The Ballad of David Markson: A Primer

August 19, 2010 | 15 10 min read

1. Quasi-praise

I laughed loud and long after coming across a retired schoolteacher’s self-published book of poetry with the wildly unappealing title Meanderings of an Aged Mind. Yet it now occurs to me that the late avant-garde novelist David Markson’s literary output eventually assumed exactly that form. And though he never quite reached the depth of being forced into self-publication, his fame seems to have peaked around 1970. Quasi-praise such as  “undeserved obscurity” and “smartest novelist you’ve never heard of” would thereafter accumulate like barnacles on his hull.

Markson wrote two novels that look just about like traditional novels, one that could pass for a traditional novel’s second cousin, and four that invent, develop, and refine the aggressively non-novelistic shape that would become his very own genre. Line them up, and you’ve never seen such clear stylistic progress. Final destination: books made of evenly-spaced, meticulously arranged facts from the lives of notable artists, writers, philosophers, and other intellectuals. No, not historical fiction. Not narratives of any lives in particular. Not tracings of any currents of thought. Just textual accretions, really, but textual accretions of the highest erudition and artistry.

If you’re looking for grand statements about David Markson’s career, you might say the same thing that makes his novels so fascinating — and, to his fans, so endlessly engaging — also makes them so little-known. Not just steeped in but crafted from the West’s achievements in thought and aesthetics, they pay off in excitement to the extent that you know your Yeatses from your Keatses, your Kierkegaards from your Spinozas. Truly meriting the label of sui generis that otherwise gets thrown around so carelessly, his novels are fiendishly tricky to contextualize. What might you have already read that suggests you’ll like David Markson? Tough call, since, for good or ill, nothing’s like David Markson.

2. The entertainments

coverMarkson’s was a career forged in irony. Long before assembling (there may be no better word) his mature work for publication under the literary aegis of smaller-scale publishers like Dalkey Archive, he cranked out hot-boiling, pot-boiling, mass-market crime fiction. Not only that, but he seems to have excelled at it. 1959’s Epitaph for a Tramp, 1961’s Epitaph for a Dead Beat, and 1965’s Miss Doll, Go Home read, by all accounts, a cut above their equally pulpy, lurid-covered brethren. As soon as Markson gained literary currency, these three took a Graham Greene-esque demotion from novels to “entertainments,” but the craft of their language and their genre-defying allusions to the likes of Thomas Mann and William Gaddis — shades of things to come — have earned them modern reissues.

coverThen came The Ballad of Dingus Magee, or, more faithfully, The Ballad of Dingus Magee; Being the Immortal True Saga of the Most Notorious and Desperate Bad Man of the Olden Days, His Blood-Shedding, His Ruination of Poor Helpless Females, & Cetera. Though still a traditional narrative, this slice of Old Western raucousness shows off enough of Markson’s linguistic inventiveness and referential brio that it’s usually spared the “entertainment” pin. Yet held up against the books that would follow, it looks like a transitional work, one that gave its author the credibility — and, after the dopey Frank Sinatra film adaptation Dirty Dingus Magee, the money — to bring out the real stuff over which he’d been laboring in private.

3. Going Down

coverMarkson’s first post-Magee novel bears all the marks of real stuff. A dark, dense story boldly (and often opaquely) told, 1970’s Going Down takes details Markson mined from his time in Mexico to craft a menacing rural setting in which his characters sink — in which they “go down” — into a collective fugue of angst, depression, and violence. At the book’s center is the hyperliterate yet near-catatonically impassive Steve Chance, who draws a couple of artistically inclined young women down to his cottage. As they form a grim polyamorous triangle that draws the locals’ suspicious looks, things turn unbearably ominous and very ugly indeed: cuckoldry, insanity, murder, and so on.

Unlike the rest of the Markson oeuvre, almost all of which maintains good humor (even if only expressed via the weary chuckle of resignation), Going Down is one dark book. This is perhaps to be expected, given the gruesome elements on the surface: a harrowing and futile gangrene-related amputation comes early, one character gets brutally machete’d in her sleep, another vividly relives her childhood fire trauma, an apparently ghastly hand deformity is brought up over and over again. But Markson also tells the story in a way that sets up an almost oppressive atmosphere of alienation and hauntedness. Despite always hopping from one character’s consciousness to another, the narrative has an askewness, an angularity, that makes you suspect the absolute worst is inevitable.

4. Springer’s Progress

coverHow startling it must have been to read such a jaunty follow-up. For all its strengths — and it has many — Going Down resists the reader. You’ve got to fight the book to make it yield its meaning. True though that may be for all intelligent literary works, there’s a distinction: some go down reasonably easily but reward further effort, while others don’t go down at all unless you’re prepared to swallow hard. 1977’s Springer’s Progress marks a decisive shift towards the former. Markson’s novels would, from then on, be immaculately smooth reading experiences on the sentence level, but command vast, ever-expanding tracts of references that only the most knowledgeable reader could fully enjoy.

Not that you’d know it from this book’s prose, which, glanced at, appears to be some sort of drunken late-midcentury neo-Joycian urban lit-dialect:

There’s Springer, sauntering through the wilderness of this 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.

Girl’s a horse, stomps instead of walking. Most sedulously ill-dressed creature’s ever wandered into the place also. Remorseless. Blouse tonight’s all archaic frill, remnant from a misadvised Winslow Homer.

Yes, the whole book is in this voice, an extreme version of what’s called “free indirect” narrative, the kind that looks like the third person but gets so close to one particular character that it’s somehow more revealing than the first person. Lucien Springer, the personage to whom this prose practically adheres, is a loutish, über-arch novelist. Or rather, he’s a novelist almost by avocation, since his vocation seems to be drinking. Between those, he makes a reasonably active sideline of womanizing.

This might sound like thin gruel behind an impenetrable screen, but the intersection of the painstakingly wrought language of sloppy casualness and Springer’s distinctive persona turns out to be exhilarating. When the middle-aged Springer meets his match in the aforementioned Jessica Cornford, a 25-year-old aspiring woman of letters, the book becomes strangely pleasurable to read, more than almost any of its contemporary relatives. Springer may be a philandering, talent-squandering, impoverished lush, but he’s got the kind of flickering eternal wit few could fail to smile at. Jessica may be apocalyptically flaky, dizzyingly promiscuous, and enslaved to disastrous personal aesthetics, but the girl shows a glimmer of literary and romantic promise, give her that.

With a plot, setting, dialogue, and cast of several, this is a freakish book beside those that would follow in Markson’s career, yet it nevertheless loudly and clearly introduces the qualities that would come to define his fiction. The paragraphs have gotten shorter and more prominently studded with data from the annals of art and literature, explained here by Springer’s own compulsion to think about such things. And a certain suspicion arises about how much protagonist shares with author. I know it’s supposed to be juvenile to conflate the two, but Markson more or less courts it, to the point where the novel Springer brings himself to write turns out to be Springer’s Progess itself. The book eventually catches up nearly to real time, where the writing of a page is covered on that same page. Springer dedicates his novel to his long-suffering agent-wife Dana. Markson dedicates his to his own agent-wife Elaine.

(Springer’s Progress also premieres another, less savory Markson leitmotif: whaling on, and wailing about, critics. He reserves especially tiresome vitriol for Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, who trashed Going Down a hundred years ago.)

5. Wittgenstein’s Mistress

coverMarkson took eleven years to follow up Springer’s Progess; at the time, he was as unprolific as that book’s star. It’s hard to say whether fans of the author’s first two “real” novels would be immediately pleased by Wittgenstein’s Mistress, which does away with most of the niceties audiences have come to expect, such as characters. And, uh, chapters. Flip through the book, and it’s all one big monologue, a stream of lines like these:

Surely one cannot type a sentence saying one is not thinking about something without thinking about the very thing that one says one is not thinking about.

I believe I have only now noted this. Or something very much like this.

Possibly I should drop the subject.
Actually, all I had been thinking about in regard to Achilles was his heel.

Although I do not have any sort of limp, if I have possibly given that impression.

As a single continuous (if staccato) thread of consciousness, the text isn’t easy to excerpt. Every passage grows organically from the one before and leads seamlessly into the one after. It’s really more of a braid of consciousness than a thread: it interweaves the protagonist’s various pieced-together recollections about — yes — artists and thinkers of eras past with her own experiences as the last woman on Earth.

So this is, what, a sci-fi novel? Yes and no. It’s the rare case where the term “speculative fiction” applies not as insistent euphemism but accurate description. Kate, the narrator, types the text on a manual typewriter, ostensibly nude and utterly alone in a world filled only with buildings, plants, and artifacts. Problem is, we only have her testimony to go by, and it gradually becomes apparent that some of her marbles may be rolling into the distance. Lovers of the hackneyed, have no fear: Markson makes a dull explanation partially available. In it, Kate is simply insane, driven into her life-consuming delusion by, I fear, the death of her young son that may or may not have been indirectly caused by her irresponsible lifestyle.

Better, I would submit, to take Kate’s words as close to face value as possible. Rarely has a novel been so much about words, and so well about them. No mistake that the title name-checks the philosopher who stared down language itself. What does it mean to name the places and things around you, as Kate obsessively does, without a community to use those names? What is the entire sweep of Western culture, its greatest works and its creators, when you’re the only one around to remember or think about them, and even you don’t quite possess the intellectual grasp to think about them with much accuracy? Has any other work of fiction confronted those questions so head-on?

Kate’s 240-page communiqué to nobody uncannily emulates the way our thoughts wander from subject to subject, from concrete personal experience to distant historical fact, making associations that seem at once preposterous and immediate, looping, crossing, and doubling back on themselves. Not only is Wittgenstein’s Mistress Markson’s most highly acclaimed novel, it’s the last gasp of his remaining novelistic predilections. Though he won some acclaim for being a man yet writing what was received as a surprisingly realistic female mind, he must have known that his final style could not be achieved without getting out from behind any and all Kates.

6. Reader’s Block, This is Not a Novel, Vanishing Point and The Last Novel

coverHis first and only novel of the nineties — as Wittgenstein’s Mistress was his first and only novel of the eighties — the 1996 Reader’s Block is, in its curious way, as bracing a burst of literary air as Springer’s Progress was. There’s only one character: Reader. And Reader happens to be an author — an author a lot like David Markson. (“First and foremost,” runs an opening epigraph from Jorge Luis Borges, “I think of myself as a reader.”) Reader spends the book thinking up the mechanics for his latest novel. This novel stars Protagonist, an aging writer who lives, self-exiled, in a lonely house on a beach or in a graveyard, rent-free but for the occasional custodial duty. He lives downstairs, hearing the footsteps of the rarely seen women who live upstairs.

The lines sketching Reader’s creative process (“Someone else for Protagonist’s past?” “Will Protagonist have sold any books before moving?”) are actually quite fascinating, but they’re occasional and separated. Between any two come a swarm of the same kinds of facts Kate struggled to recall in Markson’s previous novel, now presented with more clarity and presumably more veracity. “Erasmus was illegitimate.” “Kierkegaard was probably impotent.” “In the decades before his death, Ad Reinhardt painted nothing but black canvasses.” “Tolstoy thought King Lear a play so bad as to be not worth discussion.” Reader or Markson or Protagonist or whomever also call out a supposed anti-Semite every few pages. I find the motive for this unclear, but Seneca, Justinian, Philip Larkin, D.H. Lawrence, and countless others receive the label.

coverFive years later, Markson published This is Not a Novel, which took the same basic form as Reader’s Block but introduced an overwhelmingly morbid slant to the selected data. The lines not about Writer and his weariness of writing about things — his desire to write, for once, about nothing — are still to do with the lives of creators from times past, though they’re now mostly about the very end of them. You’ll learn that Theodore Roethke died of a coronary occlusion, Grazia Deledda of breast cancer, Chardin of dropsy, Polybius of a fall from a horse (“at eighty-two”). And there’s plenty there as well about their more breathing times: the squalor they inhabited, the poverty they endured, the insults they volleyed back and forth.

coverAs the book closes, the last of Writer’s attempts to characterize the text itself suggest that it’s “simply an unconventional, generally melancholy, though sometimes even playful now-ending read,” one concerned only with “an old man’s preoccupations.” The same might well be said of the two volumes that follow. 2004’s Vanishing Point finds an author named Author struggling to convert a couple shoebox tops full of fact-bearing index cards into a book. (Does it come as a surprise that interviews have revealed a similar method of Markson’s?) Author wants to minimize his own presence into the text, and thus much is offloaded onto yet more true-life indignities of the creative existence.

Tom Paine died in poverty. Five people attended his funeral.” “T.S. Eliot was afraid of cows.” But Vanishing Point actually represents a step back from the brink of despair on which This is Not a Novel teetered. Markson’s final four novels are loaded with wit and irony, and this one isn’t an exception. But it’s also more focused on odd incidence and surprising intersection: “Dylan Thomas was asked to be best man at Vernon Watkins’ wedding. And managed not to get there.” “John Gielgud was a great-nephew of Ellen Terry.” “A cursed, conceited, wily heathen. Being Aristotle as viewed by Luther.” “The probability that James Joyce and Lenin exchanged pleasantries.”

coverThen, in 2007, comes Markson’s last novel — The Last Novel. Health concerns, always a Markson undercurrent, now surface often and bleakly. Novelist, the lonely old wordsmith at this particular book’s center, recalls his doctor frowning at the shadows on his bone scans. More than ever, the textual barrier breaks down between Markson’s protagonist and the moribund artists whose late-life details he so carefully presents. “Old. Tired. Sick. Broke. Alone.” That comes three pages in. But this isn’t the near-feverish dissolution-and-demise fixation of This is Not a Novel. It’s more of a sigh of reconciliation. Yet as the sigh escapes over the course of 190 pages — am I seeing things, or is that a sly grim?

7. Brain on the page

Whether you think Markson’s novels — “novels” — of the nineties and 2000s are his best or worst books, you’re right. You’d be forgiven for not being readily able to tell them apart. You can call them cranky if you like. Granted, few come crankier; if I never have to hear Markson’s ever-less-oblique inveighing against Tom Wolfe, Julian Schnabel, or “critics” again, would I really die unsatisfied? Certainly they’re both accessible and inaccessible; accessible always and everywhere as easily digestible, potato-chippy lists of fascinating facts — in this sense, they’re the finest example of plotless “page turners” — inaccessible without Western-canon grounding and the payment of supremely close attention on at their richest levels of pattern and allusion.

What’s not so up for dispute is that Markson accomplished what, by all rights, should be a literary impossibility. Novels not “about” anything precisely definable. Novels without more than one consciousness inhabiting them, if that. Novels without narrative. Novels built of seemingly unrelated snippets of information about coincidence, connection, poverty, probability, ignominy, ignorance, excretion, expiration. Novels that, over a four-decade career, approach nothing less than the purest time spent in the brain of another found on any page. What a shame David Markson never got to write, file, shuffle, meticulously order, and manually type a line about the death of David Markson.

, in addition to his journalistic and blogging pursuits, produces video and sound art and hosts the public radio program and podcast The Marketplace of Ideas.