Vanishing Point: A Novel

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Always Someone Turns Up: On Dublinesque by Enrique Vila-Matas

Always someone turns up you never dreamt of. This is a refrain repeated frequently throughout Enrique Vila-Matas’s novel Dublinesque. It is a line originally found in the “Hades” episode of James Joyce’s Ulysses, and is used there to describe an unnamed “lankylooking galoot.” That nameless minor character in Ulysses is often given the title “the Man in the Macintosh,” and he has become quite a mystery in Joyce scholarship over the years. He shows up in Joyce’s novel a handful of times, but scholars have never been able to agree upon his identity. Yes, always someone turns up you never dreamt of; and sometimes just as quickly he vanishes, remaining a ghost, a mystery. Literature has always been fascinated with these uncanny entrances and exits, the comings and goings that in life are so commonplace, but that, on the printed page, we often imbue with such significance. It is in mysteries such as these — in the catalogued coincidences and connections, the inquiries and epiphanies, that we seek out the patterns of life, create meaning in the chaos of existence, and confront and embody that Beckettian maxim: “I can’t go on, I’ll go on.”

In the Internet age, after the heights of Joyce, and beyond the depths of Beckett, there is, it is sometimes argued, not much left to explore in literature. Story is suspect, for every story has already been told (or so the banal argument goes). Yet even if Enrique Vila-Matas can’t go on telling new stories, he’ll go on writing, mining the past to communicate the present; and we’re all the better off for it. The Spanish novelist is a master of that problematic enterprise of literature: the death-defying highwire act of telling the truth through lies, of invoking reality through fiction. In his newly translated novel, Dublinesque, successfully rendered into exquisite English by Rosalind Harvey and Anne McLean, Vila-Matas treks across the literary landscape from Joyce to Beckett, from Gutenberg to Google, rubbing one allusion up against another, and colliding both fictive and actual worlds.

Samuel Riba, the retired literary publisher who takes center stage in Dublinesque, is a character with an “exaggerated fanaticism for literature” who “has a tendency to read life like a literary text.” Therein lies a clue to reading the book: as the novel opens, life and text are already intertwined, confused, inseparable, and it only gets more complicated further on down the rabbithole.

In his retirement (and sobriety), Riba has retreated further into himself, sitting in front of his computer, Googling things for hours on end, like a Japanese hikikomori. He only ever really leaves this position in front of his computer at the behest of his wife, with whom he has a strained relationship that is only being strained further as he turns more inward and she turns more toward Buddhism, or in order to visit his parents and keep up the pretense that he is still a literary publisher (as he has chosen not to clue them in on his retirement). It is in one of these awkward visits with his parents that the idea of traveling to Dublin emerges.

Two years before the start of the novel Riba had a dream about that Irish city, and so when his mother accuses him of not having any plans, he “lets Dublin come to his rescue,” and makes up the lie that he’s been planning a trip there all along. Rather quickly he becomes obsessed with the idea of visiting that city of Joyce and Beckett, the Dedaluses and the Blooms, and mysterious men in macintoshes. He is determined to go to Dublin and, intentionally mirroring the funeral of Paddy Dignam in Joyce’s “Hades” episode, he will perform a funeral for the age of print, for “the Gutenberg galaxy,” as the digital age comes fully into being.

In many ways, both physical and metaphysical, literal and metaphorical, Dublinesque is haunted by ghosts. But these ghosts take different forms, and most often they are in the form of allusions. As Joyce writes in Ulysses, and Vila-Matas reiterates in Dublinesque:

What is a ghost? Stephen said with tingling energy. One who has faded into impalpability through death, through absence, through change of manners.

Like the novel itself, Riba’s head is filled with ghosts — filled with the cobwebs of literary quotations, artistic allusions, bits of stories, trivia about the lives and works of authors and artists. Besides Joyce and Beckett, whose spirits remain a presence throughout the book, there are references to Paul Auster, Jorge Luis Borges, George Perec, and Philip Larkin (whose poem “Dublinesque” provides the novel with its title), in addition to extensive mentions of the films of directors John Ford and David Cronenberg. These and many other artists haunt the book like specters. Riba’s obsession with artistic and literary trivia may not be quite as all-consuming as it is for David Markson’s Reader/Writer/Author/Novelist in Markson’s final four novels (The Notecard Quartet: Reader’s Block, This is Not a Novel, Vanishing Point, and The Last Novel), but it is about on par. Indeed, David Markson seems like someone Riba would have wanted to add to his catalogue of published authors, had he not been retired: “Isn’t a literary publisher a ventriloquist who cultivates the most varied different voices through his catalogue?”

Coincidences abound from the very beginning of the novel, as there are countless threads connecting his parents to the text of Ulysses. Riba — and Vila-Matas- — weave a tangled web of allusions and intersections between literature and life, between fiction and reality. This is typical Enrique Vila-Matas territory: in his novels, reality and fiction are forever blended. Real people populate their pages as often as fictional ones, and a confusion between the two always invokes problems. Like Montano in Montano’s Malady, another Vila-Matas novel available in English translation, Samuel Riba has a kind of literature-sickness.

Bloomsday, a holiday that the book focuses on, embodies this mix of fictive and real elements. After all, it is a holiday in the real world, but celebrated because on that day, in a novel, a fictional character, based on a real person, wanders around Dublin, a real city, which the author, Joyce, wanted to capture so perfectly that if the city were to be wiped off the face of the planet it could be recreated using his novel. There is no better holiday for an Enrique Vila-Matas novel to engage itself with.

Furthering the insufficiency of reality, Riba constantly questions whether he is in a novel, dreading the possibility that he might be. He makes it abundantly clear at various points that “in no way does he want to live in a novel.” He may not want to be a character in literature but he keeps bringing up the possibility that he may very well be, a possibility he feels, even if he can’t quite explain it.

Surely it would be useless to explain that he’s not crazy, and that all that happens is that sometimes he senses or picks up too much, he detects realities no one else perceives.

But Riba’s greatest dread, the ultimate disappointment in his life, is that he hasn’t yet found the great writer of genius that he always assumed he would. Enter a mysterious figure. He first appears during the funeral procession for the Gutenberg era, and Riba deduces, with very little reasoning or evidence, that this must be the writer he has waited for his entire life. Is the figure Joyce’s “Man in the Macintosh?” Or is he a young Samuel Beckett? Or is he just a local Beckett lookalike? Or might the figure actually be a ghost with Dracula’s ability to disappear into a fog? Or could this man in fact be Vila-Matas himself- — the author of Dublinesque and the creator of Riba? Appearing in his own novel, just as Vladimir Nabokov claims Joyce appeared in Ulysses as that “Man in the Macintosh?” Is it possible also that the macintoshed man is an embodiment of the “old whore” literature herself? In a way, this mysterious figure is all these things and more. There isn’t a precise logic to it, it just makes sense in the confines of literature, which is a reflection and a refraction of life itself — a thing full of mysteries, ultimately unexplainable.

What logic is there in things? None really. We’re the ones who look for links between one segment of our lives and another. But this attempt to give form to that which has none, to give form to chaos, is something only good writers know how to do successfully.

If nothing else, Dublinesque secures the position of Enrique Vila-Matas on the list of writers who know how to give form to chaos. Just as he tells the story of the Gutenberg age giving way to the Google age, and catalogues a literary trajectory from Joyce to Beckett, Vila-Matas finds a perfect middle ground, the apex between these two pillars: Dublinesque reflects the sparseness of Beckett and the intricateness of Joyce, but more importantly it provides the mystery and depth of both. As two sides of the same coin, doppelgangers of one another in one way, and yet polar opposites from another vantage point, Joyce and Beckett show up through the text, finding a number of ways to haunt its pages. Always someone turns up you never dreamt of.

A Year in Reading: Brad Listi

Early in the year I tried — no kidding — to read everything ever written by and about Sarah Palin.  Going Rogue, Sarah from Alaska, America by Heart, you name it. I had it in my head that I was going to write a bitterly funny book about modern politics. Working title: The Palin. A satirical monster story about a blood-hungry, wolverine-like creature that terrorizes a small northern town before being driven back into the woods. The research process, initially undertaken with great enthusiasm, soon turned grim. I lasted about a month before surrendering. It was like the literary equivalent of Morgan Spurlock’s Super Size Me. I almost wish I had filmed it.

In search of a palate cleanse, I moved on to late-phase David Markson, the non-novel novels:  Reader’s Block, This is Not a Novel, Vanishing Point, and The Last Novel. It’s like reading like the best Twitter feed in history, a rapid-fire but far from accidental collage of factoids and quotes and letter excerpts and gossip drawn from the super fine print of art and literary history.  Stuff like: “For some years, Marcel Duchamp was the second ranked chess master in France.” And: “T.S. Eliot was afraid of cows.” This is experimental fiction at its finest — way-out-there books that also manage to be compulsively readable. No plot. No characters. No linear progression. And yet somehow deeply emotional. Markson, who died in 2010, looms large on every page — you can almost hear the gears of his mind turning — and mortality is the unmistakable undercurrent. The cumulative effect sneaks up on you. These are books about books, books about the making of art. And mostly they’re about a man facing down death with courage, by reading and thinking and writing.

Most recent book that I read and liked: Leaving the Atocha Station, by Ben Lerner. This one, too, is concerned with the making of art (I guess this stuff has been on my mind). Lerner’s novel is lean but heavy, and beautifully written, with plenty of wince-while-laughing comedic moments. A very clever inversion of postmodern fiction’s basic model. The protagonist, Adam Gordon, is an avant-garde fuck-up, a gifted young poet (much like the author himself), a Fulbright Scholar drifting in Madrid. He smokes too much hash. He takes too many pills. He mangles the Spanish language and bumbles his way through readings. There are trains. There are lies. There are unsatisfying liaisons with two different women. And above all else, there is the search for the real — both internal and external. I’ll probably read this one again.

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The Ballad of David Markson: A Primer

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

Markson’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.

Then 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

Markson’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

How 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

Markson 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

His 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.

Five 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.

As 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.”

Then, 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.

A Year in Reading: Brad Watson

Schott’s Miscellany 2008: An Almanac, Ben Schott: I know I’m at least a year behind, but Schott’s collections of odd information, lists, etc., is great fun and it doesn’t really matter which year you’re reading. Check out also his Schott’s Food & Drink Miscellany. Ben Schott’s great oddball idea almost makes me a little bit happy, as a person, almost. Briefly, at times.

Am I Insane? Dan Scott Ashwander Published by Carlton Press, New York, 1983 (self-published? I don’t know. 30 pages, hardcover): I like to pick up Ashwander’s book every now and then. I first found a copy when I was a newspaper reporter in the 80s on the Alabama Gulf Coast, and I believe Ashwander lived in the area. No idea how he’s doing now. “About the Author,” on the back jacket, reads “Disabled veteran Dan Scott Ashwander was born in Huntsville, Alabama. Says the author, ‘It sounds unbelievable but I am the one and only God. I have been told this many times through telepathy by the Eternal Spirit.’

“The author has a B.S. degree, is single and this is his first full-length published book.”

As to the title, Ashwander argues and concludes that he is not.

The Last Novel, David Markson: Personally, I liked the earlier Vanishing Point in this series of novels composed of fragments Markson’s detached ‘narrator’ compiles, gradually revealing his own situation (never very cheerful). But The Last Novel is good, too, and there’s nothing out there like these books.

The Death of a Beekeeper, Lars Gustafsson: I re-read Gustafsson’s beautiful brief novel every year, just as I do William Maxwell’s So Long, See You Tomorrow. They’re two of my most favorite short novels, very different, but similarly moving. Very different in structure, in conception — Gustafsson’s in the form of a series of found, incomplete notebooks left behind by a retired Swedish schoolteacher, deceased; Maxwell’s in the form of a memoir that turns itself inside-out in order to fictionalize the life of a boyhood friend whose emotional experience mirrors his own and provides the first relief from or release of long pent-up grief.

Stories by Joy Williams, from her several collections. Williams’ ability to surprise you with astounding moments of brilliant juxtaposition and insight is uncanny. Her intelligence flares up, startling, in your path, as unsettling and fascinating as the biblical burning bush to its observer, there.

The Granta Book of the American Short Story, edited by Richard Ford, 2007 ed.: I used this book in a class I taught on the contemporary American short story. I miss some of the selections from the earlier edition, such as the stories by Jane and Paul Bowles (his amazing “A Distant Episode”), “No Place for You, My Love,” by Welty (replaced with “Ladies in Spring”), “Good Country People” (replaced by “The Artificial Nigger,” for some reason, it’s said, O’Connor’s favorite story among her own published work), “Lechery,” Jayne Anne Phillips, stories by Leonard Michaels and James Salter. But there’s good new work in there by Barry Hannah, Elizabeth Spencer, Steve Yarbrough, George Saunders, Kevin Canty, Tom Franklin, Denis Johnson, Dennis McFarland, Robert Olen Butler, and, my favorite switch, substituting Joy Williams’ award-winning, devastating story, “The Farm,” for her great story, “Train.” “Train” is great, but “The Farm” is one of those stories that drains your blood, leaves you in some strange suspension of any life beyond what’s in its pages. It takes a while to come back to life, after reading “The Farm.”

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