June 2007

Justin Taylor

fiction

The Last Novel by David Markson

The sign in the window says Pants Pressed Here. But when you bring in your pants, you discover that it is the sign that is for sale.
                        —Kierkegaard, quoted in Markson, The Last Novel

Time is the only critic without ambition.
                        —Steinbeck, ibid.

The author of several acclaimed works of literature (including Going Down and Springer’s Progress), David Markson is also the author of a handful of hard-boiled detective novels (he dismisses these today as “entertainments,” but two were recently reissued in a single volume), a critical study of Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano, and a book of poems. David Foster Wallace called Markson’s 1988 novel Wittgenstein’s Mistress, “pretty much the high point of experimental fiction this century.” He’s an innovative writer, an idiosyncratic thinker, and a living encyclopedia of literature, art, music, history, you name it.

Beginning with Reader’s Block in 1996, Markson has spent the last 11 years working within a genre he claims to have invented. Essentially, he produces book-length lists of some of the most interesting and/or scandalous minutiae in the history of Western culture (especially literary culture): Anne Bronte’s deathbed words to Charlotte; the fact that Tolstoy and Ghandi were correspondents; the legend that Virgil was born in a ditch; Gilles Deleuze committed suicide; Proust and Henri Bergson were cousins by marriage. Chesterton’s anti-Semitism; Heidegger’s; St. Augustine’s; e.e. cummings’s; Yeats’s; Graham Greene’s; and so on. And on and on and on and on and on. It’s beautiful, overwhelming at times, and nearly always fascinating. Naturally, an individual reader’s familiarity with and feelings about the persons under discussion will have more than a bit of bearing on how much any given factoid resonates. The fact that, “[t]wice, Remidios Varo... lived with two lovers at the same time” might have meant more to me if I had even the vaguest inkling of who Varo was. Of course, since we live in the Information Age, anyone can avail themselves of some quick context (Varo, it turns out, was a Spanish Surrealist painter who fled to Paris during the Spanish Civil War, then fled Paris during the Nazi occupation and ended up in Mexico City, where she lived the rest of her life until she died of a heart attack in 1963. See how easy that was?).

Reader’s Block is -- in Markson’s own words -- “[a] novel of intellectual reference and allusion, so to speak, minus much of the novel.” Such story as exists appears in the form of occasional reference to “Reader,” an aging author who sounds a lot like Markson, who happens to be sitting alone in a room with a massive pile of notes much like the notes that comprise the novel we are reading, deciding whether he has enough material to turn those notes into a novel. If that sounds obnoxious, that’s because it almost certainly would have been in lesser hands. Reader’s Block is a great book -- an accretion of historical fact and autobiography that through its virtuosity and daring becomes a masterful, truly singular work of fiction.

Or it would have been a singular work, except that Markson followed it up in 2001 with This is Not a Novel, a book exactly the same as Reader’s Block except for the fact that it’s different. “Reader” has been upgraded (?) to “Writer” and of course the list of factoids is all new. “Stephen Foster never learned which side won the Civil War”; “Machiavelli died of unidentified stomach spasms”; “Are we ever told what Addie Bundren dies of?”; “George Gissing died of pneumonia.” Though death is never far from Markson’s thoughts in any of these books, This is Not a Novel is perhaps the darkest. Its central theme is exhaustion. “Writer is pretty much tempted to quit writing. Writer is weary unto death of making up stories.”

In 2004, Vanishing Point upgraded “Writer” to “Author.”

The Last Novel opens this way: “There are six floors in Novelist’s apartment building. Then again, the paved inner airshaft courtyard is a basement level, making seven. And then the roof.” Right away we see that there has been another evolution in nomenclature -- from “Reader” to “Writer” to “Author” to “Novelist,” but you’d probably have to know -- as I happen to -- that Markson lives in a walkup in New York City to catch the real significance of this opener, which seems to be that Markson’s “novel” holds little if any pretense of being fiction. Gone is the narrative play between “Reader” and “Protagonist” that drives Reader’s Block, a book whose very title pulls productively in a number of directions: referring both to the inability of the writer named Reader to write a novel and to the fact of Markson’s novel’s potential to alienate, confuse, or otherwise “block” his readers. (It’s also a funny pun on the notion of “writer’s block,” which of course is what Reader is experiencing as he repeatedly tries and fails to create his fictional character, Protagonist, undermined by the fact that he really isn’t having writer’s block and he doesn’t fail, since Reader’s Block actually was completed and published.)

The Last Novel is a more straightforward affair. “Old. Tired. Sick. Alone. Broke. All of which obviously means that this is the last book Novelist is going to write... All of which also then gives Novelist carte blanche to do anything here he damned well pleases. Which is to say, writing in his own personal genre as... it were.” The candor is refreshing, sort of, but the sentiment behind it is something else again. Since Markson created this “personal genre” -- a cynic might suggest he’s done something more like “personalize” the already well-established practice of collage -- he’s experienced nothing but adulation: raves from the likes of Ann Beattie and Sven Birkerts, a second wind for his career, and the reissue of most of his back catalogue. I’m not trying to accuse Markson of anything here; it’s just that at this point he shouldn’t have anything to prove, at least not to his own readership. His personal genre requires no defending, and the fact that he thinks it does says more about him than it.

Markson takes some other bizarre stands in this book. He writes: “Future generations will regard Bob Dylan with the awe reserved for Blake, Whitman, Picasso and the like. Said an otherwise seemingly rational writer named Jonathan Lethem.” There are a few things wrong here. First, whatever Markson personally thinks of Bob Dylan, there’s almost no question that some substantive portion of Dylan’s work will live on, and that it will be treated just in the manner Lethem anticipates. Even stranger is the description of Lethem as an, “otherwise seemingly rational writer.” Markson assumes that the urge to beatify Dylan must be an aberration, rather than indicative or emblematic of a whole set of aesthetic and artistic values at least in part at odds with his own. I suspect Markson does not know that Lethem is a Dylan-obsessive, as well as a great fan of both contemporary music and sci-fi (cf. Lethem’s new rock novel You Don’t Love Me Yet, the Library of America Philip K. Dick, which he edited, his occasional writings for Rolling Stone). One suspects that if Markson knew anything about Lethem, he would find that the younger writer meets few -- if any -- of his standards for so-called rationality.

I don’t know what gets Markson’s goat about Dylan, a figure I would have heretofore assumed he would consider either outside the realm of his consideration or beneath it, but a page later we get this: “Bob Dylan, as poet: Sophomoric and obvious, said Ned Rorem,” followed immediately by, “Bob Dylan, as composer: Banal and unmemorable, Rorem aussi.” The first thought that came to my mind was, “who the hell is Ned Rorem?” If that colors me a philistine -- or, more like it, belies my age -- then so be it. A few Googles later, apparently Rorem is a classical composer who Time once called, “the world’s best composer of art songs,” but I’m still not sure why his opinion of Bob Dylan matters, except perhaps to prove Matisse’s point that an artist has no capacity to pass judgment on the generation following his own (Rorem, b. 1923; Markson, b. 1927; Dylan, b. 1941), a line Markson was smart enough to quote in Reader’s Block but which he seems to have either forgotten or changed his mind about in the decade hence.

Elsewhere he complains about, “People who actually believe that Christo’s tangerine-colored bed sheets fluttering about in New York’s Central Park had something even remotely to do with art.” As it happens, I’m with him on this one, but the weird mixture of smugness and whininess in his tone makes me cringe -- it’s the high-culture equivalent of, “this is what you kids call music?”

Here’s the one that really got to me, though. “Anyone who would employ the word diarrheic to describe a book as exactingly crafted in every line as Ulysses has either never read eleven consecutive words or possesses the literary perception of a rutabaga. Ulysses. Diarrheic, unquote. Dale Peck.”

Since Markson famously owns no computer, I’m going to assume he didn’t read that single line out of context on some blog, but neither can I assume that he actually read the essay it comes from, because if he had he would have realized just how thoroughly the would-be barb about the rutabaga makes him -- Markson, not Peck -- sound like a schmuck. There are a lot of reasons to hate Dale Peck, especially if you’re an author he’s had on his chopping block, but the essay that this single-word quote comes from is several thousand words long, and it is at least as intelligent as it is vitriolic. Peck’s disgust with Ulysses is well-known and apparently bottomless, but his description of, “the diarrheic flow of words in Ulysses” seems to me a perfectly reasonable assessment of the tone and pacing of many of that novel’s passages, in particular Molly Bloom’s chapter -- the book’s capstone. Obviously, the choice of adjective was intended to be pejorative -- Peck could have said “torrential” -- but I’m pretty sure Ulysses can take the hit. Besides, the two men have more in common than probably either would care to know. Despite their irreconcilable differences over Joyce, they share an intense disdain for Nabokov (Peck calls Nabokov’s novels “sterile inventions;” Markson, in This is Not a Novel, goes after Nabokov’s, “precious, pinchbeck, ultimately often flat prose” and the, “fundamentally uninteresting sum total of his work”).

As always, the truckload of factoids are reason enough to read Markson. As well, there are some narrative passages where he meets or surpasses his earlier benchmarks, including one thread about a cat that’s too good to ruin here. Though I wish this book were a bit better than it is, and that Markson wasn’t -- to use a word oft-applied to Dale Peck -- so bitchy throughout it, it’s still more than worth the price of admission. I hope this isn’t Markson’s Last Novel after all.

The Last Novel by David Markson
Shoemaker & Hoard
ISBN: 1593761430
208 Pages

Justin Taylor is the editor of The Apocalypse Reader, an anthology of 34 new and selected short stories about the end of the world. http://www.justindtaylor.net/