This year, like many before it, my year in reading was largely a record of my year in teaching, as a majority of the books I read were books I assigned in classes taught during spring semester, a summer session, and fall semester. This means that I was either rereading books I admire or, in some cases, reading for the first time books that I hoped and expected to admire. (Industry secret: Professors, on occasion, have not previously read the books they assign.)
This year I had roughly 30 books on my syllabi, 20 of which I had read before. I very happily reread Alice McDermott’s That Night and Paula Fox’s Desperate Characters, for perhaps the eighth time each. It was a painful pleasure to revisit Bartleby and Ivan Ilyich, James Welch’s magnificent Winter in the Blood, Toni Morrison’s elusive Love, Glenway Wescott’s underappreciated The Pilgrim Hawk, Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle, and Lorrie Moore’s Anagrams, which has held up nicely indeed.
The books I had not read previously are almost all books I will eagerly read again, including Mavis Gallant’s Paris Stories, Lucia Berlin’s Where I Live Now, Valeria Luiselli’s The Story of My Teeth, Paul Beatty’s The Sellout, Elizabeth McCracken’s Thunderstruck. I was completely bowled over by Rebecca Lee’s collection Bobcat and Other Stories.
And then there’s always the “busman’s holiday” books, the ones I sneak in during breaks in teaching. This year I enjoyed the novellas in Dorthe Nors’s So Much for that Winter and the exhilarating stories in Jensen Beach’s Swallowed by the Cold. Rachel Cusk’s novel Outline was published nearly two years ago and has been thoroughly celebrated at this point, but I just got to it over the summer. Everyone was right: Outline is indeed thrilling in its form and point of view, and it’s a genuinely innovative book. I haven’t been as excited about a novel in a long time. It will no doubt make its way onto a syllabus soon.
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Introductions, when read at all, might sometimes be considered as an after-thought to the reader’s own impressions after finishing the book. There’s nothing wrong with guarding one’s capacity for surprise when encountering the work of an author who’s new to you, nothing wrong with reading the review after seeing the movie. So, perhaps perversely, I hope you’ll read these three novels and form your own impression, and if my remarks suggest other things, or verify or call into question certain feelings, they’re only that: an appreciative reader’s observations.
But they’re fond remarks. What I have to say teeters between David’s having been my friend, and my awe and continued amazement at his work and what he achieved. Since now there will be no new work, I can only re-read — which might elicit the same responses, because of familiarity. Yet every time I pick up one of his books, I find it more exceptional than it seemed at first. I’m not alone in this response: it’s appreciated and discussed and is often spoken of as representing a leap forward for American literature. I’m still troubled that it wasn’t more appreciated in his lifetime, but I’m less sure that matters — except, obviously, for a writer being able to make a living, and for reinforcing the writer’s sense of self esteem, which are not minor matters. “Rediscoveries” are more and more a part of literary culture: Edith Pearlman; the re-issues in the wonderful New York Review of Books Classics series (don’t miss The Pilgrim Hawk by Glenway Wescott, if The Great Gatsby initially gave you snow blindness). We’ve always had Counterpoint to thank for bringing forth unexpected texts, radical books for acute readers. That doesn’t mean that you have to be an expert to enjoy them.
I knew David in the early ’80s in New York. He lived in Greenwich Village, I lived in Chelsea. We had a few mutual friends. When we were introduced, I hadn’t read his work, but I did know that Douglas Day, who’d also written about Malcolm Lowry, had the greatest respect for David’s Lowry book. I eventually read a couple of David’s early books, liked them but wasn’t over the moon, and as we got to know each other a bit better, he asked if I’d read a manuscript he was finishing called Wittgenstein’s Mistress. As I write, four extra copies are on my bookshelf, in case someone wants to read it. I took the manuscript home with me and read all night. I was speechless. Whatever I did finally manage to say on the phone no doubt let him know how astonished I was at what he’d done. In the back of my mind, I had feared reading a manuscript that would call on my non-existent knowledge of Wittgenstein. And, as writers always fear, if they don’t like what they read, they have to figure out how honest to be in their response. I’m sure I fell all over myself, but he did understand that I thought it was one of the most moving, surprising books I’d ever read. And I’m sticking to that. The character in that novel is either the last person on Earth, or she believes she is.
Absence throbs in the text. The last page is heartbreaking. And while that earlier book is quite distinct from these three, the idea of a solitary thinker, an artist (she is a painter) without reinforcement, but with many memories and confusions, going toward she knows not what, provides a kind of thematic undertow that This is Not a Novel, Vanishing Point, and The Last Novel crest above.
There is no possibility David Markson would have thought of being fashionable. But without any calculation, David’s writing has come to be considered very of-the-moment. I bring this up because for readers who’ve heard of him only recently, perhaps in on-line magazines or various blogs and literary sites, or because his books have been embraced in the academic world, his categorization as “postmodern” might come to mind. I can’t argue with that, though of course it was not the categorization that led David Foster Wallace to write him a fan letter. For Wallace, as for many other writers, it was for his unique mining of a territory that didn’t much exist — at least in the United States — until David asserted its presence. First he discovered the turf. Then he stood on it.
You have in front of you his last three books, which have often been addressed in terms of collage. We, in these fragmented times, with our reputed short attention spans and our belief that with enough intellectual coaxing anything can be made to fit with everything, react positively to “collage.” People love to compare writing to visual art, though I don’t think his work has much to do with collage. What I think is that he was his own perfect team of Eliot and Pound, a poet who displaced and projected emotions onto an opaque, little-peopled landscape that, after being re-arranged and judiciously edited, revealed the bones of a skeleton we knew existed, though not in this exact, surprising form. So, okay: I’d have it that he was a brilliant paleontologist as well as a fiction writer with the deft touch of a poet. Teamed with himself, he was absolutely brilliant. He really shuffled those cards: a quote from Diogenes; a little-known fact about Baudelaire (“Baudelaire wore rouge”). (They really were cards; his notes were kept on index cards. Many, many.) So in some ways he was a collector, and metaphorically speaking I suppose he had to eventually glue his sentences down in what he considered the best possible order. But they are all words, the images conjured up, but off the page, the collage — if it’s even an appropriate comparison — assembled horizontally, for the eye to scan from left to right.
Try to stop reading one of these three novels. Meanings accrue; mysteries arise; you laugh when you least expect to laugh; a character (or characters) are indelibly created (though in the Beckettian manner, he uses as few as possible). It’s often observed that when you compile a list, what is revealed transcends the individual notations. Write a play — in which you are primarily restricted to dialogue — and the problem is often that the dialogue takes on too much meaning. A writer as aware and purposeful as David would have been highly sensitized to that. By the time he finished, he knew what the books were. And then, I’d guess, he went on to write a second book in the same manner, because he also knew what the books were not. I’m not the one to say how many books by a writer are enough, too few, or too many. They’d have to all exist, to have a dialogue. There would have had to be many more in this series (how I wish they existed; he was working on another when he died) to know if they’d stretch all the way to the distant horizon line that existed, way in the distance, sometimes obscured by fog, as a definition of what the 20th century was. He, himself, worried about doing the same old thing — but any serious writer becomes inhibited and nervous about that. He was a man of habits, of increasingly small geographical parameters (hey: he got old and wasn’t in perfect health. Also, his beloved Strand was nearby). But he read assiduously (who cares if he didn’t keep up with contemporary fiction? Even his own admission of deficiency seems half-hearted), and developed his book’s trajectories subtly but deliberately, working both on the level of the sentence and keeping in mind the book’s arc. Some sentences are inverted; many present the observation or statement, then fill us in on who said it (“He who writes for fools will always find a large audience/ said Schopenhauer”). And then, when we are used to this system of presentation, he drops in a simple declarative sentence (“Marco Polo died three years after Dante”). Among the questions David implies is this: Does it matter who said what, or that the thing was said? For me, what’s stated, usually tersely, is like a balloon whose string dangles the name of the person being quoted. Interesting questions are raised: of the spoken word vs. the personality of the speaker; how one statement inadvertently continues or calls into question another. And throughout, a fictional persona co-exists with these usually famous artists and philosophers and musicians — a bare-bones sort of person sunk sometimes in a self-pity that seems simultaneously funny, or wandering alone through a maze of concepts that do and don’t have anything to do with his banal day, his banal (but human/therefore human) desires. What we have is fiction, comprised of fact and hearsay and words already written, whether transcribed exactly or not, repeated by David in a different order, appropriated for the purpose of making a new creature sent out to join up with those who already exist.
If at times that might have looked to the writer like a words only version of Exquisite Corpse (the old-fashioned game of two players drawing a figure, then folding the page over so the next person must continue drawing what they’ve never seen), that’s no different than the way a lot of writers work. Even writers who proceed from an outline often remark that as they wrote, something surprised them, or derailed them, or that only as they got near the end of the first draft did they realize the larger meaning of what they were doing. I don’t mean to either disappear beneath the mask of metaphor, or to make an exact analogy, but David was a solitary man who read and wrote and lived alone (though he certainly missed the good old days at his favorite bar, The Lion’s Head). He could continue drawing his own invented figure (so to speak), but in juggling the contradictions, textures, and clashing philosophies of what he was creating, he must, at times, have had to resist forcing something into shape just because it was under his control. (Pound and Eliot hardly had the same sensibility.) You don’t live almost your whole life in New York City and not believe in chance.
To quote myself (he’d smile at the indulgence) with something I said when I introduced him for his reading at the 92nd St. Y: “We know that literature is always in dialogue with other literature, but it is our good fortune that David Markson has acted as a facilitator: the good host, introducing all the right people to the right people, while being puckish enough to introduce all the right people to the wrong people, as well. In-jokes appear sometimes as little grace-notes. The works and the remarks of visual artists and philosophers also figure in, as do characters who may not be fictional. In David Markson, backward motion is as important as forward motion.” So this doesn’t become abstract, let me make a few comments about a short sequence of paragraphs from Vanishing Point:
Scholars who are convinced that Shakespeare must certainly have been a military man. Or a lawyer. Or closely associated with royalty. Or even a Jew.
To which Ellen Terry: Or surely a woman.
Yup; the jury’s out. But the passage tells us so much more than the fact that Shakespeare remains a mystery. It mimics gossip. It addresses the serious issue of identity, and other people’s claim on it. The word “Even” is certainly revealing about someone’s attitude. We are (I assume) made uncomfortable by the distinction being drawn. The following paragraph (“To which Ellen Terry: Or surely a woman”) does several interesting things: the speculation resumes (and therefore, by extension, this determines a way of speech, and typifies a conversational mode), but we can’t quite recover from “Even a Jew,” although Ms. Terry’s remark — because we do not know her — might be read any number of ways: that she thinks Jews and women are both problematic; that she is a stereotype of a woman who reflexively mentions oft-forgotten women; that she truly believes that Shakespeare might have been female. These are just a few things to notice among many possibilities. But then we drop off into white space. The next paragraph concerns a painter. Since we have no other transition to the first word of the next paragraph (Michelangelo), we hear something discordant: the lingering voice of the last person to speak (Ellen Terry) butting up against Michelangelo. We don’t move from famous writer (Shakespeare) to famous painter (Michelangelo) and feel the coherence of the arts, though; rather, we hear that ambiguous pronouncement of the suddenly vanished Ellen Terry saying something that might have been fatuous, perhaps mocking, perhaps an announcement of a personal belief. . and a sort of echo chamber is set up, in which a voice doesn’t entirely vanish, but is merely supplanted. This happens in music all the time. I would suspect, though, that for those who care to hear it, there is Eliot’s famous line from Prufrock: “In the room the women come and go, talking of Michelangelo.” I’m only guessing, but the world-weariness of Eliot’s famous line seems to bond invisibly to the fact that between paragraphs, a breath has been taken (seen as white space and with no suggestion of a direct way to make the transition), so that we are surprised, yet not surprised, to suddenly be considering Michelangelo.
Michelangelo once criticized the fact that Raphael was unfailingly accompanied by an entourage of pupils and admirers, saying he went parading about like a general—
To which Raphael: And you go about alone like a hangman.
We smile at Raphael’s one-upsmanship. It’s one of those moments of quick riposte we so often wish we were capable of; someone does get the last, clever word. Add that to our Exquisite Corpse as it’s been shaping up, and the accordion (turn it on its side; then my analogy works!) lengthens so that we see that Shakespeare and Ellen Terry have been conjured up, to be followed by another eminence, who gets a put-down from yet another eminent painter. Here, we can laugh — even if a bit ruefully. But rarely does a conversation conclude with someone offering a bon mot. In dialogue, it’s never believable, because it seems like the writer is being too witty, or artificially ending on a high note. (We might get off a witty remark, but then fate seems to decree that the fire alarm goes off, or our belt breaks, and our pants fall down.)
But now here, here David Markson intervenes, with his character Author:
Not that rearranging his notes means that Author has any real idea where the book is headed, on the other hand.
Ideally, in fact, it will wind up someplace that will surprise even Author himself.
There’s the pre-emptive strike, in case we wondered on pages 10-11 where the book was going. Ah, Author does not know! That’s understandable, and part of the fun of writing is in the unexpected discoveries. Who’d begrudge someone that little treat? Author is self-deprecating, willing to confess to potential worries or inadequacies; Author is just like us…except that Markson has interjected Author deliberately, for a little cameo that will grow into a larger role, later. We know that we are not supposed to be so unsophisticated as to believe that Philip Roth the character is Philip Roth the writer, or that the fictional Kathy Acker is Kathy Acker. Got it. Yet if some little part of our brain does conflate the two (privately, silently, as if with a flashlight beneath the sheets), the fictional character inevitably takes on more credibility and meaning because we see the superimposition: it’s a funhouse mirror that both distorts and also allows us to see right through it. Here, Author is released like a genie, and since what is supposedly “real” in fiction really makes us perk up, the writer can have it both ways. Author is David Markson, but Author is also just some guy. Author brings us back to Earth, in a departure that deliberately pricks the balloon that’s been sent up to ask us to consider The Great Men. Yet when we return to basics, when we touch base with an individual who is, after all, something of a guide, even if not an authority figure, Earth has become a bit defamiliarized. It’s slightly destabilized, a place not so much of sunrise and sunset, trees and bees, but a life of the mind, floated in white space for our perusal and contemplation, a concept accruing like a cloud. It’s suspended above us whether we see it or not, though if that cloud is cumulus, it’s rather reassuring that it was formed by one layer forming above another, all parts working together to give the impression of density, the flat surface from which it forms very much like the flatness of a book.
This is the introduction to this new edition of David Markson’s This Is Not a Novel and Other Novels.