25 July 2007

david markson : the last novel

david markson, 2007

Nonlinear. Discontinuous. Collage-like. An assemblage.

I do not see why exposition and description are a necessary part of a novel.
Said Ivy Compton-Burnett.

I am quite content to go down to posterity as a scissors and paste man.
Said Joyce.

ronald sukenick, 1975

This novel is based on the Mosaic Law the law of mosaics or how to deal with parts in the absence of wholes.

david markson, 2007

A novel of intellectual reference and allusion, so to speak minus much of the novel.

And thus in which Novelist will say more about himself only when he finds no way to evade doing so, but rarely otherwise.

lance olsen, 2007

Which is to say: both the structuring and the reading of collage fiction often involves an aleatoric component that recalls not only the Cubist work of Braque and Picasso, but also the Dada and Surrealist work of Duchamp and Breton: interest in the found object, the readymade, the chance encounter.

It also recalls Lévi-Strauss’ notion of bricolage, as Gregory L. Ulmer points out, foregrounding concepts of already-extant messages, severing, discontinuity, and heterogeneity.

Ulmer goes on to argue that collage is a form of citation “carried to an extreme …, collage being the ‘limit case’ of citation,” and Derrida reminds us that “every sign, linguistic or non-linguistic … can be cited, put between quotation marks; in so doing it can break with every given context, engendering an infinity of new contexts in a manner which is absolutely illimitable.”

Collage, then, through the very process of cutting up and cutting off opens up and opens out.

By appropriating and quoting out of context, the form releases new and often unexpected contexts, recontextualizations that can surprise the author as well as the reader.

shelley jackson, 2003

In collage, writing is stripped of the pretense of originality, and appears as a practice of mediation, of selection and contextualization, a practice, almost, of reading. In which one can be surprised by what one has to say, in the forced intercourse between texts or the recombinant potential in one text …. Writers court the sideways glances of sentences mostly bent on other things. They solicit bad behavior, collusion, conspiracies. Hypertext just makes explicit what everyone does already. After all, we are all collage artists.

ronald sukenick, 1994

You need to understand that understanding is an interruption. Understanding is always an interruption of which you understand in the form of the cryptic. You need to interrupt yourself.

david markson, 2007

Novelist's personal genre. For all its seeming fragmentation, nonetheless obstinately cross-referential and of cryptic interconnective syntax.

david markson, 2007

Jacques Derrida failed his entrance exams to the École Normal Supérieure. Twice.

lance olsen, 2007

Collage fiction draws attention to the sensuality of the page, the physicality of the book, and therefore draws attention to writing as a post-biological body of text. This point is evinced, for instance, in Steve Tomasula’s novel VAS: An Opera in Flatland, and Shelley Jackson’s web-based hypertext, My Body.

Replete with three-color graphics, foldout pages, wild typographic play, diagrams, doodles, drawings, and disparate citations, the former involves an expansive comic plot about a man named Square living in a (literally) two-dimensional suburban world with his wife, Circle, and their daughter, Oval, and Square’s struggle over whether or not to undergo a vasectomy. But it is the structure of that plot—that is, the body of the text about the text of the body—that makes Tomasula’s collage fiction an unforgettably unique reading experience.

In the latter, the reader chooses which parts of Shelley Jackson’s critifictional autobiography to read by clicking on various parts of her body in a schematic sketch. The sound of lungs inhaling and exhaling in the background provides musical accompaniment to much of the reading experience.

david markson, 2007

Nobody comes. Nobody calls—
Which Novelist after a moment realizes may sound like a line of Beckett's, but is actually something he himself has said in an earlier book.

david markson, 2007

Thinking with someone else's brain.
Schopenhauer called reading.

lance olsen, 2007

Since discovering Wittgenstein's Mistress perhaps a decade ago, I haven't been able to write without writing through Markson.

I wouldn't want it any other way.

Which isn't to say Markson's moves in The Last Novel may not have begun to seem faintly familiar to those who know his last two non-novels.

But, still: what gorgeous, exciting, invigorating moves.

david markson, 2007

My old paintings no longer interest me. I'm much more curious about those I haven't done yet.
Said Picasso, at seventy-nine.


Ted Pelton said...

Nice work, here, Lance -- a critical essay here in the guise of a meta-review. I, like you, find Markson work astonishing and contagious. I suppose it's the mark of a great book when one starts to apply the form one receives from it everywhere one looks, upon finishing. I think Markson is also one of the primary examples of what's wrong with American publishing, as I wrote a couple of years ago in an essay published in an Estonian journal. He's brilliant, absolutely original, compulsively readable (I don't see how you could really call his work "difficult"; challenging, sure, but if you are a reader, you will like what he does); yet for all that he's practically unknown in his own country because he isn't published by a big corporation.

With your forbearance, here's an excerpt of my essay (since few of you are Estonian) which deals with Markson's This is Not a Novel (2001) --

David Markson is an example of a challenging, innovative novelist whose work has appeared almost exclusively in small press editions, despite critical acclaim and the accolades of his artistic contemporaries. His two most recent novels, published by Dalkey Archive and Counterpoint, respectively, are particularly worth noting. Reader’s Block (1996) introduced the form in which Markson works in his most recent book, which I will for the moment refrain from calling a novel in deference to its title, This is Not a Novel (2001). The form adopted in these two books is to create narrative out of quotation and paraphrase from texts of world-wide literary, cultural, and intellectual traditions, as well as commentary on these texts. Obsessions figuring predominantly in the imaginations of his protagonists are identified not by directly linking them to the protagonists, who are rarely referred to directly, but by implied themes in the subject matter of appropriated materials, as in this excerpt from This is Not a Novel, which incorporates a quotation from the Francis Ford Coppola movie Apocalypse Now, biblical lore, examples commenting on American Catholicism and French anti-semitism, and names of a number of semi-obscure figures from the histories of painting, literature, philosophy, and music, all in the course of less than a page:

I love the smell of napalm in the morning.

Josquin des Prez.

It took ten years after her suicide for Jeanne Hébuterne’s family to allow her remains to be reburied beside Modligliani’s in the Jewish section of Père Lechaise.

Adelaide Proctor. Mrs. Henry Wood.

Gericault died after a fall from a horse.

Hindemith died of a stroke.

Nebuchadnezzar. Who ruled Jerusalem.
And went mad.
And ate grass.

Cardinal Spellman of New York once sent Pope Pius XII a Cadillac automobile with solid gold door handles.

Wyatt Earp died of chronic cystitis. (110)

In this excerpt, the mind of the protagonist, identified in the book only as “Writer,” is shown as a field of received texts through which he has nonetheless himself become defined, for the reader finds out little more of him than through these. Writer’s experiences have become entirely subsumed within textual referents. Evidently fearing death, he is awash in textual examples of and reflections on death and dying; his adult life having been consumed by making up characters and plots, he now cannot think but in received plots, characters, and names of characters, the act of naming one of the most creatively original activities an author of fiction performs. But Writer, we are told at the beginning of the so-called non-novel, is “pretty much tempted to quit writing,” “weary unto death of making up stories,” “inventing characters” (1). Markson manages to create character and plot by their absence, which in the mind of the blocked but well-read and intellectually curious writer (interested in “seducing the reader to turn pages nonetheless,” 3), cannot but become the greater absences evoked by the signs all around him, within him, invisibly webbing him from all directions. His non-novel or anti-novel, of course, is a novel precisely because its absences create a dialogue with “The Novel,” this genre so obsessed with self-definition, so amorphous and changeable, so continually worried about its own problems.
Markson is certainly a cerebral writer. But he is hardly incomprehensible. Indeed, one need not follow all the references to find intellectual entertainment in This is Not a Novel. Nonetheless, it was not Markson who chose not to partake of commercial literary success; the commercial marketplace chose not to partake of him. In an interview with Joseph Tabbi, Markson speaks at first sheepishly, then angrily, of the number of rejections his novel Wittgenstein’s Mistress received before it was published by Dalkey Archive, fifty-four (Tabbi 5). About a third of these rejections came not from editors but from the sales divisions of publishing companies, which has made Markson understandably bitter about the selection processes employed by American publishers, ruled by salespeople: “those semiliterates don’t simply participate in the editorial process, but dictate its decisions.”
To be sure, Markson’s works are not what the average reader expects when he or she picks up a novel. The question is whether these readerly expectations have created the types of novels corporate publishers will and won’t take chances publishing, or if the tastes have been created by publishers who refuse to take risks. However one answers this chicken and egg problem, clearly US publishers of the novel favor a certain mode of fiction-making: the straight-forward, verisimilitudinous tale, told with a minimum of self-reflexive reflection on the operations of its telling. For if there is any notion that divides contemporary practitioners of innovative fiction whose work is mostly located in the small presses from the mainstream publishing establishment, it is the notion that narrative operations should be seamless and invisible in the service of telling a story, versus the recognition on the part of more experimental authors and presses, consistent with contemporary narrative theory, that fiction-making is a complex process. As Paul Cobley points out:
[E]ven the most ‘simple’ of stories is embedded in a network of relations that are sometimes astounding in their complexity.
[ . . . ] The most familiar, most primitive, most ancient and seemingly most straightforward of stories reveals depths that we might hitherto have failed to anticipate. That we do not anticipate them is usually because we do not attend to the network of relations in which a story resides. (Cobley 2)
Cobley quotes historian David Carr on the difference between lived reality and stories: “real events do not have the character of those we find in stories, and if we treat them as if they did have such a character, we are not being true to them” (qtd. in Cobley 9). Creating narrative is an operation of selecting and ordering signs; a story based on lived experience emphasizes representation of certain aspects of that experience, elects to leave other parts out, emphasizes and deemphasizes events, perspectives, causations, implications, decides which other experiences are connected and which are not, etc. The verisimilitudinous or mimetic in narrative fiction is that quality which makes it seem virtually the same as narratives of lived experience. But the novel is not simply a recording of lived experience; indeed, the complex act of making narrative, which may exist even prior to the formal act of fiction-making, is that quality to which many innovative, US small press-based fiction writers are most drawn, find intriguing, integral to the story rather than the aspect that must be submerged. Such is in keeping with a certain tradition of the novel that foregrounds narrative operations instead of being pledged to their invisibility in the service of verisimilitude, a centuries-old, international tradition that includes writers like Cervantes, Sterne, Melville, Gogol, Joyce, Stein, Woolf, Kundera, Soyinka, and numerous others.

Lance Olsen said...

Thanks for posting this great excerpt from your Estonian essay, Ted.

What a beautiful meta-reading of Markson's project of unwriting the novel.

The only thing I would add, because very few readers have emphasized this about Markson, because most readers foreground Markson's (admittedly stunning) intellectual gamesmanship, is how terribly moving his last few unnovels have been.

I find their investigations of the lengthening shadows called the approach of Mr. Blue-Eyed Death some of the most powerful I've ever read.