David Markson and the Problem of the Novel
In Markson’s Reader’s Block (Dalkey Archive, 1996), the narrator asks early on:
What is a novel in any case? (13)
To which he adds, musing on the work he anticipates writing, which bears a striking resemblance to Reader’s Block itself:
Nonlinear? Discontinuous? Collage-like?
An assemblage? (14)
At the very end of Reader’s Block, and in the books that follow in this loosely defined tetralogy, including This Is Not a Novel (Counterpoint, 2001), Vanishing Point (Shoemaker & Hoard, 2004), and The Last Novel (Shoemaker & Hoard, 2007), this description reappears, albeit more emphatically; periods have replaced the question marks:
Nonlinear. Discontinuous. Collage-like. An assemblage. (RB, 193)
Nonlinear. Discontinuous. Collage-like. An assemblage. (TINN, 128)
Nonlinear. Discontinuous. Collage-like. An assemblage. (VP, 12)
Nonlinear. Discontinuous. Collage-like. An assemblage. (TLN, 8 )
And from his latest book, The Last Novel, after more than a decade of employing this particular form:
Novelist’s personal genre. For all its seeming fragmentation, nonetheless obstinately cross-referential and of cryptic interconnective syntax. (51)
Vanishing Point’s epigraph is a quotation from Willem de Kooning:
Every so often, a painter has to destroy painting. Cézanne did it. Picasso did it with cubism. Then Pollock did it. He busted our idea of a picture all to hell.
And from This Is Not a Novel:
You can actually draw so beautifully. Why do you spend your time making all these queer things?
Picasso: That’s why.
. . .
Writer has actually written some relatively traditional novels. Why is he spending his time doing this sort of thing?
That’s why. (TINN, 156, 164)
All of which would seem to confirm Markson’s reputation as a highly experimental, “difficult” postmodern writer “who write[s] writing” (RB, 163) instead of stories, and who aims to rebuild the novel, in form and content, from scratch.
What complicates this picture, though, is Markson’s undeniable gift for “seducing the reader into turning pages” (TINN, 3), a phrase we may associate more readily with paperback romances or mystery novels than with serious literature. But Markson, while pushing the boundaries of the novel form, and of contemporary fiction in general, still manages to design characters, stories, and fictional worlds as rich and fully engrossing as those found in more traditional works, however fragmented and unfamiliar these components may appear at first glance. These refurbished versions of traditional elements collaborate with the more easily discernible experimental aspects of his novels to make his work a remarkable hybrid: fiction that is emotionally satisfying, intellectually rewarding, formally distinctive, and compulsively readable all at once.
In This Is Not a Novel, so named after a review dismissed his earlier book, Reader’s Block, as “not a novel,” Markson’s narrator contemplates how the protagonist, Writer, whose style seems to bear a close resemblance to Markson’s, aims to bust our idea of a novel all to hell:
A novel with no intimation of story whatsoever, Writer would like to contrive.
And with no characters. None. (2)
Plotless. Characterless. (3)
Actionless, Writer wants it.
Which is to say, with no sequence of events.
Which is to say, with no indicated passage of time. (4)
A novel with no setting.
With no so-called furniture.
Ergo meaning finally without description. (5)
With no social themes, i.e., no picture of society.
No depiction of contemporary manners and/or morals.
Categorically, with no politics. (7)
A novel entirely without symbols. (8)
Ultimately, a work of art without even a subject, Writer wants. (9)
At which point a quotation interjects to disagree:
There is no work of art without a subject, said Ortega. (10)
Then another quotation brings it back around:
If you can do it, it ain’t bragging, said Dizzy Dean. (10)
Insinuating, perhaps, that Writer can “do it,” and by association, that Markson can “do it” as well, and therefore is entitled to brag. But we encounter an obstacle to this reading when Writer’s existence is called into question:
Does Writer even exist?
In a book without characters?
. . .
Obviously Writer exists.
Not being a character but the author, here.
Writer is writing, for heaven’s sake. (13)
Despite the assertion that he exists as an author, Writer remains confined to the page as a character who is thinking about writing a book, which means that the book we’re reading is not, after all, a characterless novel, and does not, therefore, fulfill the standards Writer has set out for his own hypothetical novel. This is the first indication that, however closely it appears to mirror the book Writer hopes to write, one that would destroy all hallmarks of genre, This Is Not a Novel remains faithful to certain generic conventions, however unconventionally.
Writer, for instance, is a highly unconventional character.
Like Whitman, he “contain[s] multitudes.” Namely: Lorca, Dalí, Chagall, Capote, Sophocles, Kerouac, Corbière, Cato, Melville, Lardner, O’Keefe, and so on. In a feat of intertextual finesse, fragments by and observations about artists, writers, musicians, fictional characters, and historical figures flit through his head (i.e., across the page), intermingling to tell us who Writer is, what he thinks, feels, and believes, and successfully taking the place of traditional character development. We know, for instance, that Writer is obsessed with death, due to the recurrence of remarks like these:
Richard Burton died of a cerebral hemorrhage.
Ensor died at eighty-nine.
Having done every bit of his significant work before he was forty.
Thomas Wolfe died of tuberculosis which had spread to the brain. (TINN, 137)
In order to see Writer as a character, the reader must be willing to fill in the white space around the sparse lines and find meaning in the juxtapositions, tracking them as they build throughout each book, or even from one book to the next. For instance, Writer’s moribund obsession may seem meaningless to the reader who expects a writer to hand him a character’s motivations on a platter. Markson expects attentive resourcefulness from his readers, and waits until page 190, the last page of the book, to drop this:
At this point, only the reader who has actively collaborated with the text will have formed enough of an emotional attachment to Writer to feel gratified, and deeply moved, by this admission and by the book’s last line:
Farewell and be kind.
Although This Is Not a Novel does not satisfy Writer’s genre-busting dreams in terms of character, Markson seems, at first glance, to have successfully discarded plot. Writer’s circular thoughts, for instance, certainly do not yield a “sequence of events.” However, we find that plots do exist in Markson’s work:
Pliny the Younger was a pupil of Quintilian’s.
Years afterward, learning that Quintilian could not afford a proper dowry for his daughter, Pliny sent the money as a gift. (VP, 49)
E. E. Cummings died after chopping firewood. (VP, 106)
Voltaire’s corpse had to be secretly driven out of Paris—sitting upright in a carriage—to be given a Christian burial. (VP, 177)
Things happen in these declarations; perhaps they happen in miniature, as separate, tiny plots or sequences of action, but these are plots nonetheless, such as: A.) Cummings went out to chop wood and B.) He died.
In both their brevity and their self-contained completeness they are reminiscent of Félix Fénéon’s early twentieth-century Novels in Three Lines, each “novel” a tiny summary of a news story taken from the Paris daily newspaper, Le Matin, in 1906:
Le Douz, a sailor, attempted to strangle Mme Favennec, 70, of Brest. When arrested he claimed to remember nothing.
At Saint-Anne beach, in Finistère, two swimmers were drowning. Another swimmer went to help. Finally, M. Etienne had to rescue three people.
Incurably ill, M. Charles Bulteaux opened the veins of his wrists in the woods of Clamart and then hanged himself from an ilex tree. (Fénéon, 49)
Although Fénéon’s “novels” do not hang together in the complex, subtly interactive way Markson’s fragments do, Luc Sante, in the introduction to the new edition of Novels in Three Lines (New York Review Books, 2007), sounds as though he could be talking about Markson when he describes Fénéon’s miniscule novels:
They demonstrate in miniature his epigrammatic flair, his exquisite timing, his pinpoint precision of language, his exceedingly dry humor, his calculated effrontery, his tenderness and cruelty, his contained outrage. His politics, his aesthetics, his curiosity and sympathy are all on view, albeit applied with tweezers and delineated with a single-hair brush. And they depict the France of 1906 in its full breadth, on a canvas of reduced scale but proportionate vastness. They might be considered Fénéon’s Human Comedy.
Which leads us to consider Writer’s intention to write “a work of art without even a subject,” “with no politics,” and “no picture of society.” Do Markson’s books adhere to this guideline, at least?
On the foul influence of religion on human nature:
Burn down their synagogues. Banish them altogether. Pelt them with sow dung. I would rather be a pig than a Jewish Messiah.
Amiably pronounced Luther.
I told you not go with drunken goy ever.
Says the ghost of Leopold Bloom’s father. (TINN, 156)
On poverty (as it strikes artists and writers most particularly) in The Last Novel:
The big tragedy for the poet is poverty.
Said Patrick Kavanagh.
Try to get a living by the Truth—and go to the Soup Societies.
Lamented Melville rather earlier. (TLN, 132–3)
On the historical role of women in society, particularly in the world of letters (also from The Last Novel):
The greatest achievement for a woman is to be as seldom as possible spoken of, said Thucydides.
Who mentions not one of them in his history.
Johnson’s Lives of the Poets—which mentions none either. (107)
A work of art without a subject, indeed.
On looking closer, then, Markson employs many familiar elements of the novel that Writer wants to eschew, but he employs them in radically altered form, which in turn changes the shape of the novel, making it almost unrecognizable to the uninitiated reader. Thus, he still manages to bust “our idea of a [novel] all to hell,” but he does so, wisely, without destroying the genre altogether.
Significantly, Writer himself revises his convictions toward the end of the book, as if, in looking back on the previous pages, he recognizes that certain trademarks of fiction may, after all, be unavoidable:
It is the business of the novelist to create characters.
Said Alphonse Daudet.
Action and plot may play a minor part in a modern novel, but they cannot be entirely dispensed with.
If you can do it, it ain’t bragging.
Or was it possibly nothing more than a fundamentally recognizable genre all the while, no matter what Writer averred?
Nothing more or less than a read?
Simply an unconventional, generally melancholy though sometimes even playful now-ending read?
About an old man’s preoccupations. (TINN, 189)
The Dizzy Dean quotation seems muted here, sandwiched between these ambivalent revisions. But if what we have witnessed is not, after all, an eradication of the novel form, it is at the very least a significant reinvention, and therefore gives Markson just cause to brag.
Form in Markson’s novels may be the most recognizably open and experimental element of all. Writer (of This Is Not a Novel) lists a set of interesting choices for naming this indeterminate form throughout that volume, albeit in sarcastic response to the reviewer who called Reader’s Block “not a novel”:
an epic poem (21)
a sequence of cantos (23)
a mural of sorts (36)
an autobiography (53)
a continued heap of riddles (70)
a polyphonic opera (73)
a disquisition on the maladies of the life of art (86)
an ersatz prose alternative to The Waste Land (101)
a treatise on the nature of man (111)
a contemporary variant on the Egyptian Book of the Dead (147)
a kind of verbal fugue (170)
a classic tragedy (171)
a volume entitled Writer’s Block (173)
his synthetic personal Finnegans Wake (185)
The most appealing and accurate of these descriptions may be “a kind of verbal fugue,” and it is one with some history in literature, as Markson himself points out:
The death of Patroclus, Iliad XVI:
Even as he spoke, the shadow of death came over him. His soul fled from his limbs and went down to the house of Hades, bemoaning its fate, leaving manhood and youth.
The death of Hector, Iliad XXII:
Even as he spoke, the shadow of death came over him. His soul fled from his limbs and went down to the house of Hades, bemoaning its fate, leaving manhood and youth. (TINN, 41)
Each volume of Markson’s tetralogy could be described as fugue-like in structure; actual lines, particular sentence structures, or sentences focused on the same subject matter repeat within each book, such as the following from Vanishing Point:
Kuesnacht, near Zurich, Carl Jung died in. (40)
Rome, Ingeborg Bachmann died in. (45)
Phoenix, Arizona, Frank Lloyd Wright died in. (49)
Herefordshire, Jenny Lind died in. (52)
As evidenced by the statements above, Markson often inverts the natural sentence structure, reversing the order of subject and predicate. In the following lines, in a slight twist on this sentence organization, the predicate comes first in its own fragment, and is followed by the subject in a separate fragment:
Epicurus called death.
. . .
An unpurchasable mind.
Shelley credited himself with. (TLN, 116)
Latin, French, Italian, and Flemish.
Rubens wrote letters in. (TLN, 117)
Apart from helping to create the fugue-like echo, this reversal of traditional sentence structure acts as a tiny suspense-builder, leaving the famous subject’s name until the very last, so that our sense of wonder is preserved until the end of the sentence.
The term “fugue” could also apply to the complex threading of lines that repeat exactly or echo one another through all four books, so that each book stands on its own but is clearly part of a larger whole. Because of this, the reader must remain attentive and active when reading the tetralogy, constantly connecting the lines/fragments/quotations not only with their immediate neighbors, but also with lines from previous books, including Markson’s earlier works.
For instance, if one has read Wittgenstein’s Mistress (Dalkey Archive, 1988), the book preceding Reader’s Block, one knows that Kate, the narrator, is, or believes herself to be, the last creature on earth.
In the beginning, sometimes I left messages on the street.
Somebody is living in the Louvre, certain of the messages would say. Or in the National Gallery.
. . .
Nobody came, of course. Eventually I stopped leaving the messages. (WM, 7)
But her loneliness also echoes through the subsequent books, in each narrator’s different but similar solitude:
Nobody comes. Nobody calls. (RB, 11)
Someone will call. Surely someone will call. (RB, 24)
Nobody comes. Nobody calls. (TINN, 186)
Nothing happens, nobody comes, nobody goes, it’s awful!
Says Estragon. (VP, 68)
Nobody comes. Nobody calls. (VP, 162)
Novelist’s isolation—ever increasing as the years pass also.
Days on which he is aware of speaking to no one at all, for example, except perhaps a checkout clerk, or his letter carrier, or some basically anonymous fellow tenant in the elevator. (TLN, 28)
Nobody comes. Nobody calls. (TLN, 56)
Nobody comes. Nobody calls—
Which Novelist after a moment realizes may sound like a line of Beckett’s, but is actually something he himself has said in an earlier book. (TLN, 58)
For those who have not paid close enough attention.
Kate of Wittgenstein’s Mistress comes to a poignant realization one day:
. . . one curious thing that might sooner or later cross the woman’s mind would be that she had paradoxically been practically as alone before all of this had happened as she was now, incidentally.
. . .
One manner of being alone simply being different from another manner of being alone, being all that she would finally decide this came down to, as well.
Which is to say that even when one’s telephone still does function one can be as alone as when it does not. (WM, 231)
As if predicting the narrators of Markson’s future, pacing about in their populated worlds, waiting for the phone to ring.
But in another sense, Markson’s narrators are not alone:
Rilke wrote standing up.
Lewis Carroll wrote standing up.
Thomas Wolfe wrote standing up.
Robert Lowell and Truman Capote wrote lying down.
Writer sits. (TINN, 81)
Voilà: a community on the page, one that defies both space and time. Furthermore, Markson, in conjuring this unorthodox community, also creates a great monument to art itself, and to the art-makers who have sustained one another (by criticizing, praising, studying, quoting, and copying one another) through time.
If we consider the books as monuments, then, it justifies Writer’s suggestion in This Is Not a Novel to call them “Book[s] of the Dead”—especially considering that death is a pervasive focus of the tetralogy.
Where are those who were in this world before us? Go to the cemetery and look at them.
Said Anon. in the twelfth century. (VP, 183)
And, on opening any of the books randomly:
Camus died in a car crash.
. . .
Charmian and Iras committed suicide when Cleopatra did. (RB, 64–5)
Wallace Stegner died after an automobile crash.
Bradley died of blood poisoning.
. . .
Pablo Neruda died of leukemia. (TINN, 104–5)
Novalis’s Heinrich von Ofterdingen.
The last one that Borges asked to hear before his death.
October 17, 1973, Ingeborg Bachmann died on. (TLN, 170)
In the absence of an overarching plot, these deaths are crucial events. In most novels, one may find a death or two at the end to neatly tie up a linear plot—but here we have a whole field of deaths on which to gaze, a whole regiment of “linear plots” tidily concluded. One might look at these lines as headstones in a cemetery, which is beautiful in its own right as a work of art, and which appears literally in Markson’s Reader’s Block, as part of the minimal (hypothetical) setting:
Protagonist living near a disused cemetery, perhaps? (RB, 14)
Below, Reader of Reader’s Block considers the blankness of snow covering this cemetery:
With snow, the ranks of still white stone can assume an almost occult unreality. (98)
Watching abstractedly among the ancient oaks as the entire cemetery commences to disappear. (99)
The cemetery framed beyond the window in January light. The skull, lower left foreground, a redundant nearer memento mori. (164)
The eschatology of the still white stones in snow. (165)
What is instantly obvious is the moribund significance of this scene: this is Reader’s own end, the erasure of the world, the end of the human race and of everything.
But Kate of Wittgenstein’s Mistress, who finds herself truly alone at the end of the world, describes an inherent possibility in the snow’s draping effect. Here she depicts the wintertime beach, covered in snow:
Here, when the snows come, the trees write a strange calligraphy against the whiteness. The sky itself is often white, and the dunes are hidden, and the beach is white down to the water’s edge, as well.
In a manner of speaking almost everything I am able to see, then, is like that nine-foot canvas of mine, with its opaque four white coats of gesso. (WM,37)
What begins as an obliteration of the world by snow, similar to that which takes place in Reader’s Block, ends with the image of a blank canvas, thus the possibility of new creation. In the next sentence, Kate “draws” on the blank space: “Now and again I build fires along the beach.” (WM, 37)
She returns to this very description of the wintertime beach toward the end of the book; her attitude toward the scene, however, has changed:
Still, on the morning after [it] fell, the trees were writing a strange calligraphy against the whiteness.
For that matter the sky was white, too, and the dunes were hidden, and the beach was white all the way down to the water’s edge.
So that almost everything I was able to see, then, was like that old lost nine-foot canvas of mine, with its opaque four white coats of gesso.
Making it almost as if one could have newly painted the entire world one’s self, and in any manner one wished. (233)
It’s doubtful that Kate will “paint the entire world [her]self, . . . in any manner [she] wished”; given her situation, her qualified language is understandable. “Almost as if?” and “one could have” indicate her realistic ambivalence about her ability and desire to undertake the task. She has that in common with Reader; both of them lean closer to reading annihilation into the blanked-out landscape, and with good reason. In both characters’ cases, the futility of making any new mark on the world becomes overwhelming—why should Kate, as the last human on earth? And why should Reader, at the end of his life, wholly alone, bother to leave something new behind?
Reader thinks about the end of the world, and about his protagonist courting his own end:
In the interim, what more for the elderly man in the house at the cemetery but to pause at his accustomed window one afternoon, and gaze for a time abstractedly at the ranks of still white stone beyond, and then turn unremarkably to the gas? (192)
And as for Reader:
And Reader? And Reader?
In the end one experiences only one’s self.
Nonlinear. Discontinuous. Collage-like. An assemblage.
Which ends the book and discards it simultaneously, as if Reader, by following his preferred description of the book with the image of the “wastebasket,” wipes out the work he has done in one stroke, in much the same way that the snow erases the cemetery stones, erasing even the memorial to humankind’s presence on earth.
But this reading, despite its negative power, cannot extinguish the possibility inherent in the scene; the snow may appear to erase the headstones, but as we know, it does not: it merely covers them, creating a canvas of sorts, much like the one to which Kate refers in Wittgenstein’s Mistress. Although neither Kate nor Reader is likely to walk out and paint the world, Markson himself has done so. The very existence of Markson’s books indicates that he has committed a gesture of optimism in having walked out and “newly painted the entire world,” and will continue to do so, not by erasing the world (of fiction) to start from scratch, but by making bold new marks on a canvas that stretches over the ranks of the dead, the figures of the past who embody his human and artistic lineage.