Loads of Learned Lumber

Thursday, December 23, 2010

David Markson, _The Last Novel_

MARKSON DIED ABOUT six months ago, and about five months ago I began reading this, having already read Vanishing Point and This Is Not a Novel, two of the earlier texts in the series that The Last Novel completes. I finished it minutes ago.

So were I to say, as I feel like saying, "I couldn't put it down," that would not be literally true, since I put the book in a stack back in August when my semester started and rescued it from that same stack two days ago, when my grades were turned in. But I truly have found all the Markson books I have read hard to put down. They have all been sequences of brief items -- facts, quotations, observations about the life of art and the lives of artists -- and, as with M&Ms or Triscuits, one more always seems like a good idea. They are no chapters or other divisions creating an opportune moment to replace the bookmark and get on with whatever else I ought to be getting on with, so I just keep reading, gobbling down one more item, one more page, five more pages.

That said, though, The Last Novel is sobering stuff. Published three years before Markson died, it is valedictory from its title to its last page, Markson's own death hovering just beyond the final entry ("Als ick kan," a phrase Van Eyck put beside his signature on a painting, which means something like "The best I can do").

And, as in earlier volumes in the series, the news from the lives of artists from antiquity to now is mainly grim: "Old. Tired. Sick. Alone. Broke," runs a recurring entry. Prizes, popularity, and fame infallibly gravitate to the un- or scarcely deserving (Markson notes a particular dislike for Warhol, Christo, and Damien Hirst). Most artists are forgotten (he tries to recall the last time he heard anyone mention Sherwood Anderson, Erskine Caldwell, or James Jones, all immensely well known once). Critics are harsh and impercipient, one's artistic peers harsher and blinder.

So what is the source of the strange astringent joy in this book? Why is it -- dare I say it? -- delightful? Partly, it's just plain interesting. One finds out, for instance, that Ruskin could never imagine living in the United States because it lacked castles. Then there is the idiosyncratically bendy syntax Markson came up with for the series, e.g., "A century before Alcoholics Anonymous, something called the Sons of Temperance, Poe did make a stab at. To no avail."

Chiefly, I suspect, the joy lies in Markson having made a novel (four, even) without observing a single one of the form's conventions. At one point, he quotes:

I skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it's been.
Said Wayne Gretzky.

Markson perhaps was thinking more about where the novel was going than where it had been, and so his book is alive and green even as it contemplates death and oblivion. So The Last Novel has no characters to speak of, no plot to speak of, no setting to speak of, not even any fiction to speak of (since it is all quotations and theoretically verifiable statements of fact, and even the asides from the "Novelist" voice seem squarely based on Markson's own circumstances and dispositions)... yet mysteriously feels like a novel. Watch me create a novel with none of the attributes of a novel, Markson invites us, and then pulls it off.

There is , apparently, one bit of fiction in The Last Novel. On p. 131, Markson writes, "For no reason whatsoever, Novelist has just flung his cat out one of his four-flights-up front windows." Jeez, I thought, he's losing it now -- for I quite believed him, you see. But was the flung cat only a snare for the careless reviewer? P. 135:

Novelist does not own a cat, and thus most certainly could 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.

Ha! Unless there's a deeper game here and he did fling that poor cat.

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