I work in a bookstore. Not too long ago, a tiny, frail, elderly man was helped out of a cab and into the shop by two young men, who shuffled him up to the counter. "DO YOU KNOW WHO I AM!" the guy yelled at me. I admitted that I didn't, and when he told me his name, I recognized it, but I've never read any of his work. He is someone highly regarded in certain literary circles, although he didn't make much money from it, nor has he achieved fame, despite more than half a century of exquisitely crafted literary output. He shouted a couple more questions at me ("I want to speak with the owner! The OWN-ER!") and his attendant shot me a sympathetic look. They took him to visit his books. After they left, I saw that he had taken all of his works (dusty and rarely purchased) from the low shelf where they were displayed, and moved them to eye-level, pointedly placing them next to and on top of some books by a far more famous, less talented, and long-dead contemporary.
When I started reading The Last Novel, David Markson's latest scrapbook of aphorisms and unattributed anecdotes, I realized that it was narrated by that guy. I don't mean that actual literal person, I mean someone in a similar predicament. The Novelist (as Markson's narrator calls himself), an unrecognized, aging writer, repeats a sad refrain throughout the book: "Old. Tired. Sick. Alone. Broke." This is my first time grappling with Markson's work, about which the terms Postmodern and Experimental get thrown around a lot. He pushes, to the point of breaking, the whole concept of what one can set down on paper and refer to as a "novel."
The Last Novel is more like a list, consisting of sentence-long paragraphs -- many of them just sentence fragments. All of them are little biographical anecdotes about great authors, poets, composers, painters, and musicians of the past. These anecdotes fall into several categories:
1) Stories about works now viewed as masterpieces that were scorned in their own time, or conversely, celebrated in their own time and now are unjustly consigned to the dustbin of history.
2) Stories from the lives of great geniuses who died penniless, with holes in their shoes, in debt to the grocer.
3)Tales of geniuses who got old and feeble and lost their faculties.
4)Quotations, from antiquity through the present, about artists who can't give up drinking.
5)Incidents of blatant anti-Semitism, directed at those aforementioned geniuses.
The Last Novel is the fourth of four books (a quartet? a tetralogy?) that witness a creator's struggle with -- and against -- what he is creating. In the first of the four, Reader's Block, the narrator is referred to as "The Reader." In This Is Not a Novel, he's "The Writer." In Vanishing Point he's moved up to "Author," and finally in this one he's graduated to Novelist. What is his reward? Loneliness, the deaths of his friends, a life that consists largely of encounters with pharmacists and the building superintendent.
The Novelist tells us almost nothing about himself, but the glimpses we do get are devastating: he notices a pharmacist noticing his threadbare coat. He calls the answering machines of friends recently dead, just to hear their voices on the outgoing message. But for the most part, if we want to know who the character is that's telling the story, all we have to go on is his choice of moments from the lives of others that he catalogs here. "Vermeer died in 1675. at which time one of his largest debts was, in fact, to a Delft baker. For bread to feed a family of thirteen." "I am quite content to go down in history as a scissors and paste man. Said Joyce." "A heart attack while swimming, Theodore Roethke died of." "I've had it with those cheap sons of bitches who claim they love poetry but never buy a book. Growled Kenneth Rexroth." Individually you might think, why is he telling us this? but collectively, you get a fascinating glimpse of the Novelist through the company he keeps -- in books.
None of the anecdotes are attributed. None of the quotes have quotation marks. This begs the question, how do we know if any of this is accurate? Is it plagiarized, is it made up? A couple months ago, Harper's Magazine published a remarkable essay by Jonathan Lethem on the subject of plagiarism. Using scores of examples, he makes the case that a lot of what now gets called "copyright infringement," or misuse of "intellectual property" would be better viewed as part of the organic process of art making. Since the beginning of time, he asserts, artists have borrowed from one another, poaching little shiny bits and pieces, magpie-style, an "ecstasy of influence." "Any text is woven entirely with citations, references, echoes, cultural languages, which cut across it through and through in a vast stereophony," he says. At the end, Lethem provides an annotation that's even longer than the original piece: it reveals that the entire essay is "plagiarized," a Frankenstein's monster stitched together from dozens of sources. I found it to be a brilliant, audacious piece of work. But David Markson blows Lethem out of the water. He's turned borrowing from other sources into an entire career, and made it a form of art in itself. I thought of comparing the two even before I came across this passage in Markson's novel: "Future generations will regard Bob Dylan with the awe reserved for Blake, Whitman, Picasso, and the like. Said an otherwise seemingly rational writer named Jonathan Lethem."
The Novelist laments the great under-recognized masterpieces, but he seems to think there's some objective standard for deciding what a masterpiece is -- a standard of his own choosing. In addition to his negative opinion of Bob Dylan, he pauses to give bad reviews to some modern artists, easy targets mostly: Christo's Central Park installation of orange-curtained gates and Damien Hirst's rotting shark have nothing remotely to do with art, he asserts. Stravinsky's "Rite Of Spring," or Manet's "Olympia," though, are just a few of the UNjustly panned, in his opinion -- even though they were the shocking works of their day. It comes dangerously close to boring old man humbuggery, and I'm grateful he didn't pause to rant about how young kids these days only know how to write emails and back in my day we wrote by hand and studied the classics and blah blah blah. But you could feel it implied.
It's really easy to get lazy and conflate Novelist's thoughts and opinions with David Markson's. But he's way too much of a trickster to be so obvious. However, it isn't easy to shake the suspicion that Markson is putting one over on you, and he's enjoying your boredom and confusion. Your inability to understand his weird non-book proves Novelist is an unrecognized genius. "For no reason whatsoever, Novelist has just flung his cat out one of his four-flights-up front windows," so says the bottom of page 131. But then, what's this on 135? "Novelist does not own a cat, and thus most certainly would not have thrown one out a window. Nonetheless he would lay odds that more than one hopscotching reviewer will be reading carelessly enough here to never notice these two sentences and announce that he did so." (Hey -- screw you, Novelist! I read every word!)
I have a number of friends and colleagues who worship David Markson, and happily devour everything he's ever written, including the recent reissue of two detective novels he wrote for a quick paycheck back in the sixties. Epitaph For a Tramp and Epitaph For a Dead Beat have come out recently as a single paperback volume, and from what I'm told they are great fun. For someone who has the fortitude to take on Markson's more esoteric work, Wittgenstein's Mistress, I'm told, is the one to read. The first novel that Markson wrote in the epigrammatic style that is now his trademark, its narrator is a woman who might be the only person alive on earth, or she might be insane. After all the hours I've spent trying to unravel what Markson means by all his trickery, I think I can relate.