Loads of Learned Lumber

Friday, July 19, 2013

David Markson, _Wittgenstein's Mistress_

WITHOUT INTENDING TO, I started at the end with Markson. Years ago, having heard often about how good his stuff was, I picked up what was at the time his most recent novel, The Last Novel, which later turned out to be, for Markson, exactly that.  I loved The Last Novel, so I started working chronologically backward through the previous several books, which seemed to be a tetralogy of sorts, each a collection of biographical minutiae about painters, composers, writers, etc.,  as redacted by "the Writer," whose own circumstances and concerns very gradually become apparent as one reads.

Wittgenstein's Mistress works with a very similar template; we get a lengthy, unpartitioned series of one-sentence paragraphs (some of the sentences are, technically, sentence fragments) written over an unspecified amount of time--months, probably--by a woman, Kate, living alone on a beach.

Like "the Writer," Kate has a deep store of information about painters, composers, and writers, some of which, as she notes, she could easily have gleaned from reference books, jacket copy, and album liner notes, and some of which may derive from actual encounters with, e.g., Helen Frankenthaler, Robert Rauschenberg, and William Gaddis.

Kate also gives an occasional description of the house she is inhabiting, of the pictures on its walls, the books on its shelves, or that seem to have disappeared from its shelves. No one else seems to be living in the house.  Indeed, Kate seems to see no one at all. Has there been some nuclear apocalypse, with Kate the sole survivior? Is Kate a hermit?  Is Kate...not right in the head?

Kate is brilliant and articulate, and we come to care for her as deeply as one can for a fictional character, but yes, Kate is not right in the head. The reader becomes unsure which of her adventures happened and which are imaginary.  Did she really visit the site of ancient Troy, the ground zero of western literature? Did she really camp out in a series of great museums? Did she really roll dozens of tennis balls down the Spanish Steps? Did she really lose a child, a son, to a house fire, for which she feels in some degree responsible?

The answer to that last one, we eventually feel, must be yes, and the fleeting glimpses we have of what must have been an unspeakable pain make the book heartbreaking, even though Kate is almost always writing of something, anything other than her loss.

It would be silly to go on at length about this book in the wake of David Foster Wallace's epic review, now widely available in the posthumous essay collection, Both Flesh and Not, but let me end by noting that Wittgenstein's Mistress, triumph of fictional experiment that it is, is also a triumph of good old fashioned mimesis, for Kate's writing sounds uncannily like what a genuinely disturbed person would produce.

Compared to the technique of Poe in "The Tell-tale Heart"and its uncountable epigones, Wittgenstein's Mistress is startling for its refusal to let its disturbed narrator have a greater propensity for exposition, description, and narrative that disturbed writers really have. Instead, Kate gets tangled in misplaced modifiers which she then apologizes for, in ceci-n'est-pas-une-pipe type conundrums, and in corrections of past misstatements, all the while resolutely and intently steering us away from what we most want to know, away from the explanation for her state that we, as dogged readers, feel we have coming. I can't think of another novelist who has gotten this right the way Markson has.

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