David Markson, a really, really belated remembrance

After David Markson’s death last summer, I wrote a piece about his fiction for ZEEK online. I’d written for them before, and I was excited about the piece. Unfortunately, though, I’m told the site is more or less defunct now, and a Markson eulogy at this point would just seem ridiculous. But, anyway, it’s written. Here’s the piece. I’m putting it up here as it was written then, though there’s more I would say.

David Markson died over the summer, and the occasion was marked by a flood of obituaries and retrospectives. I’d wager the number of words published about Markson in the weeks following his death (cancer, he was 82) add up to more than those published about him in his 50-some-odd year career as a writer and editor. And, as happens with these things, most of those words look conspicuously similar to each other. This primer from The Millions does a more thorough job than most of summarizing all of his fiction, but look to any of the dozens of obituaries published after the novelist’s death this past June and you will find a litany of paragraphs describing his last four novels. All of them basically look like this one, from the New York Times: “Mr. Markson did not much bother with character development or plot; nor, as his work evolved, did he care much for devices of organization like chapters, or even paragraphs. Rather, he built his books in nuggets and epigraphs, oddball observation by peculiar found fact, to portray the mind of the narrator, who was generally an artist in some state of mental distress.”

And that’s a more or less accurate description of what those novels look like, though it hardly captures what they feel like. The word “oddball” is particularly tin-eared, imputing a kind of zaniness nowhere present in his work (though it is often funny). In fact, given the scramble to commemorate the death of a supposedly important novelist, none of these obituaries seem particularly interested in talking about why Markson matters as a novelist; you’ll often see his novels described as an achievement of some kind. Exactly what they have achieved, however, remains unclear. One can turn to any obituary one likes to find out that the author of The Last Novel is dead, but, given that he’s so frequently described as “esoteric” or “obscure,” you’d we’d have some justification for the obituary’s existence in the first place. Part of what makes them great is simply his finely-tuned ear, which seems equally attentive to the silence surrounding words as the words themselves. When he jabs, as he does several times, at Julian Schnabel and Harold Bloom, his barbs often come out of nowhere, emerging from the blank white spaces in which his sentences float, like a callback to an earlier moment in a conversation.

But what most obviously sticks out about Markson’s work is its experimental form. Markson’s late novels are, as many of these obits note, avant-garde page turners, both strange and strangely readable. I have more than once missed my subway stop, wholly absorbed by what is, after all, an assemblage of anecdotes, apocryphal stories, and quotations lassoed together, in each case, by a vaguely sketched narrator. Such conceits often, if not usually, result in the kind of tortured pseudo-philosophical cerebrations that pass themselves off as “postmodern” experiments in narrative self-awareness. Yet Markson, postmodern, cerebral, and apparently tortured by demons unknown, produced work both improbably entertaining and ungodly complicated. For every moment in which my tweedy inner pedant attempts to quantify the epistemological ramifications of Markson’s narrative technique, there is another in which all thought stops and the novel simply takes up residence in my consciousness, lazily rattling off an anecdote about John Stuart Mill, an interesting fact concerning the death of Lucretius. It’s easy enough to imagine Markson reclining eternally on some faded sofa, ankle crossed over knee, muttering something about Keats’s hygiene, probably just to amuse himself.

For instance, from The Last Novel: “John Locke died while sitting in a drawing room listening to someone read from the Psalms.” And then: “Novalis died while listening to a relative play the piano.” Further down the same page: “Antonin Artaud spent nine of his last eleven years in insane asylums,” and so on. One could trace these sketches of death and decline throughout the novel, and each novel in the final four possesses its own thematic strands, all of them interwoven yet each clearly visible in its own right. The brilliance of these novels resides in their drift; they associate restlessly and obsessively, alternately flitting from theme to theme and elaborating on a detail with a stoner’s intense half-interest.

To see what I mean, take this passage from Wittgenstein Mistress. Though not a part of the final tetralogy, that novel is in many ways both the overture and finale of Markson’s late style. Here are some of his narrator’s thoughts on Helen of Troy:

“After all, a single Spartan girl, as Walt Whitman once called her.

“Even if in The Trojan Women Euripides does let everybody be furious at Helen.

“In the Odyssey, where she has a splendid radiant dignity, nothing of that sort is hinted at at all.

“And even in the Iliad, when the war is still going on, she is generally treated with respect.

“So unquestionably it was only later that people decided it had been Helen’s fault.

“Well, Euripides of course coming much later than Homer on his own part, for instance.

“I do not remember how much later, but much later.

“As a matter of fact it was much later as twice the time between now and when Bertrand Russell’s grandfather met George Washington, apparently.

“And certainly any number of things can be lost track of, in that many years.

“So that once he had gotten the idea to write a play about the way, certainly it would have been necessary for Euripides to think up an interesting reason for the war.

“Not know that the real reason must surely have been to see who would pay tariff to whom, so as to be able to make use of a channel of water, as I have indicated.

“Although on the other hand it is also quite possible that Euripides just lied.”

Speculative and inconclusive, Markson’s narrator, Kate, thinks in a void, and her thoughts take on the character of the unpeopled world she inhabits. Critics have read the novel, variously, as an apocalyptic elegy or a solipsistic delusion. A young and rather enthusiastic David Foster Wallace thought the novel did “artistic & emotional justice to the politico-ethical implications of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s abstract mathematical metaphysics,” making “what is designed to be a mechanism pulse, breathe, suffer, live, etc.” No matter your theory, the experience of reading Wittgenstein’s Mistress eerily reproduces its premise: the absence of other characters, other people leaves us only stray shards of sentence-matter from which to construct a world reduced to one person’s account of it. The typical fictional world, a world something like ours, inhabited by other people’s accounts of it, other people’s experience of it, has been shorn away. We, like Kate, spend our time with the novel attempting to negotiate something we can have no knowledge of, a terrain that seems to shift under our feet as we traverse it.

Even in a novel seemingly interested in taking apart narrative conventions, the wholesale jettisoning of narrative is not an obvious move. At least in theory, we could situate Markson alongside a host of other writers, all of them more famous, who came up during the 1960′s (Thomas Pynchon, Donald Barthelme, John Barth, and so on) who sought to do something similar, though in vastly different ways. He is of their generation and his earlier “literary” novels, Going Down and Springer’s Progress, bear a kind of family resemblance to their work. Going Down is structurally convoluted, a modernist gothic reminiscent of John Hawkes, while Springer’s Progress is a blend of allusion and sex that climaxes in its narrator’s decision to write the novel Springer’s Progress. Though one can recognize in them the elements that will eventually become the later works, these earlier novels are bound to conventions of story and character by virtue of their attempts to disturb conventions of story and character. Just as many writers of Markson’s generation took pleasure in demystifying the workings of fiction even as they built compelling narratives out of those demystifications, as did John Barth in “Lost in the Funhouse,” the contortions of Markson’s earlier novels produce a twinge of nostalgia for the traditions they attempt to unmake.

This is partially because neither Going Down nor Springer’s Progress is very good: the latter is annoying while the former is unreadable. One of the major stumbling blocks both of those novels share is a clumsy, overly emphatic use of allusion, citation, and quotation. In both cases, Markson’s narrators and characters quote and cite with the show-offiness of a precocious undergraduate. One chapter in Springer’s Progress consists almost entirely of the names of writers, artists, and characters that share the same initials; a fine display of smugly superficial knowledge. When Springer and his muse/fuck buddy Jessica Cornford spew allusions at each other, the effect is something like a couple of high school band geeks trying to trade fours using a sousaphone and an out of tune viola. Yet these are the features, allusion and citation, that emerge in Wittgenstein’s Mistress and the final tetralogy as the apotheosis of Markson’s stylistic development. In a remembrance on N+1′s website, Paul Maliszewski writes, “Markson was like an abstract painter who, determined to chase the ultimate and logical conclusion of what he’d been driving at his whole career, paints less and less, until he’s taking a white canvas and applying to it a single coat of white house paint.” The painterly analogy is apt: it’s almost as though Markson achieved his effect by blotting out everything he found excessive in his own work and allowing its essential elements to remain unobscured.

In this way, Markson’s final novels are the negative image of the revised New York Edition of Henry James’s fiction. Toward the end of his life, James remade his earlier work in his “late manner,” cutting some immature passages, but expanding and complicating other scenes, lending the capacious syntactical complexity, or otherwise excluding whole novels he wasn’t happy with (such as the The Bostonians, a fascinating, entertaining, and maddeningly bloated book that Mark Twain said he would “rather be damned to John Bunyan’s heaven” than read, which quote Markson includes in one of his late novels). In the resulting “definitive” edition, one thus finds a Henry James who seemed destined to develop into “The Master,” the ultimate exemplar of aesthetic refinement and distinction. We see the seeds of the hallowed “late manner” in the earlier works because they were, in many cases, planted there for us to find. But this younger James is another fiction of the older James’s own invention, a back-formation composed as much for posterity’s sake as to relieve the shudders of a mature writer looking back on his apprentice work.

If there is an aspect of disavowal in James’s revisions (and he’s far from alone in this), then we might recognize in Markson something like a repeated affirmation. At no point does his writing undergo anything so recognizable as a “break” or “turn.” Even in his hugely entertaining hardboiled detective novels, Epitaph for a Tramp and Epitaph for a Deadbeat, the obsession with quotation and anecdote lurks (famous literary incidents tend to drift through detective Harry Fannin’s head as he succumbs to beatings or awakens from them; he’s also an avid reader of Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations). And yet, far from remaining the same, though the same anecdotes, the same quotations are often repeated from book to book, the way in which these seemingly random bits of literary trivia accrete changes radically. We often speak of writers returning to favorite themes, repeating particular images; indeed, we often mark a writer’s development not only by the way in which his style changes, but by the way his treatment of subject matter changes. With Markson, style and subject matter achieve a unique convergence, and they achieve it not through the writer’s changing opinion about his subject, but from an increasingly thin attention to any excessive material, anything that falls outside of the historical and thematic resonances his novels amplify.

Markson’s achievement is recognizable only when one takes his development into account. In paring away novelistic convention, rather than demystifying it or turning it back on itself, Markson’s novels became, in a weird way, more capacious, somehow larger. They simultaneously represent common threads that span millenia and a dying man’s proximity to himself. Novels can make the end of the world look and feel identical to a single person’s cognitive misfirings, but David Markson erases the difference between apocalypse and solipsism, writer and reader, so completely that not even a trace of it remains on the page. Many people figured that when he published The Last Novel, it really would be that, and indeed it was his last. But it’s also a kind of formal endpoint, bringing to a close the innovations of a generation. If Markson published relatively few books, they will, taken together, prove to be among those novels that matter. Markson’s books may not ended up quoted in the novels of the future, but all novels will quote him, whether they know it or not.

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