David Markson - Nonlinear. Discontinuous. Collage-like. An assemblage. I do not see why exposition and description are a necessary part of a novel

David Markson, The Last Novel (Shoemaker & Hoard, 2007)

"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." - Justin Taylor

"Just when one had started mourning the demise of avant-garde and postmodern fiction, buried under the avalanche of historical novels, chick lit and just plain old traditional stories, here comes David Markson's latest ''novel,'' ''The Last Novel,'' which is anything but a novel in any conventional sense of the term. Yet it manages to keep us enthralled during the length of its short 190-page span, and even moved to tears at the end.
And what a thrill it is to witness the performance, a real tour de force. What a surprise to enter this book and encounter three short sentences that seem to promise a conventional opening - a description of the building where ''Novelist'' lives - only to realize within a couple of pages that ''Reader'' has been tricked. But by that point ''Reader'' has fallen prey to ''Novelist's'' obsessive mind and has no hope of escaping. Well - not every reader, for sure. ''Listen, I bought your latest book,'' Markson quotes one reader as saying. ''But I quit after about six pages. That's all there is, those little things?''
Yes, that's all there is, those little things. Those itty-bitty, disconnected paragraphs that read like a litany of writers' and artists' triumphs and woes and many, many deaths. From first to last page. No chapters, no breaks. That's all there is.
Much as he did with his previous ''novels,'' ''Vanishing Point'' and ''This Is Not a Novel,'' which this one resembles, Markson does away with most narrative conventions - plot, colorful characters, dramatic conflict - to replace them with a collage of very short anecdotes, apocryphal legends, aphorisms, lurid gossip about writers and artists' lives and deaths - as they run through aging Novelist's fragmented consciousness. In fact, like a series of abstract paintings with small recurring patterns that strike similar notes with delicate variations in colors and details, those three books can be read as variations on the theme of aging. And this one, ''The Last Novel,'' might be the coda to the trilogy. Or maybe not. Who knows? Markson may have an ''Ultimate Novel'' or even a ''Posthumous Novel'' in the works.
Markson calls this book ''a novel of intellectual reference and allusion, so to speak minus much of the novel,'' and thus this book accumulates anecdotal material arranged in very short paragraphs, each no more than three or five lines, sometimes as short as a sentence, separated by a simple blank line. These lend themselves to startling and sometimes hilarious juxtapositions. Take these examples, all from the same two pages, among hundreds: ''Old age is not for sissies. / Said Bette Davis.'' ''Freud, born in 1856, being asked in 1936 how he felt: / How a man of 80 feels is not a topic for conversation.'' ''Shaw, at 94, being asked the same: / At my age, one is either well or dead.'' As in a fugal composition, an anecdote might be picked up a few pages later, or a passing thought might respond to an earlier one, mimicking Novelist's mind jumping around and coming back to its obsessions in tighter and tighter circles.
Markson belongs roughly to the same generation as John Updike and Philip Roth - and this book tackles a similar theme as Roth's ''Everyman'' - but his sensibility is closer to that of Joyce and Beckett, or to William Burroughs's collage technique, or again to Walter Abish, Gilbert Sorrentino or David Foster Wallace. But what it resembles most is a long poem.
In rhythm and tonality, if not in content, ''The Last Novel'' hints at the incantations of the Kaddish - it sometimes evokes the beat of Allen Ginsberg's ''Kaddish'' and ''Howl'' - and brings to mind the Renaissance complaints of the French poets Pierre de Ronsard and Joachim du Bellay." - Catherine Texier

"The Last Novel is again a fiction consisting of fragments, a collection of facts and quotes, with occasional commentary and a few personal observations. Markson has now written several of these, "in his own personal genre", and though the identification of the protagonist varies - it's 'Reader' in Reader's Block , 'Writer' in This is not a Novel, 'Author' in Vanishing Point, and now 'Novelist' - they are clearly one of a piece - though Markson goes out of his way to note:
Wondering if there is any viable way to convince critics never to use the word tetralogy without also adding that each volume can be readily read by itself ?
(Markson also includes a 'test' of sorts for reviewers, hoping to catch out the lazy ones who just flip through the book by, at one point, mentioning flinging his cat out the window - only to reveal a few pages later that he has never owned a cat.)
The titles of these books suggest what Markson is after: This is Not a Novel is already pure self-negation, and Vanishing Point just a different kind of absence. The Last Novel now insists on finality, presumably both of the form as well as the novelist's output. As in the previous books death, old age, and infirmity figure prominently: "Old. Tired. Sick. Alone. Broke." he sums up his condition several times, and elaborates on it occasionally. Deaths and death-dates are among the most common entries, and there are also frequent mentions of great artists who died poor or in debt.
Markson harps a good deal on reputation, offering both admiring quotes from artists (and others) about each other as well as devastating judgments. Some of this is petty - "I would go to considerable expense and inconvenience to avoid his company", he quotes Cheever about Updike - but generally it is fairly amusing. Indeed, remarkably enough Markson's assemblages continue to entertain: they make for a good read not just piece by piece but in sequence, which isn't as easy to pull off as one might imagine.
It seems familiar territory and yet there's still novelty to it, and it does add up to more than its pieces, not as a straight progression towards death or some sort of end, but as a book of reflection from near the (still unforeseeable) end of a writer's life.
Worthwhile - as are the other books of this informal tetralogy (which, yes, can be read and enjoyed separately)." - The Complete Review

"(N)otwithstanding the general morbidity of the scraps Novelist shares with us - not least about his own grim and lonely day-to-day life in Greenwich Village (well, he can’t be that bad off) - it’s impossible to be anything but invigorated by them en masse, by the clarity and wit of their arrangement, by the magic of Markson’s great trick: to assemble a work that gives us all the pleasure and poignancy of a novel without resorting to a single recognizable trope of novel-writing." - Jeremy M. Davies

"I cannot come to this review unbiased. Few new novels would excite me as much as one from David Markson, as he has been writing unusual and brilliant novels for decades at a slow and steady pace. Starting with 1996’s Reader’s Block, he has written three books that form a sort of trilogy (the other two being This is Not a Novel in 2001 and Vanishing Point in 2004) in a genre that is purely his own. To this informal series Markson now adds The Last Novel. Each is best described by Markson’s own words: one line of Markson’s that appears in some form in each of these novels and two quotations:
Nonlinear. Discontinuous. Collage-like. An assemblage.
I do not see why exposition and description are a necessary part of a novel.
Said Ivy Compton-Burnett.
I am quite content to go down to posterity as a scissors and paste man.
Said Joyce.
Not only does this brief excerpt describe the work, but it also gives the unfamiliar reader a taste of Markson’s style and provides a fine example of the collage-like juxtaposition of brief paragraphs that make up the entirety of the novel. The Last Novel is both very easy and very difficult to quote from. On one hand, it is filled with interesting, brilliant, funny, and depressing little bits of text, but on the other hand, shorn of the greater context the book begins to appear like some sort of reference work—unreadable and emotionally distant. This is distinctly not the case. The most successful of collages are a sum greater than the parts, and Markson’s work is successful. In the aggregate these collaged elements gain meaning and emotional power.
The brief paragraphs that make up The Last Novel can be generally but not exhaustibly cataloged as: quotations (attributed and not, but never in quotation marks); biographical fragments from artists, writers, philosophers, and others; and the brief thoughts of Novelist, the mostly absent protagonist of the book. The organization of these elements is “cryptic” (as Markson puts it), but one never feels that Markson is going about it randomly. The example above is an obvious use of meaningful juxtaposition; in other cases it is less so. Often one paragraph refers back to an earlier one, sometimes a few lines up, sometimes a few pages back (to wit: “The so-called Wicked Bible. Dated London 1632. / In which the word not was omitted in the seventh commandment,” and two pages later “Thou shalt commit adultery.”).
This requires an attentive reader and, sometimes, an educated one. Markson draws on an impressive array of sources, and I find it one of the joys of his work to identify one of the unattributed quotations or to make a connection between two paragraphs whose relation is obscure. This isn’t to say that reading the book requires a vast knowledge of history, philosophy, or the arts, but I believe much can be gained in the reading with such knowledge. One might consider Markson’s work an education in itself, for all the information that is offered in this slim novel.
When the stove is clean enough I shall turn on the gas.
Wrote Anna Wickham—twelve years before she hanged herself instead.
Where the synecdoche of tessera made a totality, however illusive, the metonymy of kenosis breaks this up into discontinuous fragments.
Somewhere declareth Harold Bloom.
It may be essential to Harold Bloom that his audience not know quite what he is talking about.
Commenteth Alfred Kazin—pointing out other immortal phrasings altogether.
How many of you are there in the quartet?
While information is not lacking, there is no plot to be found. The closest thing to a character—if one excuses the hundreds (thousands?) of historical and contemporary figures that appear in some context or another—is Novelist, an aging writer, whose thoughts punctuate the text at rare and widely separated points. Novelist is aging and really noticing it: his friends are dying, it’s harder to get around, he is forgetting things. The character, as the author of the book we are reading, adds a metafictional layer to the work, often commenting on the current novel or its predecessors:
Novelist’s personal genre. In which part of the experiment is to continue keeping him offstage to the greatest extent possible—while compelling the attentive reader to perhaps catch his breath when things achieve an ending nonetheless.
In this sense Markson once again describes his work better and more succinctly than anyone.
Shorn of plot and characters, a reader may wonder what there is to be found. Everything. Markson’s experimental style throws out the trappings of realism yet finds a reality more real than mere realism. Its evocation of the experiences of hundreds of personages reveals all the varieties of life: birth and death, success and failure, love and hate, art, religion, and philosophy.
Moreover, in a chapterless novel of short, one- or two-sentence paragraphs the reader finds no place to stop reading and put the book down. The forward movement is relentless from beginning to end, a constant barrage of accumulating passages that offer no escape from human life in all its infinite forms. What could seem a dry recording of facts is actually a moving reading experience.
If one can find no convenient place to stop, there is an endless number of places to start reading. Open the book and read a line. One is drawn to the next and the next. Without having to put together the “facts” of plot or character the reader is easily absorbed into the novel’s world of fragments. As I write this review I find myself picking up the book to find a quote and instead end up reading a handful of pages.
For the reader of any of Markson’s recent novels, The Last Novel will be familiar, but, while it will be familiar, it is not worn of pleasures and novelty. Markson is not working from a cookie cutter; rather his four most recent works display a planned and well-executed set of variations, an issue he addresses directly in this novel:
Reviewers who protest that Novelist has lately appeared to be writing the same book over and over.
Like their grandly perspicacious uncles—who groused that Monet had done those damnable water lilies nine dozen times already also.
This brief passage makes an excellent point about the novel in contrast to other forms of art. Variations and repetitions are much more frequent in painting or music than novels. While many authors take up the same themes time after time (Paul Auster is a good example of this), Markson’s recent works are very similar in form and content (though as far as I can tell he does not repeat his facts). Such variations are difficult to compare from one to the next, but if this variation is not clearly better than the others it is certainly no worse. I’ve read them all multiple times, and there is always something new to be found on the next page." - Derik Badman

David Markson, Vanishing Point : A Novel (Counterpoint, 2004)

"Vanishing Point busts our idea of a novel all to hell. It will endure for a long time, until some other writer creates a new kind of form." - Irving Malin

"To Markson's great credit, he doesn't dismiss traditionalist expectations; he enlists them, inviting the reader to solve what amounts to a literary whodunit half-hidden in the anecdotal mosaic." - Jennifer Howard

"An avant-gardist who squeezes an eerie amount of feeling from tight formal constraints, David Markson writes novels that play like withdrawals from an overinvested memory bank. In This Is Not A Novel and Wittgenstein's Mistress, Markson unspools brief anecdotes about writers, painters, musicians, and philosophers, and twists them slowly around central characters both bound and cocooned by the history that suffuses them. In Vanishing Point, that character is "Author," an aging writer at work on a novel to be constructed from index cards cataloguing more and more anecdotes. "A seascape by Henri Matisse was once hung upside down at the Museum of Modern Art in New York–and left that way for a month and a half," reads the first one, tipping off a litany of evocative tidbits that fall like dominoes. There's no overstating the sameness of Markson's approach, which presents little stories in one- or two-sentence blocks. But there's no overstating the revelatory nature of his patterns, either. Themes snake around the underbrush without ever showing their heads, and before long, it's clear that Vanishing Point is about what it truly means to live in a culture and die in its absence. Among the anecdotes' recurring motifs are quibbles and taunts, futility and defeat, and history's habit of resisting any logic but its own. Some yarns are pointed and leading ("Pope Sixtus IV... was forced to actually issue a bull threatening excommunication for anyone who did not return volumes borrowed from the Vatican library"), while others grab black-comedic handles ("Sir Francis Bacon died of what began as a chill during an experiment to see how long he could preserve a fowl by freezing it in snow"). Still others invoke a disquieting hum: "According to his own wish, Liszt's funeral was conducted without music." The surfeit of cultural information has a dispiriting effect in spells, but that same quality works even more to humanize cultural biggies and find solace in the power of their legends. Vanishing Point comes to an end as devastating as any literary form would seem to allow for, but it also offers a map of the magisterial ways that stories attach themselves to things both alive and dead, said and unsaid." - Andy Battaglia

"David Markson is often labeled the avant-garde writer's avant-garde writer, the cult favorite of a tiny cult. David Foster Wallace called Markson's novel ''Wittgenstein's Mistress'' (1988) ''pretty much the high point of experimental fiction in this country'' - for some readers, probably less high praise than a warning. But while even fans of Markson's witty, moving un-novels might admit that they're not for everyone, perhaps they should be. It helps to love poetry. Like Markson's other books, VANISHING POINT (Shoemaker & Hoard, paper, $15) strings together a series of atomic factoids about artists. ''Giacomo Puccini's fanatic addiction to duck hunting,'' reads one fragment. ''Nathaniel Hawthorne never learned which side won the Civil War,'' says another. At first, these tidbits seems random. But uneasy themes begin to build, among them the slicing intensity with which one artist critiques another (''A latrine, Baudelaire called George Sand.'') It emerges that these notes are research, the notecards of a elderly narrator called simply ''Author.'' And the facts he has compiled suggest a set of terrifying anxieties, all related to the possibility of creating lasting art. Our shadowy narrator seems to be struggling against time, and against his own material - trying to erase his authorial presence, but leaving, despite (or because of) his best efforts, a trail of anxious footnotes in the sand. It's a structural trick that's both evocative and gimmicky. And by its conclusion, ''Vanishing Act'' emerges as an effectively eerie act of ''seminonfictional semifiction'' - less storytelling than meditation, a musical rumination on the fear that underlies all creation." - Emily Nussbaum

"Vanishing Point is yet another Markson novel that, like the two preceding ones (Reader's Block and This is not a Novel), consists of titbits, observations, aracana, quotes, and the like. Entries are rarely more than two sentences long, and there are ten or so on every page. One of the first explains:
Author had been scribbling the notes on three-by-five-inch index cards. They now come close to filling two shoebox tops taped together.
These he tries to order in some meaningful and/or coherent way. He offers descriptions of the undertaking along the way, echoing his previous efforts - or, in some cases, quoting directly, as when he describes his undertaking as he had in Reader's Block:
Nonlinear. Discontinuous. Collage-like. An assemblage.
It is:
A seminonfictional semifiction.
Obstinately cross-referential and of cryptic interconnective syntax.
From the 'Reader' of Reader's Block to the 'Writer' of This is not a Novel, Markson has now moved on to 'Author', the central figure behind the texts - though for much of it not a very prominent one in them. Author crops up every now and then but isn't - or tries not to be - the focus of the book. Ultimately, hwoever, he can't escape it: it is his creation, and he, as guiding hand behind it, is an integral part of it.
The pieces of information offered to the reader generally revolve around the arts, and specifically artists. Recurring themes and subjects include: death and old age, above all, but also poverty, unrecognised and unacknowledged greatness, and unlikely greatness (writers with illiterate parents or who did poorly at school or didn't complete their educations). Sightings of the Wandering Jew pop up, chronologically following his trail to the end. Similarities are also noted: everything from artists who sat for the same portrait-painter to those who were illegitimate, etc. etc.
The bits and pieces cover the time from the ancient Greeks to now. Contemporary references include Jonathan Franzen (quoted - without attribution - as saying: "I feel like I'm solidly in the high-art literary tradition") and the editor of Harper's:
But now the garret is a thing of the past. A good writer is a rich writer, and a rich writer is a good writer.
Proclaimed an awesomely cognizant, incomparably discerning magazine editor named Lewis Lapham ca. 2001.
Even the events of 11 September 2001 get a mention.
Among other things, Vanishing Point is about the role of art and the possibility of art in our times. Author's perspective is that of the artist - and specifically the old artist, no longer in complete control of his body. He is concerned both about his own abilities and about what it means to be an artist.
The brief bursts of information, covering the familiar and the bizarre, are generally entertaining; certainly, the narrative never bogs down. And, like the two previous volumes of what does amount to a trilogy, all this does add up to more than its parts. Still: it's a hard trick to pull off thrice.
Vanishing Point is, perhaps, the final reductio ad absurdum, and Markson does, again, round it off nicely, but it doesn't hold quite the same power as Reader's Block or This is not a Novel. Still: a treat." - The Complete Review

"During his long life, the influential philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) lived according to the strictest regimen. Every day - as he pondered the unsolvable mysteries of God, freedom, and immortality - Kant would step outside his house for a long walk in the nearby woods. So perfectly precise was the freethinking Kant that his neighbors would set their clocks by his appearance on his doorstep, exactly at 3:30 pm every afternoon. Only once in thirty years did Kant fail to emerge for his daily walk. That was the day he ceased all his other activities to read a wild and radical book written by a French romantic: The Confessions, by Jean Jacques Rousseau.
For me, there is only one living author whose work is so original and compelling that I will drop and stop everything to read his latest book from page first to page last. That sublime author is David Markson. Markson's new book - the third in a series that follows Reader's Block and This Is Not A Novel - may be his best work yet.
Confessions are embarrassing but necessary. Years ago, in a review of Reader's Block, I wrote a sentence which became the title of the next book in the series: "This is not a novel." I loved the book, I wrote in that review, but I didn't then understand why the publisher classified the book a novel. Now, six years later, I might stick to my original assessment. Or I might say that Markson is writing experimental novels, guided by Emerson's motto: "Life consists in what a man is thinking all day long."
Vanishing Point is a bouillabaisse of the author's reflections about life, death, writers, artists, history, and love. The passages, approximately ten per page, range from a few words to a few sentences. Many are funny, some saddening, some perplexing. For example, there is an entry that says simply:
"112 Mercer Street
Princeton, New Jersey."
Although I have walked by that house hundreds of times, I cannot now remember if that is the former residence of Albert Einstein, or some other scientific or artistic luminary. Other nuggets are more direct and crystalline:
"Charlotte Bronte mailed off the unsolicited, pseudonymous manuscript of Jane Eyre to a London publisher on August 24, 1847. And saw it in print seven weeks and four days later."
Which of course makes you wonder why it takes modern publishers - with printing presses that can make more than ten thousand books per hour - far longer to get a book in print: usually one to two years from the time the manuscript is accepted.
This is not a novel, it is an experience. I grab a pencil, cancel all my appointments and read for hours and hours on end. I make marks on (is the author's name a subtle pseudonym: Marks on?) every page: probably 40 percent of my paperback copy is now marked with notes, asking me to find out more about this person, idea, or theme.
In Alfred Hitchcock's films, the great director would appear for one brief instant. Markson is equally enigmatic, although in this book we catch more glimpses of him, as he worries aloud about symptoms of his old age. But we can't quite believe that this author is losing it, since the words are so brilliant, and the photo on the book's back cover shows a white-haired man who looks cheerful, intelligent, serene.
Vanishing Point is hilarious, pensive, stunning, thought-provoking all at once. One profound surprise after another, like the illuminating Zen koans. Yet the book is far better than the koans: you get all the enlightenment and revelations without the beatings from the master's stick." - Michael Pastore

"David Markson is one of those wonders of American literature, a great comic original. Now 76, he’s published six novels, a single slim volume of poetry, a book-length critical study of the novelist Malcolm Lowry, and three detective novels that he calls "entertainments." In 1966, he published The Ballad of Dingus Magee, which was later made into what he calls an "awful film" with Frank Sinatra (1970’s Dirty Dingus Magee) that nonetheless kept him afloat for a while. Although that novel was intended as a Western, a "straight commercial genre novel," Markson says he couldn’t help "turning the entire myth upside down — everybody a coward or an incompetent, all the women unappetizing, that sort of thing."
Markson has been turning genre expectations upside down ever since, publishing the Joycean sexual comedy Springer’s Progress in 1977 and then in 1988 Wittgenstein’s Mistress, which many consider his masterwork. Here a woman who may or may not be the last person alive on earth contemplates her life, mostly by free-associating about art and culture in paragraphs of no more than a sentence or two each. Kate weaves a complex web of those cultural free-associations, where a stray reference to Turner and the Tate Gallery or to a biography of Brahms can return 100 pages later, transformed. In the closing pages, Kate’s isolation and despair become exquisite.
David Foster Wallace has called Wittgenstein’s Mistress "pretty much the high point of experimental fiction in this country," and its champions include Ann Beattie, William Kennedy, and James McCourt. It was rejected 54 times before finding a publisher.
In that light, it would be easy to call the subject matter of Markson’s last three novels artistic frustration. In them, the central character has all but disappeared. In Reader’s Block (Dalkey, 1996), the character is introduced as "Reader" ("Reader has come to this place because he had no life back there at all"). In This Is Not a Novel, Reader has become Writer ("Writer is pretty much tempted to quit writing"). Now, in Vanishing Point, Writer has become Author ("Author has finally started to put his notes into manuscript form.")
But as in the previous two novels, the narrative presence in Vanishing Point soon moves to the margins — those free associations from Wittgenstein’s Mistress have become an internal monologue untethered from character and plot. "A seascape by Henri Matisse was once hung upside in the Museum of Modern Art in New York — and left that way for a month and half." "The speedometer needle after the crash that killed Albert Camus was frozen at 145, in kilometers — meaning roughly ninety miles per hour."
So the anecdotes and the aphorisms proceed, a few sentences at a time — misunderstood artists, the deaths of artists, the poverty of artists, the abuse heaped by one great artist upon another ("Tolstoy to Chekhov: You know I can’t stand Shakespeare’s plays, but yours are worse"), the prodigious output of some artists and the unprolific perfectionism of others, artists’ mental illness. There are recurring examples of anti-Semitism ("Chopin. By whom the words Jew and pig were used interchangeably."), references to the Wandering Jew, to opera (with special admiration for Maria Callas), painting, poetry, philosophy, science. At some points, Author questions himself or refers to his failing health, but mostly he stays in the background, manifested only in the comic precision of his voice, the implied tragic "plot" of his variations.
Markson separates these juxtapositions with a line of white space. Sometimes a series of items will be linked, most often not. Occasionally a specific reference will be picked up a couple of pages after its first reference, but there’s nothing here like the density of Wittgenstein’s Mistress. Instead, there’s a light, propulsive rhythm, one item carrying relentlessly into the next. In some places, an isolated reference may be completely unidentified, and it’s left to the lower-case reader to connect the dots ("27, rue de Fleurus" faces a page with a quote from Gertrude Stein). Over the course of two pages near the end of the book, Markson offers an unannotated list of places, times, and dates of various deaths, and if you can identify "Ketchum, Idaho. Soon after dawn. July 6, 1962." but not "Kierling, near Vienna. Noon. June 3, 1924.", well, that’s just your luck.
But Markson isn’t playing a parlor game. When one interviewer offered a comparison between Beckett’s isolated characters and Markson’s Kate, he answered, "The isolation there [in Beckett] is in some ways almost outside of ‘culture,’ whereas my own woman bears the full burden of it." Elsewhere in that interview, he refers to Kate as an "intellectual bag lady." In Vanishing Point, those bags have been revealed to contain the stuff of life, and it’s exhilarating." - John Garelick

"There is often truth in an author's belief that reviewers are hostile to invention. Dale Peck, with his jeremiads in Hatchet Jobs: Writings on Contemporary Fiction on the works of DeLillo, Pynchon, Faulkner, William Gaddis and Rick Moody, presents the spectacle of one angry man in a rope pull against Titans. The London Review of Books, proud to be heterodox when it comes to political and social issues, is staid in its opinions concerning fiction, while the Times Literary Supplement also disappoints. Middlebrow writers such as E. Annie Proulx, Louis de Bernires and Roddy Doyle are brand names reviewers respect, and the tiny portion of criticism tucked into a 600-word encapsulation of their latest effort keeps intact the front that the write-up isn't an advertisement. Most reviewers choose to rehash the plot instead of mounting an argument with the work. The late Frederick Karl offered a handy distinction on the current reception of novels: "Fiction has been Balkanized, with most reviewers and critics taking up the cudgels for the conventional and the easily comprehended; while in the universities and among academic readers there is greater acceptance of the more intractable fiction of the Mega-Novelists." In the mainstream media, writers who push the form of the novel are called experimental-e.g., Harry Mathews, Joseph McElroy and David Markson-and get little extended attention. When they are noticed, it's often by a Dale Peck.
As with Reader's Block (1996) and This Is Not a Novel (2001), Markson almost entirely rejects plot in his latest novel, presenting material in the form of notes written on index cards. (The same approach is found in Reader's Block, where the characters are Reader' and Protagonist', and in This Is Not a Novel, where the character is called Writer'.) The only figure presented in Vanishing Point is Author'. The first line reads: "Author has finally started to put his notes into manuscript form." What follows is a series of quotations mainly connected to history and art. Here is a representative sequence:
Schmucks with Underwoods, Jack Warner called writers.
Four different horses were shot out from under Ney at Waterloo.
I do not write for the public.
Said Hopkins.
I am not a poet by trade; I am a professor of Latin.
Said Housman.
A seminonfictional semifiction.
Obstinately cross-referential and of cryptic interconnective syntax.
Probably by this point more than apparent-or surely for the attentive reader.
As should be Author's experiment to see how little of his own presence he can get away with throughout.
Author would like to give out little, but his health is frequently mentioned: "In fact why has Author now and again even found himself taking a nap, which he cannot recall having ever done before in his entire adult life?" The preceding is a modest complaint, but not so the nagging apprehension about why he scuffs his feet. His memory has been affected-"Forgetting by now that Freida Lawrence's brother was Baron Manfred von Richthofen"-and this indicates, when put together with Author's half-hearted admission that he "probably ought to see a neurologist" about his missteps, that he is deteriorating. Near the end, notes are repeated from earlier pages, and there is talk of light, of legends, of a wasted life. At the close are remarks made to "Dad" to which there are no responses. Vanishing Point ends with the word selah, glossed as "pause, or rest."
The quotations are often mordant one-liners on morbidity and failure, and on the reputations of works and their creators. Author presents details of Camus's death after recording that a painting by Matisse had hung upside down for six weeks before anyone noticed. Or he will present this kind of opinion: "Translator's English, John Wain called Susan Sontag's prose." At times the cryptic notes prompt the reader to search for the source of an obscure quote, or they give pleasure with the sparkly bits of information which Author has kept like a crow. "Diderot, who was known to gesticulate excessively in conversation-and was seen to slap Catherine the Great repeatedly on the thighs. At which the empress was merely amused." Occasionally, we get Markson's wit, as in this entry: "Wittgenstein's Vienna. Wittgenstein's Nephew. Wittgenstein's Ladder. Wittgenstein's Poker." This list of published books leaves out Markson's novel Wittgenstein's Mistress (1988), and thereby cleverly calls attention to it.
While the bulk of Vanishing Point is entertaining, gradually it is shown that night is descending on the note-maker. When the speech of one of Author's children is given in the last pages, we are pulled out of the fiction we were immersed in-the interior musings of Author-and brought into a more subtle fiction, in which Author is a character who may be mentally disoriented, possibly catatonic, and might have only imagined that he was putting his notes "into manuscript form." The narrator, until now almost invisible, forces the reader to re-examine the novel and search for any hints earlier in the book that this is how things would turn out. It's a risky move, and Markson handles it adroitly. His frail, aging Author, shuffling mental index cards on which the culture and history of the western world has been boiled down, becomes a post-modernist emblem when the narrative undercuts his authority.
Confounding an audience is a risk writers need to take, though it's no great blessing if this means one is labelled experimental. Gabriel Josipovici's essay, "Conclusion: From the Other Side of the Fence, or True Confessions of an Experimentalist", from The Mirror of Criticism (1983), sets out that burden, and his words can be taken as encouragement to those who don't want to write another predictable narrative that doesn't contribute to the advancement of literature:
"It is a shock to any artist who has only thought of getting things right', of pinning down that elusive feeling which is the source and end of all creative activity, to wake up one morning and find himself labelled experimental'. Yet that is what happened to me.... [M]ost other reviews I received for those two novels, Migrations and The Air We Breathe, seemed to share the same assumptions: there are writers and there are experimental writers; the experimental' is a sub-branch of fiction, rather like teenage romances or science fiction perhaps, but differing from them in being specifically highbrow, and, like other highbrow activities, such as abstract painting and classical music, it is totally unconnected with the real world; however, we should tolerate this for the health of art (and to show how tolerant we are).... [F]iction reviewers still see themselves as somehow the guardians of the point of view of the man in the street. "
Many authors, certainly Markson's Author, would agree with all that. Too many reviewers would acknowledge the accuracy of the last statement, and, unfortunately, see little wrong with it." - Jeff Bursey

"In his wonderful short story "See the Moon," Donald Barthelme wrote, "Fragments are the only forms I trust."
Since then, the phrase frequently has been misappropriated by critics of postmodernism to oversimplify its aims and effects.
But for David Markson, it seems to have served as a lodestar, guiding the deceptively casual construction of his most recent novels, including Vanishing Point, which is slated to be released in paperback next month.
Following the style of the two novels immediately prior to this one - Reader's Block and This Is Not a Novel - Markson attempts a "seminonfictional semifiction" from the perspective of an unnamed narrator, in this case "Author."
Brief glimpses of Author are interspersed with anecdotal items on artists, writers, philosophers, scientists, musicians, athletes and historical figures - collected odds and ends from a life spent in study and thought.
What reads initially as random trivia develops a shape and sense as the novel progresses, moving the furtive narrative along and creating significant dramatic tension.
Ideas recur throughout the scattering of anecdotes, creating the themes upon which the novel rests. Among the most significant of these is the history of a sort of accepted plagiarism within the domains of art and philosophy:
Remembering that Bizet's Carmen is based on a novel by Prosper M?rim?e.
Not remembering that the M?rim?e is in turn based on a narrative poem by Pushkin.
And perhaps the only way to make something new of the images that have been with us for centuries is to experiment with the forms in which they are presented:
To write only according to the rules laid down by previous classics signifies that one is not a master but a pupil.
Said Prokofiev.
There is also a preoccupation with death and illness, paired with an ongoing internal argument over the value of a life spent creating. In fact, at one point Markson fills a page-and-a-half with a listing of dates and locations of notable deaths without naming the dead. This habit of invoking death was established in Reader's Block and This Is Not a Novel, but here it resonates even more powerfully as it parallels the aging Author's decline.
Vanishing Point might easily have belabored the point of the structure of the earlier books, but instead its profundity and pathos make it the crowning achievement in Markson's experiment. Which is no small feat given the measure of his contribution to postmodern fiction. Like Barthelme, he avoids the tendency of experimental fiction to become a clinical manipulation of language that eliminates the human soul of literature. His methods are unorthodox, but the responses he elicits from the reader are those to which all literature aspires.
Particularly touching is the image of Author - even as he exists within this postmodern format - as a traditionalist, a writer who is frustrated by the dearth of ribbons and repair shops for the manual typewriter he continues to use and the waning emphasis placed on scholarship in our culture.
Markson anticipates the failure of some readers to understand his work in the second paragraph of the book:
A seascape by Henri Matisse was once hung upside down in the Museum of Modern Art in New York - and left that way for a month and a half.
He revisits the anecdote two pages later:
One hundred and sixteen thousand viewers had strolled past Le Bateau, the upside-down Matisse, without comment, before it was rehung correctly.
As this premonition indicates, Vanishing Point is not for everyone. The too-casual reader will miss a lot. But the rewards for the serious reader are enormous, from both the story that Markson makes of his fragments and the nostalgic beauty of the fragments themselves." - Christy Zempter

David Markson, This Is Not a Novel (Counterpoint, 2001)

"Once again, Markson has created a wonderfully intricate artifact, a kind of literary Chinese box in which we're never sure if the author has written himself into the narrative and allowed us a peek at the inner sanctum of his creative misery, or simply fooled us into thinking he has. (...) This Is Not a Novel is the work of a long-neglected and long-suffering author finally at the apex of his powers." - Damon Smith

"Markson's book is 190 pages of interesting words or sentences (.....) They create associations the way soap bubbles pack into cubes and hexagons. Every reader will find a different order hiding in this kaleidoscopic randomness." - Guy Davenport

"What remains is part commonplace book, part melancholic catalog of loss, part fugue, part epic poem of unnumbered cantos, part portrait of the artist, and, taken as a whole, a great read - a read really like no other." - Paul Maliszewski

"Somehow, the momentum of the book is as forward-moving as any narrative. As you turn the pages, you realize that there is a story being told, the story of a character you come to care deeply about. When Writer reveals a devastating truth on the book's very last page, one that puts in context all the preceding preoccupations, your heart wrenches." - Maria Russo

"This Is Not a Novel memorializes the treasures and detritus of one man's singularly cultured mind. (...) If you don't know Writer's work at all, try This Is Not a Novel. There may be some doubt about exactly what kind of book it is, but not that it's altogether wonderful." - Michael Dirda

"This is Not a Novel bears many similarities to Markson's previous work, Reader's Block. It is presented in the same epigrammatic style: short, separate sentences and brief episodes, largely (though not entirely) unconnected. In This is Not a Novel the figure behind the book is "Writer", whereas in Reader's Block it was "Reader" and "Protagonist", but the foci and preoccupations remain similar.
There is much talk of death, as the various causes of the deaths of literally hundreds of prominent people are mentioned. Writer gets quite carried away with the subject - much as Markson had in Reader's Block as well. In one of the longer sections of This is Not a Novel he writes:
Writer incidentally doing his best here - insofar as his memory allows - not to repeat things he has included in his earlier work.
Meaning in this instance the four hundred and fifty or more deaths that were mentioned in his last book also.
There are other preoccupations as well: the number of people attending the funerals of a variety of figures, people who talk to themselves, people who were short, misspelt titles and words ("F.Scott Fitzgerald's spelling: Ullyses"), criticisms of of well-known works and people. There are gibes at Harold Bloom's speedreading claims. Mentions of people who didn't bathe frequently. Baseball notes (including the causes of death of Tinker and Evers and Chance). There are many literary quotes, some ascribed to their authors, some not. Sometimes Markson just writes a name ("Martha Argerich") or a place ("Berchtesgaden").
What is it all ? Whatever Writer wants it to be. "This is also even an autobiography, if Writer says so."
It is certainly personal: "About an old man's preoccupations", Writer suggests near the end. The concerns about health, about death, about posterity dominate. Writer is obviously displeased with some of the critical reaction he has received for his previous work, and he revels in the mistaken judgements about various classics that others have made ("There is no foulness conceivable to the mind of man that has not been poured into its imbecile pages. / Said Alfred Noyes of Ulysses."). Writer is clearly concerned about his death and his legacy.
This is Not a Novel is a testament. The first sentence is: "Writer is pretty much tempted to quit writing." Pretty much, as most readers know, isn't enough to tempt most writers, of course, and so the book doesn't end there, but rather begins. Still, as a whole the book is a summing up, a sort of a last hurrah. When he does finally reach the end one can imagine him truly giving up writing.
The work, perhaps, might survive, and Markson in it or with it: that seems the hope. Horace and Ovid are quoted to similar effect.
Near the end Markson quotes "the last words of the original edition of The Anatomy of Melancholy", and then he uses them again, unattributed, for the very last words of his own novel. An appropriate close.
It is an odd work, but remarkably gripping despite its lack of much of a plot or narrative or characters or most anything one expects from a novel. But it is not merely a collection of sentences, either. There is a flow, a building-up, and a conclusion. And the ride along the way is surprisingly enjoyable.
It is similar to Reader's Block, and for those familiar with that work the style and approach will not be as excitingly novel as for those who haven't read it. But, regardless of whether or not one has read Markson's previous work, This is Not a Novel - whatever it is - is well worthwhile "- The Complete Review

"David Markson has produced one of the most creative and delightful books I’ve read in ages. It is a non-novel novel, a book of fascinating sophisticated trivia, certainly a bit arcane, even pompous, but very funny and intriguing. Lots of fun.
The book consists of four sorts of “entries.” Each entry is usually a single sentence, a very few being two or three sentences. There are about 10-12 such paragraph/sentences per page, virtually none of them being related to the one before. The four categories of entries are:
Things about “Writer” (David Markson) and the writing of this book.
The arcane trivia entries
The theme of death, primarily by over 100 listings of cause of death of relatively famous people.
What I will call puzzles.
In the opening few pages there are about a dozen entries in which the “Writer” theme gets established. A few of these will set the tone.
“Writer is pretty much tempted to quit writing.”
“Writer is weary unto death of making up stories.”
“Writer is equally tired of inventing characters.”
“Does Writer even exist?”
“Obviously Writer exists.”
“Not being a character but the author here.”
“Writer is writing, for heaven’s sake.”
This is to be a novel with no intimation of a story or characters, plotless and characterless, yet:
“Yet seducing the reading into turning pages nonetheless.”
And seduce me it did. I think there is no question he achieved most of what he says he set out to do, but is there really no character? I tended to think of Writer as a character more than just as the author talking aloud. Thus I’m not quite convinced it is totally without a character.
These quips, if I may call them that, which I quote above and some which will follow, are not clustered together and usually appear alone, separated by several pages. But Writer has a curious view of his power to decide what this book is. There are many things Writer thinks this book may be. I enjoyed those. But Writer’s insistence that merely his saying that these things are so makes them so was not as convincing to me. More samples:
“This is even a mural of sorts, if Writer says so.”
“This is also an autobiography if Writer says so.”
“This is also a continued head of riddles, if Writer says so.”
“Or even a polyphonic opera of a kind, if Writer says that.”
“Or an ersatz prose alternative to The Waste Land, if Writer so suggests.”
“Or a treatise on the nature of man, if Writer so labels it.”
One by one he can make the case that elements of this non-novel is anyone of these things, but what puzzled me was: is it actually Writer’s saying so that makes it so, or is it the content of the work which makes it so. Despite the cuteness of Markson’s insistence, my own notion of aesthetics and criticism is such that I think it is the book that Writer produced which is what it is, no matter what Writer himself may think or claim.
Toward the very end, in the last few pages, were the descriptions which to me best summed up what this book is:
“Nonlinear, Discontinuous, Collage-line. An assembly."
"Simply an unconventional, generally melancholy though sometimes even playful now-ending read?”
The most puzzling claim for me that Writer made was that this book had:
“Indeed with a beginning, middle and end.”
The only way I could find such things were that the first few pages could mathematically be called the beginning, the pages from about 90-100 of this 190 page book could be considered the middle by simple division and the last 10 pages the end. Other than that I could find no criterion which suggested those divisions.
In pure bulk, this is a book of very arcane, fascinating and funny trivia. I just loved reading it. Again, like Writer's comments, the bulk of these items were one single sentence. A few were longer, but the longest I think was a five line alleged exchange between Napoleon and his secretary:
"Well, Bourrienne, you too will be immortal.
"Why, General Bonaparte?
"Are you not my secretary?
"Tell me the name of Alexander's.
"Hmmm, that's not bad Bourrienne."
Another delight was a story of Johann Strauss Jr.’s wife asking Brahms for his autograph. According to Markson’s story Brahms sketched out the first couple of lines of the music of The Blue Danube and then gave the autograph line below as:
“Alas, this is not by Johannes Brahms.”
But I think my favorite bit of all is the claimed line of Allan Bloom telling The New York Times that he could read 500 pages an hour. Markson has a ball with this, first with this bit of fun math:
“Spectacular exhibition! Right this way ladies and gentlemen! See Professor Bloom read the 1961 corrected and reset Random House edition of James Joyce’s Ulysses in one hour and thirty-three minutes. Not one page stinted. Unforgettable!”
“What’s this? Can’t spare an hour and a half? Wait, wait. Our matinee special, today only. Watch Professor Bloom eviscerate the Pears-McGuinness translation of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus – eight minutes and twenty-nine seconds flat. Guaranteed.”
Writer is on a role and some thirty pages later still can’t leave it alone:
“Did Professor Bloom take any books with him, do you know?
Someone said he had a twenty-six volume complete Joseph Conrad. It’s only a weekend cruise”
But most of the quips are one-liners and zingers at that.
Of course one is left to wonder, are these really so? That is, do these stories exist in the literature or does Writer simply make them up? Or, if they are in the historical literature, just how seriously should we take them, what sources are they from? None of this is revealed, and that should only worry us were we to be scholars wanting to learn very odd and strange things about famous people in literature, art and music.
Regardless of the trustworthiness of any given item, I suggested that this book would make the very best set of trivia questions available to us. On my view of the game out of Markson, one would spin the first dial to pick randomly one of the 190 pages. Then another spin would pick a number up to 12 (there are rarely more than 12 items on a page and usually very close to that many). Then the players would have to take what is given, from a sentence to a title to a name, and elaborate on this item. The group would award points from 1-10 depending on the assumed accuracy of the reply and relevance to the clue itself. Hmmmm, I think I’ll try to game at a party one of these days.
The third theme of the non-novel is death. Writer is utterly fixated on it and there are well over 100 sentences which simply record an alleged cause of death of an alleged noteworthy person (no question about it – he certainly stumped me on some of the entries). Many of the examples are quite simple, heart attack, cancer and so on. Some are a bit more exotic. A few random examples are:
Eight people appeared at Robert Musil’s funeral.
Ives died of heart disease compounded by diabetes.
J. R. R. Tolkien died of a chest infection while hospitalized for something else.
Callas died in Paris, of a heart attack
And was buried from a Greek Orthodox church on the Rue Georges Bizet.
Billie Holiday died of a kidney infection after years of heroin abuse.
John Singer Sargent died reading Voltaire.
A son of Ring Lardner’s died fighting with the Lincoln Brigade in Spain in 1938.
A son of Ring Lardner’s died as a correspondent when his jeep hit a land mine in WWII.
Berlin died at one hundred of old age alone, evidently.

Isak Dinesen died of what was recorded as emaciation.
The final theme is what Writer seems to view as puzzles, but it isn’t clear what they are. Given that there are dozens of entries which are simply a name, seemingly a title, seemingly a “famous” quote (again, stumped me a lot), I take it that the puzzle is simply to figure out what in the world the entry is doing in the book.
I loved the book. I couldn’t put it down. I read and howled with laughed, I chucked many a more gentle chuckles, I marveled at some claims and doubted their veracity. I wearied a bit at all the causes of death, particularly the frequent repeats of relatively common causes. But in answer to Writer’s hope at one point:
“Yet seducing the reading into turning pages nonetheless.”
Ah, there’s not doubt about it, I read and turned the pages like a would be Allan Bloom and then even hurried to the internet to order more of his works." - Bob Corbett

"Experimental. You have to be in the mood, I told myself. It didn't help, and I often felt myself growing impatient with this not a novel in which each page of the book contains roughly twelve lines—total—some lines consisting of no more than a single sentence, or word, or proper name. Like running down lists, rather than reading, and starting off on a negative, this is not... and promising me a lot of work.
On the cover is a stamp-sized reproduction of a painting by Magritte, a nude seen from behind with abundant brown hair flowing to the small of her back. She stands in a blue evening landscape with a crescent moon resting fractions above her head. The title of the painting is, The Evening Gown. Ha, ha. It's Magritte; absurd, surreal, fun.
A Duchamp on the cover might have been more to the point. Duchamp quarreled with the old formalities of making art; painting in particular was finished. He put out his ready-mades, his glass brides and chocolate-machine bachelors, his urinal, and so on; art could no longer speak as it had spoken before. Duchamp made his revolution and stuck to it. Or did he? Anyone who has seen his final work, installed at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the one he spent twenty years making in secret (while everyone believed he was merely playing chess), knows that that is not quite the case. Duchamp's ultimate revolution may well be the installation. The piece is brilliant and potent, big, enigmatic. Go see it. You will experience a shock, but you will also experience all the formal values of art making. The work taut, without so much as a hair out of Duchamp's creative control. Original, narrative, absurd, beautiful, funny... Go see it.
Magritte never quarreled with painting as medium, as voice. He used the genre in a way that was new and ironic, but also visually interesting and even pleasing. His quirky take is to tease the viewer into going to an unexpected place. David Markson wants his book to go to an unexpected place too, and it does, finally, and the way it gets their is unique. But if you look at the Magritte on the cover, and don't know the title, you will still see a completed painting. A narrator is not required on that level. Once you know the title, you will likely be piqued enough to move on to another level, the one Magritte hopes you will visit. Yet, you will still have a painting, pure and simple. What do you have with THIS IS NOT A NOVEL?
Is it a novel or not? The author says he is weary of plots, of making up stories, tired too of all the other tools of the novel-making trade. Is it too obvious to ask, why go there, then? Oh, yes, I forgot, it's experimental. The purpose of the experiment—I am guessing—is, in a sense, to connect the dots between lists of informative items and the function of literature without anything happening at all in terms of story. The danger is that the book reads more like a cultural Guinness Book of World Records. Or, say, the Anthology of Nonsense (there is such a book, I have it) and expecting it to be more than what it is, a compilation.
However, there is, after all, a character in THIS IS NOT A NOVEL. The character is called Writer (capitol W), and
Writer is none other than the author himself. Writer speaks periodically throughout what ends up as a kind of non-chronological, non-subject oriented list of quotations made by or about famous people by other famous people, for example: "The greatest lesbian poet since Sappho, Auden called Rilke." Or, "What artists do cannot be called work. Says Flaubert's Dictionary of Accepted Ideas." There are also quotations from literary works, like Joyce's The Dead. The book also contains commentary on artistic works; musical, visual, and also philosophical works. These last come out mostly in the form of factoids, such as, "Piero Della Francesco's father was a shoemaker." Or, "Frida Kahlo's affair with Leon Trotsky." Or, "Debussy's first wife shot herself. As had a mistress, earlier." As well, the book contains historical tidbits about the celebrated: "Plato talked too much, Diogenes said. While dismissing Socrates as a lunatic altogether." And historical anecdote: "Philip of Macedon: If I reach Lacedaemon, not one stone will I leave upon another. The Spartans: If."
At times the book is downright gossipy, a kind of Robin Leach special on dirt of the culturally elite and famous.
Writer positions the quotes, and facts and literary passages in ways suggestive of neither intent or purpose. In fact, very little is clear in terms of purpose. The overwhelming list, the list-of-lists, running alongside the others, in THIS IS NOT A NOVEL, is the one that states the means by which many of these famous folk died. Why? We'll get to that—I hope.
The glue that holds the book together is Writer. Writer, and the lists of deaths. (Are you following me, reader? I'm confused myself, so I thought I'd ask.) Okay, I will make it easier by quoting and paraphrasing, starting with the premise as stated by Writer himself: "Writer is pretty much tempted to quit writing. Writer is weary unto death of making up stories. Writer is equally tired of inventing characters. A novel with no intimation of story whatsoever, writer would like to contrive. And with no characters. None. Plotless. Characterless. Yet seducing the reader into turning pages nonetheless."
Okay: Mission stated. And your mission, dear reader, should you choose to accept, is to pick up the gambit. Will you turn the pages or not?
Writer goes on: "Actionless, Writer wants it. Which is to say, with no sequence of events. Which is to say, with no indicated passage of time. Then again, getting somewhere in spite of this. Indeed, with a beginning, a middle, and an end. Even with a note of sadness at the end. A novel with no setting. With no so-called furniture. Ergo meaning finally without descriptions." (A touch Beckettian there, no?)
I'll speed things up, paraphrasing again: no central motivation, conflict, social theme; no depiction of manners or morals, without symbols, or subject. Can Writer do it? Writer asks. Will Writer have readers? he queries. He even asks, does Writer exist in a book without characters?
Right around here—amidst these questions—is tossed in a quote from Flaubert: "Hatred of the bourgeois is the beginning of all virtue." (I found that telling, but I admit, I'm guessing at what.) Writer concludes that he does exit because he is writing, not as a character, but as author.
Spinning a circle or two, logically speaking, and running the risk of becoming cute here and there. (That was me 'talking,' by the way. And while we're at it, this has turned into an experimental non-review, officially. By which I mean, I am free to interject my voice as non-reviewer as I see fit. As I have already done—as Writer does. This could get to be fun.)
Are we becoming Cartesian yet? Writer has headaches he states. He also has a word processor out of which written things emerge as he works, therefore this is a novel, no? But wait, it gets clearer, I promise, on page seventeen. Here, I think, is the ultimate rational for THIS IS NOT A NOVEL: "'This is a portrait of Iris Clert if I say so.' Said Robert Rauschenberg in a telegram to a Paris art gallery."
From that quote on, Writer becomes a touch contentious. He uses Rauschenberg's argument to assert what he had before doubted: "This is a novel if Writer or Robert Rauschenberg says so." And later, "This is even an epic poem, if Writer says so. Requiring no one's corroboration."
There it is, defiance! This is also (not) a novel of artistic defiance! I'll speed things up again with paraphrase: the book is also, if Writer says so: a series of cantos, a mural, a continued heap of riddles, a kind of polyphonic opera, a writer talking to himself in a book sans characters. And, also, an "ersatz prose alternative" to The Wasteland if Writer says. (Let's try this: Simon says: I'm novel. I'm a novel! That was me again, voice of non-reviewer.) Finally, the book is a treatise on the nature of man, or an anthology of suicide notes, if Writer...
You get the idea. Something in all this reminds me of the Lenny Bruce bit where the old candy store owner opens a bottle one day, releasing a genie who grants his wish to go to Atlantic City, while the genie will stay behind to mind the store. An old customer comes in and wants to know what a genie knows about running a candy store. The genie answers, I'm a genie, I can do anything. Okay, says the old customer, make me a malted. Poof, you're a malted, declares the genie.
We now have to mention the list of famous deaths. Here are a few, I paraphrase again: Racine died of an abscessed liver. Chaim Soutine of stomach ulcers. Tennessee William's choked on the cap of a nasal sprayer—to death. Dorothy Parker died of heart attack. (There are lots of those, and pulmonary deaths seem high among creative types, alcoholism too.) Gary Cooper died of lung cancer. Verdi died of stroke, Simone de Beauvoir of pneumonia. Etc. The list of deaths builds and begins to effect the reader. By the last twenty pages the deaths and the facts and the quotes and gossipy bits do begin to come together, though I can't entirely say how.
My favorite quote of the book, coming near the end, is from William Butler Yeats, "Why should we honor those that die upon the field of battle, a man may show as reckless a courage in entering into the abyss of himself."
My other favorite came earlier on, and is from Emerson, "Life consists in what a man is thinking of all day." I'd already asked myself how David Markson came to gather all these lists of deaths and quotes and information. Did he set out to research them, or has he been a life long marker of passages, and had this compilation of—what shall we call it—been in his head all the while?
There is, finally, the desired impact, even the wisp of sadness Writer sought. I'll close with Writer himself, "This is even a disquisition on the maladies of the life of art, if Writer says so."
Indeed, this is not a novel." - J Stefan Cole

"There's always someone telling us that the novel is dead. And that is how it should be. As well as offering us the chance to laugh at the fools who parrot this announcement, it makes us ask, for the umpteenth time: what is the novel for, exactly? The question should not be answered without referring to a novel in particular. Each novel is unique. Or should be.
One of the reasons why cultural commentators, such as the BBC's Andrew Marr, proclaim the death of the novel is because novels have become irredeemably classifiable. Novels that break the rules seem to be so mannered, so distant from the world we call real, that they demand to be classified as frivolous and elitist. Most of them are. And they seem all the more mannered and distant because the classifiable novel has become so refined, so intimate with the deceit of language, that we do not see them for the very odd objects they are. Instead, by effacing themselves in a whole raft of technique, they enable the reader-as-consumer to bypass any doubts and leap straight into what is desired: distraction.
The literary novel, on the other hand, is definitively unclassifiable. Or should be. Hence the regular asking of the question: "Why are detective stories/ thrillers/horror novels/science fictions ignored when it comes to literary prizes?" The accusation that always follows is that these prizes are for highbrow snobs. In a recent radio interview, the question and accusation was repeated by horror novel writer (and TV presenter) Muriel Gray. As I listened in a departure lounge filled with airport-novel clutching passengers, I wanted to shout: THERE IS GOOD REASON! But I kept my dignity. Until now. The reason is because the novel has to reinvent itself, each and every time. When a reinvention is achieved, it deserves recognition. One cannot use the crutch of a genre, the alibi of a genre, and expect to receive an award specifically intended for a unique achievement. Muriel Gray's horror novels have received critical acclaim by those who know about such things; Stephen King no less. Worth checking out then. But you can't have it both ways Muriel.
In the same interview Gray says she hates writing but loves having written. I suggest this maybe due to her self-imprisonment in genre. Real fiction is a form of exploring oneself and the world, perhaps finding oneself and the world, perhaps finding a passage through darkness (forgive the Romantic clichés). Maybe Muriel should try it sometime. She might even win the Booker Prize. Or maybe she should stick with horror. In recent years, the Booker has tried to appeal to a wider audience and so last year the shortlist was made up entirely of genre fiction. Or was it the year before? Who cares?
David Markson's novels will never be soiled by the attentions of the Booker Prize committee. He would be eliminated early on because of his reputation as an innovator. Anyway, as an American, he is ineligible. His earlier novel "Wittgenstein's Mistress" is about the last person on Earth, although this is not apparent to the innocent reader. It consists of short paragraphs of statements and self-questioning by a lone woman. Actually, I haven't read it, or any other of his novels. In fact, I've never seen any of them in a shop or a library. But I have now read This Is Not A Novel. It is a 190-page bricolage of quotations, anecdotes and opinions on artists, writers, composers, philosophers and various other high art types. Here is a random sample:
Timor mortis conturbat me.
The fear of death distresses me.
And what is the use of a book, thought Alice, without pictures or conversations?
There is no such thing as a great movie. A Rembrandt is great. Mozart chamber music.
Said Marlon Brando.
Eliot died of emphysema in conjunction with a damaged heart.
Pound died of a blocked intestine.
The final two entries here constitute the main bulk of the whole book: reports on how famous artists and thinkers died. Each page returns to this theme. As you might expect, it has a strong melancholy edge. I understand that Markson is elderly and unwell, so he has good reason to dwell on such matters. Yet to describe this book as a long lament about imminent demise is to miss the overall effect. It is something wholly other than melancholy.
At the beginning, the narrator, called simply "Writer", says he "is pretty much tempted to quit writing. Writer is weary unto death of making up stories." So instead he presents this trance-like list. Some way into the book Writer intervenes to suggest it is a prose equivalent of Eliot's The Wasteland. And for sure it is like that poem, or a piece of music, specifically a fugue (that is, "a polyphonic composition constructed on one or more short themes which are harmonised according to the laws of counterpoint" OED). Very soon, the reader is unable to escape the special rhythm of anecdotes that at first seem to have absolutely nothing to do with literature. Yet in the end, and for the reason that it has nothing to do with literature, it becomes clear that it has everything to do with literature. After putting the book down, one is compelled to pick it up again, not to find out what happens next, but to re-enter the intoxicating rhythm.
Frida Kahlo's affair with Leon Trotsky.
Rilke was devoted to polishing furniture.
Jackson Pollock baked pies.
William Gaddis died of prostate cancer.
It is significant that Markson tends to refer to high brow artists. The contrast with their more famous achievements is relentlessly brought to the fore. We can read this sort of thing all the time about popular artistes on sites such as Popbitch, but this contributes only to our enjoyment of pop culture. It doesn't shock and resonate. In "This Is Not A Novel", we can't escape the fact that all great art is produced by people who die, while the work survives. A commonplace, of course, but a brute fact that modern artists confront on a daily basis. They ask, what is the point? It leads to frustration. It leads to despair. It leads to Gray's contempt for the modern novel. Some might think Markson is joining in with this contempt; ridiculing the pretension of high art. However, the endless unspoken contrast of absurdity and death with Writer's evident fascination with the works of art he refers to, only re-emphasises our uncertainty about what art is and what it does to us.
One thing is for sure though: the artistic and intellectual achievements of the centuries did not come about by repeating what has gone before. Writer writes:
Writer has actually written some relatively traditional novels.
Why is he spending his time doing this sort of thing?
That's why.
Essentially, if pretentiously, genre fiction denies death. The reader is cocooned from the word we call real by sticking to the conventions of character and plot, or at least by assuming they constitute what we call "the novel". Genre fiction does not question itself because it is the means to other ends. It may help us through the day, but not our lives. This Is Not A Novel is such for good reason. How Markson's book helps is something I have been asking myself. And the answer, as I have just experienced, is in the asking. But maybe this is not an answer." - The Gaping Void

"The novel, as a literary form, relies on a number of strategies to tell its story. Plot, characters, and settings are just a few of the formal qualities that we expect when we pick one up. But consider, for a moment, the word "novel" itself. It is ironic that what we call a "novel" is bound up in a relatively stable set of conventions which belie the novelty or newness its namesake suggests. It is this tension that makes David Markson's This Is Not a Novel an ambitious and compelling postmodern work that makes one think about the process of reading itself.
Markson's text begins, "Writer is pretty much tempted to quit writing," and from there the reader is presented with 190 pages of anecdotes, quotes, and the "Writer's" comments on his own writing. As a whole, the book presents an interesting collage of the history of art and literature, peppered with artistic and literary obituaries like "Tennessee Williams choked to death on the plastic cap of a nasal spray." This litany of figures is both humorous and depressing, considering that many of the writers and artists eulogized died miserable or unheroic deaths. When one considers the juxtaposition of the "Writer" who chimes in from time to time, it becomes clear that he acknowledges that he too will someday be added the catalog of the dead.
Beyond the trivia of the humanities that Markson presents, the self-conscious comments of the "Writer" draw attention to the fact that in this "novel" there isn't actually any plot, there is no sense of time, no order, no characters. The design of the book, with the title printed in a large font across the bottom of every page, reminds the reader again and again that "This Is Not a Novel." The serial repetition of the title, interestingly, mirrors the style that Markson sustains throughout the text, never deviating from the schizophrenic pattern of brief, disconnected statements that delight as they subvert.
And yet Markson's work is a novel in more ways than one. Not only is its novelty interesting and refreshing, but it manages to satisfy many of the processes that readers associate with novel-reading. The style and subject matter of the particular bits of information is so interesting and readable that Markson's text is truly a "page-turner." Like more conventional novels, Markson's is fun (and even easy) to read. As with many popular forms or genres, which promise a certain amount of predictability, This Is Not a Novel is extremely predictable in that there is no building of tension or hope of climax since there are no sections that are more significant than any other.
Like other novelists before him, Markson ultimately tells a very human and touching story, although in a different way. For all of his frankness, the "Writer" becomes a familiar voice and Markson's style becomes like an old friend. The stories become "personal" as the historical figures become more like regular people. In its totality, This Is Not a Novel presents an overarching tale of the sadness and absurdity of our own mortality.
This Is Not a Novel might not be for everyone, but for people who write or those who enjoy reading experimental works, Markson's novel is truly a pleasure. At times, it may seem like the "Writer" is playing a joke on the reader, and this may be so, but after all, what is a novel but an elaborately crafted deception? As D.H. Lawrence once commented, the artist is a "damned liar" - which makes me smile at Markson's biggest lie of all: "This Is Not a Novel." - Davin Heckman

"For some reason unknown to me the image of a nude woman's back, usually cut off just above the derriere, has become a staple of literary fiction book-jacket art. The cover of David Markson's "This Is Not a Novel" obeys that trend, offering us the rear view of a female figure whose naked back is somewhat covered by her waist-length dark hair. But in Markson's case, the image is no mere attempt at tasteful middlebrow titillation - it's a Rene Magritte painting called "The Evening Gown," and if you appreciate that joke you'll thoroughly enjoy the book beneath the cover.
True to its title, the book doesn't, at first glance, appear to be a novel at all. As in his 1996 book "Reader's Block," Markson assembles a series of notebook-like entries that relate historical facts, philosophical observations and nasty gossip about the lives of great writers and artists throughout history. A typical item: "Trollope, as remembered by a schoolmate at Harrow: Without exception the most slovenly and dirty boy I have ever met." The book begins with an entry that declares, "Writer is pretty much tempted to quit writing," which is followed by "Writer is weary unto death of making up stories." "Writer," whoever he is, pops up now and then after that, complaining more about his writerly ennui and various physical ailments and declaring his determination to create a book that lacks every standard feature of the traditional novel, from story to setting to social themes, but - through sheer force of Writer's will, perhaps - will somehow still be a novel.
Several themes recur; we read of coincidences involving well-known artists, writers and other historical figures, and of their personal hygiene and causes of death. "Pound died of a blocked intestine," we learn, and "Tennessee Williams choked to death on the plastic cap of a nasal spray," and "The first English translation of 'Madame Bovary' was done by a daughter of Karl Marx. Who would later take her own life much the way Emma does." With what seems a special delight, Writer also makes us privy to famous artists' stingy estimations of other artists' talents and achievements: "What a coarse, immoral, mean and senseless work 'Hamlet' is, Tolstoy said," for example.
The mix includes a few aphorisms and odd facts that don't quite fit any pattern but share the mischievous, curious, witty and unapologetically dark spirit of the whole enterprise. "A double play gives you two twenty-sevenths of a ballgame. Pointed out Casey Stengel"; "Was Plutarch the first writer ever to counsel kindness to animals?" There are a few running jokes. "Writer's arse," runs a line that recurs after entries that relate preposterous assertions, such as Harold Bloom's claim that he can read 500 pages in an hour.
The challenge he's taken on, Writer says early in the book, is to make readers keep turning pages even while denying them all the traditional pleasures they open novels expecting. "Is Writer thinking he can bring off what he has in mind?" he asks early in the game, but the reader is left with few doubts. Somehow, the momentum of the book is as forward-moving as any narrative. As you turn the pages, you realize that there is a story being told, the story of a character you come to care deeply about. When Writer reveals a devastating truth on the book's very last page, one that puts in context all the preceding preoccupations, your heart wrenches." - Maria Russo

"If David Markson is anything like Writer, a lugubrious fellow who pops up intermittently in THIS IS NOT A NOVEL (Counterpoint, paper, $15), his latest experimental outing, he seems to have written a book that's entertaining in spite of himself. Writer mopes around, feeling ''weary unto death of making up stories'' and ''equally tired of inventing characters.'' In an apparent bid to make his readers just as miserable, he wishes to ''contrive'' a ''novel'' without either. (Next on his to-do list: a disloyal dog and a flavorless cassoulet.) The result, like Markson's previous novel, ''Reader's Block,'' looks a bit like an old-fashioned commonplace book, a compendium of phrases, quotations, notions and facts, in this case mostly about famous writers, artists, composers, scientists and other historical figures. Despite its atomized condition, the book does, as Writer hopes, seduce the reader into turning pages. Why it should succeed at that when most other books with the same anti-narrative agenda fail isn't hard to explain. ''This Is Not a Novel'' may not be a story, but it is something equally addictive: gossip, with a dash of puzzle. Sexual improprieties aren't a primary focus, but professional sniping is, from Michelangelo calling Leonardo ''as ignorant as a maidservant'' to Orwell describing Auden as ''the kind of person who is always somewhere else when the trigger is pulled.'' Those with investigative proclivities can trace Writer's gloomy preoccupations through the items about how various notables died (and which in states of financial destitution). Other items are more enigmatic (why did Henry James hide behind a tree to avoid Ford Madox Ford?), and a handful have an evocative, lovely melancholy: ''When and where did the last person die who still believed in the existence of Zeus?'' - Laura Miller

"This Is Not a Novel is a novel made up of quotes from and about literature, art, and baseball. It thrives on odd factoids, brief obituary reports, and the writer's comments on what he's doing. Rather than brand it as a sequel targeted to cash in on the unexpected popularity of Markson's previous and similar novel, Reader's Block, I think of both books as complementary parts of the same project. "A novel with no intimation of story whatsoever, Writer would like to contrive," appears on verso page two, opposite the recto, "Yet seducing the reader into turning pages nonetheless."
Eschewing the scenery and character development commonly thought to be essential to the art of fiction, Markson lures the reader by dangling allusion-packed trash talk by and about the famous dead shakers and movers of Western civilization. Gossip pops out of the centuries in an order that seems random as it insinuates a deliberate pattern of interconnections. Some glimpses of scenes build on earlier glimpses, so that many of these refugees from history become minor characters who drop in and out of Writer's life and consciousness as Writer comes to terms with his fate.
While Reader's Block aimed the protagonist Reader toward self-annihilation, This Is Not a Novel leads Writer to accept mortality. Using the same technique and following the same morbid preoccupation as the earlier book, the new edition remarkably achieves a different, weirdly upbeat tone.
Conventional fiction fans can't get enough of the same old story, but those who were enchanted by Markson's inventive approach to fiction in Reader's Block might well find the syntactic repetitiveness (A died of x. B died of y,. etc.) to be tedious the second time. Many of Writer's recollections are intriguing ("Leonardo was a bore, according to Renoir") and others are merely banal ("Defoe's father was a butcher"), but some quips need sharpening. We learn that Shakespeare refers to Jesus Christ 11 times in his plays, but zounds! Does that include all references to his wounds?
Nevertheless, Writer's memory and range of interests are fascinating and vast. Writer bravely seems to strike out on his own as he throws himself to the mercy of all he ever knew about everything that ever was." - Doug Nufer
David Markson, Reader's Block (Dalkey Archive Press, 1996)

"In this spellbinding, utterly unconventional fiction, an aging author who is identified only as Reader contemplates the writing of a novel. As he does, other matters insistently crowd his mind—literary and cultural anecdotes, endless quotations attributed and not, scholarly curiosities—the residue of a lifetime's reading which is apparently all he has to show for his decades on earth.
Out of these unlikely yet incontestably fascinating materials—including innumerable details about the madness and calamity in many artists' and writers' lives, the eternal critical affronts, the startling bigotry, the countless suicides—David Markson has created a novel of extraordinary intellectual suggestiveness. But while shoring up Reader's ruins with such fragments, Markson has also managed to electrify his novel with an almost unbearable emotional impact. Where Reader ultimately leads us is shattering."

"A book often dreamed about by the avant-garde but never seen . . . utterly fascinating. - Publishers Weekly

"Hypnotic. Not a novel at all in the usual sense, Reader's Block is a brilliant accumulation of references and allusions ("Roland Barthes died after being hit by a laundry truck," "Tony Trollope, he was naturally called") sandwiched between the author's notes on the book that he's pointedly not writing. Pretentious? Not for a second. Reader's Block is both playful and, as you gradually learn more about its narrator's solitary life, remarkably poignant." - Salon

"David Markson's 'seminonfictional semifiction' is exhilarating, sorrowful and amazing. Indeed, a minor masterpiece." - Washington Post Book World

"If you read one book this year, read David Markson's new novel . . . A beautifully crafted condensation of language, Reader's Block is the poetic novel for century's end, recalling those great Modernist novels at century's beginning... Reader's Block is Markson's most refined example of his telescopic and allusive style. The reader enjoys the indelible language... The book is also downright fun—for it is in part a collage of anecdotes from literary and art history, anecdotes that reveal the struggles of ALL writers and artists. This business of art is not a casual affair. Reader's Block is one of the purest books ever written, not a novel to taste but to ingest. We owe Markson for everything, for he is more than gifted and we, struggling readers, are more than blessed." - Cups

"In giving form to his private imaginary, and accessing the texts of a culture as something other than an accumulating archive, Markson reminds us of how it is that a canon of books, itself an imaginary notion, can come to have a real existence in a living mind." - American Book Review

"Jorge Luis Borges used to say that he was first and foremost a reader. This rather arch remark serves as one of the epigraphs in ''Reader's Block,'' David Markson's latest work, in which a being called Reader assumes the burden of creating a character called Protagonist, with obvious distaste for the process and, it must be said, correspondingly little success. ''Reader's Block'' is a collection of fragments, many of which are unattributed quotations or curious facts (''Chaucer's father was a brewer''), and the plot in which Protagonist might have had a role is hardly even attempted. At certain moments, the text can be heard meditating on itself (''A seminonfictional semifiction? Cubist?''). Mr. Markson is a devotee of James Joyce and especially of ''Ulysses,'' as was evident in his early novel ''Springer's Progress,'' but the style of a later book, ''Wittgenstein's Mistress,'' had already moved away from the Irish master toward the disconsolate ramblings of the present work. If there is a dominant motif in ''Reader's Block,'' it is that of frustration and death. When quotations and observations are not about diseases and dying, they take refuge in celebrity gossip (''The first time I saw Wystan Auden his socks didn't match''), as if to suggest that everything not immediately linked to mortality is by nature trivial - as indeed it may be. Mr. Markson is supremely intelligent and well read, but he appears to have decided, with a post-modern determination that seems almost French in its intensity, that writing sequential narration is illogical and absurd. ''Reader's Block,'' alas, is not so much a novel as an ingenious alibi." - William Ferguson

"David Markson's Reader's Block is written in very short paragraphs.
This is a style whose look is gentle to the eye and visually does not promise a great deal of continuity.
It looks like Carole Maso's Ava or her new book Aureole, but it reads like David Markson's earlier novel: Wittgenstein's Mistress.
Only without the character.
And without the tantalizing possibility of a plot.
Although certainly it is a novel.
What else could it be?
There seem to be three types of paragraphs in Reader's Block.
The first type is paragraphs which advance the plot, in which the author tries to decide what the plot is.
The characters seem to be named Reader or Protagonist.
It seems to be a thickly veiled thinly veiled autobiography.
The second type of paragraph is paragraphs which are unattributed quotations from other books.
There may be as many as 333, but I'm not sure: they're unattributed.
These may overlap with the third type of paragraph.
Paragraphs like:
Camus died in a carcrash.
Anaxagoras committed suicide by starving himself.
Whistler was an anti-semite.
Coleman Dowell committed suicide in a leap from a balcony.
Karl Marx was an anti-semite.
Gertrude Stein had to pay to publish Three Lives.
Sappho's poetry was burned at least three times by the church. Fewer than 700 lines remain out of probably 12,000, with most of those forming only fragments.
Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters, coming from one of such.
Georges Perec died from lung cancer caused by excessive tobacco smoking at age 46.
Edmund Wilson once proposed marriage to Djuna Barnes.
Saint Hildegard of Bingen.
Queneau Benabou Mathews.
Alma Mahler was an anti-semite.
I read somewhere that the author is dead.
After reading Reader's Block, I understand perfectly:
The author committed suicide, penniless and destitute.
Reader's Block by David Markson is a book in whose presence it is more difficult then usual to be a critic.
For one thing, it is a truly and magnificently new experiment in fiction for which existing critical language is inadequate.
For another thing,
Carlyle's Sartor Resartus was damningly abused by reviewers. Once he became famous he had it reissued. And included the reviews as an appendix.
Likewise Kenneth Gaburo included, in a late edition of the score of Maledetto, numerous scathing reviews of the first performance.
For another thing, I love it.
If it only had an index." - spinelessbooks

"Reader's Block is an odd piece of fiction. Presented in brief bursts of one or two (and rarely more) sentences, each "paragraph" separated from the next, the text looks like a collection of aphorisms. The sentences themselves generally convey some information, but many are merely a name or a title. Two shadowy characters appear - occasionally - in these pages, a Reader and a Protagonist - and it is clear only that the Reader wishes to write and is considering what he might do with his fictional protagonist.
An unlikely set-up for a novel, and yet Markson's fiction is an almost complete success. It is a literate experiment, founded, anchored in Western literary experience (there is only an occasional nod to non-European and non-American writing), Markson manages to situate the reader - and the writer - of our day, and the difficulties each faces.
The quotes, the names, the titles, the bits of information: it is an agglomeration that Markson manages to tie together even as it remains a loose bunch of fragments. In questioning "What is a novel in any case ?", in arguing "Joyces write, Readers read", Markson addresses many of the difficulties facing authors in this age. These fragments, shoring his ruins (as is cleverly suggested), offer an alternative - one that is, to Reader (as ambitioned writer), not ultimately successful, but to readers elsewhere a profound pleasure.
The bits and pieces include several recurring motifs: many authors are listed as anti-semites, many as suicides, as sexually inexperienced, as suffering premature and terrible deaths and terrible fates. There is a pleasure in names, in classical quotes, all overwhelming Reader. He describes the book - the attempt - at one point as: "Obstinately cross-referential and of cryptic interconnective syntax in any case." True, it is: "Nonlinear. Discontinuous. Collage-like. An assemblage." Where Markson triumphs is in so carefully fashioning it that it nevertheless makes a delightful, progressive read, that even without a clear or forceful narrative driving the fiction it is a gripping and thoroughly enjoyable text. This is not amateurish, post-modernist experimentation, this is art. Firmly founded in our literary heritage it is, though formally unusual, also traditional fiction.
We certainly recommend this book very highly. Some familiarity with Western culture and specifically literature is presumably necessary to fully enjoy the highly allusive text, but otherwise this should be a pleasure - indeed a thrill - for one and all." - The Complete Review

David Markson, Springer's Progress (Dalkey Archive Press, 1990)

"Here comes Lucien Springer. Age: forty-seven. Still handsome though muchly vodka'd novelist, currently abashed by acute creative dysfunction. Sole preoccupation amid these artistic doldrums: pursuit of fair women. Springer is a randy incorrigible who is guided by only one inflexible precept: no protracted affairs. And thus he has slyly sustained eighteen years of marriage.
Enter, then, Jessica Cornford. Age: almost half of Lucien's. Lush of body and roguish of mind. Whereupon what begins as bawdy interlude becomes perhaps the most untidy extramarital letch in literature.
Rabelaisian yet uncannily wise, both ribald and bittersweet, Springer's Progress is that rarest of gifts, a mature love story. It is an also exuberant linguistic romp, a novel saturated with irrepressible wordplay and outrageous literary thieveries. Contemplating his own work, Lucien Springer modestly restricts his ambition to "a phrase or three worth some lonely pretty girl's midnight underlining." For the discerning reader, David Markson has contrived a hundred of them."

"An exuberantly Joycean, yes, Joycean, celebration of carnality and creativity—an everything-goes, risk-taking, maniacally wild and funny and painful novel... brilliant." - New York Times Book Review

"This freewheeling celebration, this dancing wordplay . . . delights the mind as well as the ear. A truly marvelous read." - The East Hampton Star

David Markson, Wittgenstein's Mistress (Dalkey Archive Press, 1988)

"Wittgenstein's Mistress is a novel unlike anything David Markson—or anyone else—has ever written before. It is the story of a woman who is convinced—and, astonishingly, will ultimately convince the reader as well—that she is the only person left on earth.
Presumably she is mad. And yet so appealing is her character, and so witty and seductive her narrative voice, that we will follow her hypnotically as she unloads the intellectual baggage of a lifetime in a series of irreverent meditations on everything and everybody from Brahms to sex to Heidegger to Helen of Troy. And as she contemplates aspects of the troubled past which have brought her to her present state—obviously a metaphor for ultimate loneliness—so too will her drama become one of the few certifiably original fictions of our time."

".. one dizzying, delightful, funny passage after another... Wittgenstein's Mistress gives proof positive that the experimental novel can produce high, pure works of imagination." - The Washington Times

"Calling Wittgenstein's Mistress "pretty much the high point of experimental fiction in this country," David Foster Wallace admired how the author actually imagines what it would be like to live in the world of logical atomism. Markson’s book appears not as an illustration of a set of philosophical ideas or even a novelization of the philosopher’s life and thought, but as an original reading of Wittgenstein. Knowing this can shed a certain light on how we might learn to read Markson.
For one thing, the integration of Wittgenstein’s language into the interior language of modernist fiction is an accomplishment unique to Markson. Like most positivist thinkers early in the century, Wittgenstein inveighed against “mentalistic language”—the reality of such things as the inner monologue—as “a general disease of thinking,” and later he took a strong stand against the possibility of any “private language.” Yet Markson’s novel, written almost exclusively in the language of private thought and introspection, manages to make use of the techniques of positivism.
That the stream of inner speech is so often given to dreamers, mythical figures, and women—Tiresias, Molly Bloom as she drifts into sleep, Mrs. Dalloway on an ordinary day in London—might reinforce this tendency to regard literature and the arts as feminine and domestic counterparts to the “hard” sciences. Markson’s distinctive monologue, given to a woman who believes she is the last person on earth, is unusual in that this character—named Kate in the novel—self-consciously takes note of her own thoughts and analyzes their structure. Critics have noticed that, through this character, Markson offers a feminist rereading of history (“the things men used to do”), but few readers have taken Kate’s philosophical pretensions seriously. To be sure, Kate’s thought owes much to the literary figure of the madwoman in the attic, and Markson also has Kate repeat Samuel Butler’s thesis—congenial to the identity politics of our own decade, a century later—that the Odyssey must have been written by a woman. But this unusual character is no less the contemporary of cognitive scientists and feminist philosophers of science who, unwilling to let the bad guys have all the good words (such as “objectivity”), helped open the introspective mind to rich and precise descriptions.
No longer treating the inner life of the mind as a black box knowable only by the public and measurable behavior it produces, today many cognitive scientists regard consciousness as a kind of interior language capable of being studied, parsed, simulated, and experimented with. Markson’s character, though she studied visual arts and art history rather than the sciences, arrives at an analogous control by stripping away all “accouterments” and living as if the world was her own mental laboratory. Like Wittgenstein, who gave away his inheritance and retreated to Galway Bay in Ireland in order to write the Tractatus, and like Rene Descartes removing to a small Bavarian farmhouse in 1629, Markson’s heroine renounces a great many things before settling down to take thought. After traveling “the world” (as she imagines it) in abandoned cars and boats and spending her nights in museums burning picture frames and book pages for warmth, Kate has come to a house by a beach on Long Island, where she takes up her solitary project:
Baggage, basically, is what I got rid of. Well, things.
Now and again one happens to hear certain music in one’s head, however.
Well, a fragment of something or other, in any case. Antonio Vivaldi, say. Or Joan Baez, singing.
Not too long ago I even heard a passage from Les Troyens, by Berlioz.
When I say heard, I am saying so only in a manner of speaking, of course.
Still, perhaps there is baggage after all, for all that I believed I had left baggage behind.
Of a sort. The baggage that remains in one’s head, meaning remnants of whatever one ever knew.
Though she claims never to have read a word of Wittgenstein, Kate unwittingly enacts his philosophy through a patient and gradual discovery of complexity in the most ordinary language (the mental operations hidden in a mere “manner of speaking”) and an attention to the ways that words set limits on what can be thought. In her careful attention to the “inconsequential perplexities” that arise from the ways people use and misuse words, Kate solves every philosophical “problem” she comes up against, more or less as Wittgenstein in the preface to the Tractatus claimed to have overcome the outstanding problems of philosophy. The difference is that Markson’s character, in setting down her thoughts, makes her own cognition available for analysis, and so brings a somewhat different objectivity to introspection itself—that is, to the very area of experience that the schools of positivism and behaviorism wanted to exclude.
Uncontaminated by social interactions or environmental pressures, Kate is able to focus—as did Wittgenstein—on language as a means of understanding the world. As for psychological troubles such as those which presumably led to her present solitude, it is better to accept than to explain them. Such, in any case, is the particular admixture of anxiety and resignation that discourages Kate from going back through her typescript to check a passage written the day before, when she began to feel a depression that has not yet lifted:
I have already forgotten what I had been typing when I began to feel this way.
Obviously, I could look back. Surely that part cannot be very many lines behind the line I am typing at this moment.
On second thought I will not look back. If there was something I was typing that had contributed to my feeling this way, doubtless it would contribute to it all over again.
...Though to tell the truth I would have believed I had shed most of such feelings, as long ago as when I shed most of my other sort of baggage.
When winter is here, it will be here.
One reason for Wittgenstein’s rejection of psychology was its proliferation of schools and experimental methods that the philosopher felt were useless “in solving the problems that trouble us,” because “the problems and methods pass one another by.” Markson actually imagines this happening by letting the sources of Kate’s undefined anxiety and depression gradually (and without warning) begin to intersect with her more factual narrative. Her decision not to look back at what she has written occurs near the start of the novel. Near the end, after remembering something said to her by her mother on her deathbed, Kate realizes that she “did not intend to repeat one bit of that just now, actually”:
In fact when I finally did solve why I had been feeling depressed what I told myself was that if necessary I would simply never again allow myself to put down any such things at all.
As if in a manner of speaking one were no longer able to speak one solitary word of Long Ago.
A withholding of speech when one comes up against the limits of language—”Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent”—is the closing proposition of the Tractatus: when adopted on principle, this becomes a source not only of Kate’s personal solipsism but of the cultural reticence and epistemological caution that characterizes the empirical sciences in our century. Nevertheless, as Bertrand Russell—Wittgenstein’s first reader—pointed out, the “totality” of things that cannot be said still exists, although for Wittgenstein it exists as something mystical. Reacting against this mysticism, Russell argues in his preface to the Tractatus that any such ineffable totality “would be not merely logically inexpressible, but a fiction, a mere delusion.” That is meant as a criticism and dismissal of one aspect of Wittgenstein’s thought. Markson on the contrary discovers concrete aesthetic possibilities in such philosophical fictions.
From a cognitive perspective, one thing that positivist science and philosophy left unsaid is the way that any arrangement of logical “facts” tends to produce, in the mind of a person observing the arrangement, meanings that are larger than, or different from, their sum. This is a common enough insight in Gestalt psychologies and in more recent investigations into the constructive activity of the mind during perception—of objects as well as language units. But few novelists have made so much of the insight as Markson, in passages that, repeatedly over time, release the fragments of atomistic experience into a remarkable narrative flow. Because such meanings accrue gradually, I will need to quote a number of passages at some length, from widely separated sections of the book. Readers will have noticed a certain flatness in the isolated passages cited so far; they, too, carry a greater stylistic charge in the overall context of other, related, passages.
Continuing my focus on Markson’s reading of philosophy, I shall illustrate what I mean by citing some of Kate’s scattered references to Russell and Wittgenstein themselves. The first instance occurs in passing (like all of Kate’s observations), when the thought of a visit by Brahms to Paris reminds her of Guy de Maupassant, a Parisian, who appeared earlier in her typescript, rowing on the Seine:
How one remembers certain things is beyond me.
Perhaps Guy de Maupassant was rowing, when Brahms visited in Paris.
Once, Bertrand Russell took his pupil Ludwig Wittgenstein to watch Alfred North Whitehead row, at Cambridge. Wittgenstein became very angry with Bertrand Russell for having wasted his day.
In addition to remembering things that one does not know how one remembers, one would also appear to remember things that one has no idea how one knew to begin with.
Three other items leading to and away from this brief narrative unit are worth mentioning: the theme of teachers and pupils occurred a page or so earlier, in her recollection of a trick that Rembrandt’s students used to play on the impoverished artist—painting florins on the studio floor. “Doubtless,” Kate thinks, “Brahms was once a pupil, also.” This theme of continuity between generations is picked up later, when for example Kate traces an imaginative family relation between Rembrandt and Willem de Kooning, or when she notes that Russell in his nineties could recall his grandfather recounting memories of the death of George Washington. The third item is that de Maupassant eventually went mad, “even more mad than Van Gogh,” as noted roughly a hundred pages later. Soon thereafter, returning to Brahms (not for the first or the last time), Kate recalls that the composer was “known for carrying candy in his pocket to give to children when he visited people who had children.” Kate realizes that such details often escape the biographer no less than the abstract philosopher, but they are nonetheless the texture of life:
Certainly nobody writing such information would have put down that one of the children to whom Brahms now and again gave some of that candy might very well have been Ludwig Wittgenstein.
Perhaps I have not mentioned that one of the children to whom Brahms now and again gave some of that candy might very well have been Ludwig Wittgenstein.
On my honor, however, Brahms frequently visited at the home of the Wittgenstein family, in Vienna, when Ludwig Wittgenstein was a child.
Thinking of Wittgenstein, she wishes he were around to help her to find the source of a sentence that keeps running through her head. “The world is everything that is the case,” is what she had typed—the first sentence in the Tractatus. Certainly her own methods and Wittgenstein’s solutions pass one another by!
But in the meantime, in the absence of expert advice (or any human contact at all), Kate is quite able on her own to create other connections and arrive at independent conclusions. She may not have read Heidegger’s essay on the Van Gogh painting of a pair of peasant boots, but she does “know” that “Heidegger once owned a pair of boots that had actually belonged to Vincent Van Gogh, and used to put them on when he went for walks in the woods.” Almost immediately she realizes she may have got that wrong—the boots may have belonged to Kierkegaard!—but her mistake doesn’t keep her from making further speculations, several dozens of pages later, concerning Van Gogh’s footwear:
There would appear to be no record as to which particular paintings Van Gogh painted while wearing the old socks that Alfred North Whitehead later used to put on when he went for walks in the woods near Cambridge, on the other hand.
Although another thing I have perhaps never mentioned is that Ludwig Wittgenstein actually used to carry sugar in his pockets, when he went for walks near Cambridge himself.
The reason he carried the sugar being to give it to horses he might see in fields while he was walking.
On my honor, Wittgenstein used to do that.
This method of proliferating connections in such a way that problems and solutions pass one another by at every juncture is not only a believable portrayal of a well-stocked mind working in isolation, it is also wildly entertaining and of significant narrative interest. Certainly such a procedure holds more aesthetic interest today than the conventional development from a novel’s beginning through the multiplication of middle possibilities to an eventual settling upon one or two well-defined solutions, as the featured character comes into a stable identity and assured position in society. Kate’s character, and her mind, disintegrate by the book’s end. Her conclusions are in every case unlikely but somehow exactly right, as are her mental revisions of the outcomes of narratives by famous authors. Indeed, with the disintegration of her personal identity and the fragmentation of memory into a set of atomic elements, comes the possibility of recombining these elements in new ways, such that they possess cognitive meaning rather than mere narrative inevitability.
Certainly it is possible to speak of the disintegration that precedes such meaning in the terms of deconstruction, which was still in ascendance when Markson’s novel appeared in 1988. I myself recently likened the book’s branching structures to the hypertext forms that emerged in the early nineties. But there is another model, somewhat nearer perhaps to Markson’s philosophical sources and continuing commitments to print literature, offered by Wittgenstein’s older colleague, Willard Quine. Remarking on the construction and reconstruction of science earlier in this century, Quine said that such transformations placed every experimental thinker in the position of a mariner who must rebuild his boat, plank by plank, while staying afloat on it. Quine’s figure may well have been in Markson’s mind when he had Kate “dismantle” a house, or rather those boards that remain after much of the house has been destroyed by fire. A dismantling, not a deconstruction: on this view the novel, like contemporary explorations in cognitive science, can be seen as rebuilding the traditional structure of epistemological inquiry, as it takes shape in a solitary mind and a singular imagination." - Joseph Tabbi

“Nonlinear. Discontinuous. Collage-like. An assemblage.
Or of no describable genre?
A seminonfictional semifiction? Cubist?
Also in part a distant cousin innumerable times removed of A Skeleton’s Key to Finnegans Wake?
Obstinately cross-referential and of cryptic interconnective syntax in any case.” -Reader’s Block
David Markson’s novels are an erudite labyrinth of intertextuality, filled with allusions and references to literature, art history, philosophy, and the creators thereof. As his novels progress, they explore the theme of artistic (literary) creation and the isolation of the artist, through an increasingly abstract interior monologue. Having produced six novels in the past 35 years, Markson is by no means a prolific novelist, but he more than makes up for quantity with quality. Direct biographical information on Markson is scarce. He was born David Merrill Markson on December 20, 1927 in Albany, NY. Son of a newspaper editor and a school teacher, one gets the idea that he was exposed to a lot of reading when young. He spent two years in the U.S. army and earned a B.A. from Union College in Schenectady, NY in 1950. He has taught at a number of schools, including Columbia University, and, except for some time spent in Mexico and Spain, has lived most of his life in New York.
While working for his Master’s degree at Columbia University in 1952, Markson wrote his thesis on Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano, the first major study of the novel. He began corresponding with Lowry while working on the thesis (which was later expanded and published as Malcolm Lowry’s Volcano: Myth, Symbol, Meaning in 1978), and they continued their friendship until Lowry’s death (a testament to their close friendship: Markson gave his daughter the middle name Lowry). Markson’s other literary acquaintances included Conrad Aiken, Jack Kerouac, and Dylan Thomas, all of whom have appeared in subsequent poems, essays, or novels. Through the late 50’s and early 60’s Markson wrote, to support himself, three novels that he calls “entertainments.” All three (Epitaph for a Tramp (1959), Epitaph for a Dead Beat (1961), and Miss Doll, Go Home (1965)) are genre fictions concerning a detective in a New York’s artist community. He first had success with The Ballad of Dingus Magee (1966), a parodic western that was later made into a movie starring Frank Sinatra (Dirty Dingus Magee (1970)).
The success of Dingus Magee (the money from the movie), helped Markson afford to rewrite a novel on which he had been working for many years. Published in 1970, Going Down began exploring the themes he would return to in subsequent works: artistic creation, and its despair, isolation, and anguish. A gothic mystery set in a village in Mexico (Markson lived in Mexico for a time), the plot revolves around an American painter, Fern Winters (a name that later appears in Reader’s Block as a former love interest of the narrator), and her lover, a non-writing poet, Steve Chance (who is named after a baseball player, true to Markson’s love of the game). Very much a novel of darkness and despair, it was called “pretentious” by many critics for its use of different narrative modes and styles (showing the influence of Joyce and Faulkner). Reviewer Christopher Lehmann-Haupt said of it: “…a novelist, with nothing to say, trying to tell a story he doesn’t believe for a minute.” (Markson’s poem, “Daily Reviewer-Haupt,” (see below) seems to have been written in rebuke.) Lowry’s influence is immediately obvious to a reader of both Under the Volcano and Going Down. Though the books are quite different, comparisons are unavoidable.
“There’s Springer, sauntering though the wilderness of the world.
Lurking anent the maidens’ shittery, more the truth of it. Eye out for this wench, who’s just ducked inside, this clodhopper Jessica Cornford.” -
Springer’s Progress
Markson’s follow up novel is Springer’s Progress (1977) a rampant, bawdy, playfully funny novel about a middle-aged, unproductive writer, Lucien Springer (Lucien appears again in Wittgenstein’s Mistress as a former love interest of the narrator), his extramarital affair with a much younger aspiring novelist, Jessica Cornford, and his subsequent return to novel writing. Stylistically, Springer’s Progress is written in short choppy paragraphs (a style that was further refined by Markson is his later works) that express Springer’s thoughts, fantasies, and peculiar mental ticks (such as his habit of recalling art historical facts when nervous, “Michelangelo slept in his boots.”) The novel is filled with literary and art historical allusions (as mentioned) as well as puns, wordplay (Springer engages in a whole page of acrostics, spelling out J-E-S-S-I-C-A with the names of novelists and artists), and a prodigious vocabulary that will cause even the most well read to have a dictionary at hand. As Springer begins to write again, the novel he writes becomes the novel that is being read, creating an overlapping circularity that can only end one way…
“Once, Turner had himself lashed to the mast of a ship for several hours, during a furious storm, so that he could later paint the storm.
Obviously, it was not the storm itself that Turner intended to paint. What he intended to paint was a representation of the storm.
One’s language is frequently imprecise in that manner, I have discovered.” -
Wittgenstein’s Mistress
Wittgenstein’s Mistress (1988) is Markson’s most critically acclaimed and well-known novel. Taking the style of Springer’s Progress even further, this novel is made of the one or two sentence paragraph thoughts of Kate (whose name also appears later in Reader’s Block), a painter who is, or believes herself to be, the last woman (or man, or animal) on earth. Amongst recollections of her travels (in search of any other people) and her life in a beach house, Kate struggles with the concept of language and how it can adequately represent our thoughts. The novel is brimming with references to art historical figures (more about the artists themselves, than their work), Greek drama, philosophers, writers, and the connections between (some real, some made up by the narrator), as Kate recalls things she has read or learned, sometimes inaccurately (though she does not always realize this). Throughout, an element of despair and loneliness pervades the text. Wittgenstein’s Mistress is a novel unlike any other, vast in its erudition and touching in its sadness.
“Daily Reviewer-Haupt” (from the Collected Poems)
What bile must rise within his throat
O’er all those books, not one he wrote!
Ah, let the wretch our spawn berate:
The bold make love; some masturbate.
In 1993, Markson’s Collected Poems was released. It spans a long period of time, and addresses some familiar themes: art history, literary lives (particularly Dylan Thomas, Malcolm Lowry, and Jack Kerouac), love and sex (among them, two poems that originally appeared in Springer’s Progress), as well as more personal issues. In his introduction, Markson writes them off as less than serious and berates his own love of rhyme and out of style rhythm, but the poems work well, on the whole, containing a certain sense of anachronism in their forms and styles.
“Reader and his mind full of clutter.
What is a novel in any case?
Or is he in some peculiar way thinking of an autobiography?”
-Reader’s Block
Markson’s most recent three novels: Reader’s Block (1996), This is Not a Novel (2001), and Vanishing Point (2004) can be considered a kind of trilogy. They share the same “discontinuous, nonlinear, collage-like” form. Each even repeats in some form the quotes that begin and end this introduction. The skeletal narrative that runs through each progresses from the “Reader” in RB, to “Writer” in TiNaN, to “Author” in VP.
Like Wittgenstein’s Mistress they consist of short, one or two sentence paragraphs narrated with an interior monologue that is constantly mulling over bits of information (mostly artistic/literary) but take the idea even further from a conventional narrative. The books contain three main foci: pieces of information about artists, writers, musicians, and philosophers (which in the different volumes revolve around a changing set of foci: suicides, anti-semitics, sexual oddities, insanities, deaths, quotes, responses to criticism, and other often depressing or tragic features of the artistic life); unattributed quotations; and the more direct voice of the protagonist (Reader, Writer, Author) as he struggles both with his writing and life.
Reader’s Block, the one that contains the most of what could more conventionally be considered a narrative, that of Reader trying to construct his novel about “Protagonist”, ends with the phrase “Wastebasket.” Giving up on this narrative construction, the latter two novels are even more sparse in their narrative structure. This “trilogy” creates meaning like a collage through juxtaposition and the rhythm that comes with the short passages rather than through the coherence of any set of characters, settings, or plot. Regardless of these conventional lacks, all three works are highly readable (the rhythmic aspect gives the books a pleasant pace) and emotionally powerful (particularly by the time one reaches the end of Vanishing Point. In these works Markson has created his own unique form of the novel.
The novels of David Markson, at least the serious ones, form a consistent oeuvre. Like many authors, Markson struggles with the same themes in his works, returning to them anew with each novel. The progress of his distinctive style is also very much in evidence from Going Down through to Vanishing Point. Reveling in the connections of life, art, and thought, Markson’s novels also connect with each other.
Markson has been, for the most part, ignored in literary circles. One can find few to no articles about his work, except for reviews and an excellent issue of The Review of Contemporary Fiction (Vol. X, Number 2, 1990, a split issue on Markson and John Barth) that contains articles on his work previous to Reader’s Block. One hopes that with time his work will be appreciated for what it has to say.
“A novel of intellectual reference and allusion, so to speak minus much of the novel?” - madinkbeard.com

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