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Theme and variations
David Markson writes on

David Markson is one of those wonders of American literature, a great comic original. Now 76, he’s published six novels, a single slim volume of poetry, a book-length critical study of the novelist Malcolm Lowry, and three detective novels that he calls "entertainments." In 1966, he published The Ballad of Dingus Magee, which was later made into what he calls an "awful film" with Frank Sinatra (1970’s Dirty Dingus Magee) that nonetheless kept him afloat for a while. Although that novel was intended as a Western, a "straight commercial genre novel," Markson says he couldn’t help "turning the entire myth upside down — everybody a coward or an incompetent, all the women unappetizing, that sort of thing."

Markson has been turning genre expectations upside down ever since, publishing the Joycean sexual comedy Springer’s Progress in 1977 and then in 1988 Wittgenstein’s Mistress, which many consider his masterwork. Here a woman who may or may not be the last person alive on earth contemplates her life, mostly by free-associating about art and culture in paragraphs of no more than a sentence or two each. Kate weaves a complex web of those cultural free-associations, where a stray reference to Turner and the Tate Gallery or to a biography of Brahms can return 100 pages later, transformed. In the closing pages, Kate’s isolation and despair become exquisite.

David Foster Wallace has called Wittgenstein’s Mistress "pretty much the high point of experimental fiction in this country," and its champions include Ann Beattie, William Kennedy, and James McCourt. It was rejected 54 times before finding a publisher (it and Springer’s Progress remain in print from Dalkey Archive Press).

In that light, it would be easy to call the subject matter of Markson’s last three novels artistic frustration. In them, the central character has all but disappeared. In Reader’s Block (Dalkey, 1996), the character is introduced as "Reader" ("Reader has come to this place because he had no life back there at all"). In This Is Not a Novel (Counterpoint, 2001), Reader has become Writer ("Writer is pretty much tempted to quit writing"). Now, in Vanishing Point, Writer has become Author ("Author has finally started to put his notes into manuscript form.")

But as in the previous two novels, the narrative presence in Vanishing Point soon moves to the margins — those free associations from Wittgenstein’s Mistress have become an internal monologue untethered from character and plot. "A seascape by Henri Matisse was once hung upside in the Museum of Modern Art in New York — and left that way for a month and half." "The speedometer needle after the crash that killed Albert Camus was frozen at 145, in kilometers — meaning roughly ninety miles per hour."

So the anecdotes and the aphorisms proceed, a few sentences at a time — misunderstood artists, the deaths of artists, the poverty of artists, the abuse heaped by one great artist upon another ("Tolstoy to Chekhov: You know I can’t stand Shakespeare’s plays, but yours are worse"), the prodigious output of some artists and the unprolific perfectionism of others, artists’ mental illness. There are recurring examples of anti-Semitism ("Chopin. By whom the words Jew and pig were used interchangeably."), references to the Wandering Jew, to opera (with special admiration for Maria Callas), painting, poetry, philosophy, science. At some points, Author questions himself or refers to his failing health, but mostly he stays in the background, manifested only in the comic precision of his voice, the implied tragic "plot" of his variations.

Markson separates these juxtapositions with a line of white space. Sometimes a series of items will be linked, most often not. Occasionally a specific reference will be picked up a couple of pages after its first reference, but there’s nothing here like the density of Wittgenstein’s Mistress. Instead, there’s a light, propulsive rhythm, one item carrying relentlessly into the next. In some places, an isolated reference may be completely unidentified, and it’s left to the lower-case reader to connect the dots ("27, rue de Fleurus" faces a page with a quote from Gertrude Stein). Over the course of two pages near the end of the book, Markson offers an unannotated list of places, times, and dates of various deaths, and if you can identify "Ketchum, Idaho. Soon after dawn. July 6, 1962." but not "Kierling, near Vienna. Noon. June 3, 1924.", well, that’s just your luck.

But Markson isn’t playing a parlor game. When one interviewer offered a comparison between Beckett’s isolated characters and Markson’s Kate, he answered, "The isolation there [in Beckett] is in some ways almost outside of ‘culture,’ whereas my own woman bears the full burden of it." Elsewhere in that interview, he refers to Kate as an "intellectual bag lady." In Vanishing Point, those bags have been revealed to contain the stuff of life, and it’s exhilarating.

Issue Date: August 6 - 12, 2004
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