a form of therapy. I even adopted a second cat, who bears some resemblance, particularly a mischievous swagger, to Ulysses. I now measure time in boxes of Arm & Hammer Double Duty Advanced Order Control litter, and spend several hundred dollars on liquid pheromones to ensure that he and his brother feel comfortable peeing.
Now the only thing I talk about abandoning is writing. Just for the week, or until the new year. I start to think that maybe everything would be easier if I just gave it up altogether. And it is, for a minute.
In some ways, I feel that the Coens tricked me into connecting to Llewyn by showing him always clutching a cat. There are enough stories about the self-made misfortunes of creative men. The cat may have been the only device that allowed me to see Llewyn as more than another asshole with a guitar.
It’s significant, I think, that Ulysses is a cat and not, for instance, a poodle. Dogs have been bred for centuries to obey their masters, accompanying them on hunts and warding off intruders. Cats, on the other hand, are said to have domesticated themselves, becoming just pliant enough to earn a saucer of milk while they eat rats in the barn. Recent studies have shown that cats recognize their owner’s voice, but only acknowledge it when it suits them.
Like a cat, creativity is never something that will accompany you willingly, just because you command it to. It will often saunter in the opposite direction.
So it’s pretty easy to appreciate why Llewyn slams the sedan door. There’s something so devastatingly human, so self-preserving about the decision to give up the cat. Llewyn is forced to come to terms with where his music had landed him: in a car on the side of a snowy highway, without keys or a winter coat.
Llewyn trudges on to Chicago, clutching his corduroy blazer lapels close to his neck, without the cat. He completes his odyssey to audition for a well-known manager, Bud Grossman. Llewyn plays him an exquisite dirge about a woman dying during childbirth. It’s a song that means something to Llewyn, and he sings it with unfastened passion, but it’s not going to sell a lot of records. Grossman, poker-faced, tells Llewyn that there’s no money in a solo act—he’s OK, but not a frontman. He instead offers Llewyn a spot in a trio, but from where Llewyn stands, partners only bring grief. Llewyn hitchhikes back to New York with even less than he started with, affirmed that the best thing to do is to give up music and go back to the merchant marine. “I’m out. I’m done,” he says to his sometime-lover, Jean, as if to make sound more official. “I’m just fucking tired.”
When Llewyn is ready to commit to his Plan B with the merchant marine, he spends all the money we’ve seen him painstakingly accumulate over the course of the movie. He plays one last gig at the Gaslight (to open for Dylan) for some extra cash. After a raw rendition of “Fare Thee Well,” he tells the audience, more at peace than we’ve seen him, “That’s what I’ve got.” It’s clear that when Llewyn is playing, he’s the best version of himself. Though he’s never going to make enough for a winter coat, the music—or his basic need to perform—is going to come back, no matter how many times it beats him up.
Struggling for artistic fulfillment often means oscillating between two worlds, and confronting the temptation to burn the bridges between the two: courting financial ruin, leaving the cat behind, declaring before an audience that you are done. We default to thinking that we are Dylans, but there’s a lucidity that comes with realizing you are a Llewyn, and that you must, as Llewyn despairs, just exist. I might have only made enough money from writing last year to afford a winter coat from H&M, but no matter how many times I revisit the question, that and a cat are what I’ve got.