In The Last Novel, David Markson continues his quest to re-invent the novel. To wit: his last four novels are each basically a series of brief paragraphs and vignettes about the lives, opinions, raging egos, and work of artists, writers, philosophers, thinkers, and athletes (primarily baseball players), told by an unseen narrator called Author or Novelist or Writer. The vignettes aren’t direct quotations—except when they’re unsourced lines from literature—but are instead outlandish, funny, and often desperately sad quips said in the narrator’s ironic, curmudgeonly voice. (As weird as they are, I’ve been able to verify almost every one I’ve checked out. Did Kurt Vonnegut really say, “I never knew a writer’s wife who wasn’t beautiful.” Yep. Did Bobby Fischer really say, “Wonderful news,” upon hearing about the destruction of the World Trade Center? Yes, the bastard did.)
These free-floating little stories—seeming to prove Hemingway’s line that a story can be six words or less—traverse over time and genre, jumping from Greek antiquity to yesterday’s news, with jokes that hang in the air on page 34, only for us to reach the equally hovering punchline on page 150. Periodically, Novelist makes an appearance, almost despite himself. “Old. Tired. Sick. Alone. Broke” is a recurring phrase. Somehow, it’s all irresistibly readable, and so many of the notes linger in the mind that it makes a sort of narrative sense. The Last Novel is not random, but moves gradually towards an understanding of the Novelist’s pre-occupations, loves and hates. Then again, this is true of Markson’s previous three outings—Vanishing Point, This Is Not A Novel, and Reader’s Block, and here the law of diminishing returns sets in.
What’s amazing is that the Markson Quartet—that’s what I’m calling it, anyway, with his 1988 Wittgenstein’s Mistress as the mother of them all—is that, despite the unvarying approach, each novel has a different tone, and each reaches a compelling, satisfying narrative drive. Vanishing Point is elegiac, ending with the dates, times, and places of death of famous artists (un-attributed, of course), with the stunning, dawning realization that it’s the Author who’s dying. Reader’s Block carries on two parallel narratives—the Reader can’t decide on which one to follow through—until they coalesce on a sad note, and a brisk, funny joke. This Is Not A Novel’s tone is as belligerent and defiant as the title’s claim—and ironic, too, because it turns out not to be quite true. A narrative thread—the Writer defining and defending whatever it is he’s doing—runs through. It’s a mad quest, and sad, too. Writer can’t break of the novel’s demands, despite obvious attempts, in the same way that his countless vignettes reveal how artists can’t free themselves of their own ties and prejudices.
The Last Novel, I suppose, is terrific if you’ve never read Markson before. Honestly, though, it’s a retread of This Is Not A Novel, only more reticent about the narrator and less emotionally engaging. Markson’s now licked this flavor of ice cream too many times. Markson even realizes the fear:
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.
But then there’s the old defiance:
His last book. All of which also then gives Novelist carte blanche to do anything here he damned well pleases.
Which is to say, writing in his own personal genre, as it were.
He also reminds himself, like a mantra, that the book is to be: “Nonlinear. Discontinuous. Collage-like. An assemblage.” And, of course, it is. The difference here is that, with his previous books, Markson either got along with his business or worked hard to push his limits. Here, the repeated phrases and defenses of himself seem less like an explorer than like an aged prizefighter with more gut than muscle tone.
But then, outliving his usefulness—being outdated—is one of the primary anguishes motivating The Last Novel. “Old enough to have started coming upon likenesses on postage stamps of other writers he had known personally or had at least met in passing” has its ante upped by “When you can see the bandwagon, it’s already gone. Said de Kooning.” More here than any previous novel, Markson (excuse me, Writer) worries about getting old. Again, though, he’s done this better—in the far superior and deeply moving Vanishing Point.
Even though the voice has gotten outdated and tiresome, there’s still life in the loosely connected anecdotes. They still shock, surprise, anger, and make me laugh. More and more, the litany of invective, nuanced history, and misjudgments seems forced. Writer’s finally gotten so stuck in the world of books, operas, baseball games, and paintings that he can’t see (or even wants to see) the world outside his own Greenwich Village apartment.
Markson’s proved that he can strip the novel of characters, settings, and plot—or, conversely, throwing together tiny multitudes of the same, depending on how you see it—and still convey narrative richness and tearjerking depth. But his “own personal genre” is becoming airless. The Last Novel takes the form as far as Markson can go. Now it’s time for him to step back, regroup, and perhaps rediscover the pleasures of old things.
It’s worth mentioning that Markson is still spry, and that his conversation is as fluid, funny, and erudite as his novels. Here’s a 2004 Bookslut interview, upon the publication of Vanishing Point and the re-issue of Going Down; here’s an even more expansive one, from 1989.