Author! Author!

What a strange, sad, and elusive book David Markson has written with Vanishing Point. Its one character is known only as Author, and the book consists of notes he is typing up into manuscript form from the hundreds of index cards on which he has them scribbled. What we know about Author is that he wears Adidas sneakers, has been very tired lately, and little else. His notes—each just a line or three, and most concerning the difficult lives of artists—are interspersed with his despairing thoughts about how his compilation is going, or whether it is going anywhere at all. In two typical pages we bounce through 18 tidbits, from “T.S. Eliot was afraid of cows†to Hawthorne’s diary entry on meeting Thoreau (“ugly as sinâ€) to one of Author’s many beguiling sentence fragments: “The legend that Goya, at twenty-four, in Rome, broke into a convent and abducted a nun.†Hardly the pretentious culture-swim the format might seem to promise, this book is droll, affecting, and at times hypnotic, taking shape in the mind like a more scrutable Ashbery or Eliot poem—or just a group of fun and tragic factoids, drawn together by a mystery man who (you eventually develop the suspicion) could be making some of the factoids up.

Followers of Markson’s 40-year career of intense experimenting will know this abstract and allusive ground well already. His most famous novel, Wittgenstein’s Mistress (1988), concerned a mad woman, seemingly the last person on earth, typing out thought after loopy, philosophical thought in single-sentence paragraphs while half-naked in a beach house. Reader’s Block (1996) gave us the character of Reader, a set of notes exactly like Vanishing Point’s, and the mere outlines of a story about a person called Protagonist. This Is Not a Novel (2001), announced the title of Markson’s last book, which featured Writer, “weary unto death of making up stories†and in this same note-taking mode. Together these last three not-novels seem to form one continuous work of the literary mind at an attenuated extreme; and I am betting the obviously well-read Markson sees as his precedent another trilogy of crippled, self-doubting narrators—Molloy, Malone Dies, and The Unnameable by Samuel Beckett, who gets name-dropped more than once in Vanishing Point. At the very least Markson shares Beckett’s steadfastly plotless sense that, in the face of inevitable but not-yet-here death, the way the sturdy, stubborn mind keeps circling back to its obsessions is the most interesting—if not the only—plot a novel can have.

How, a skeptic could rightly ask, does a story with no plot, the barest of characterization, and coy referencing of everything from Greek tragedy to current news—how does it work? I’m still not totally sure, but somehow Markson managed to keep me turning pages. The key seems to lie in the way so many of the notes, hewn to the formal bone, exist on the page as self-sufficient, sparkling anecdotes that, as associations mount, grow into an enticingly fuzzy set of preoccupations, most having to do with the sadness, ugliness, and chicanery beneath the most iconic of intellectual names. You’ll learn here that Eliot initiated a correspondence with Groucho Marx; that Karl Marx never saw the inside of a factory; that Tolstoy, Ibsen, and several other giants never acknowledged illegitimate children. “Melville, late along, possessed no copies of his own books,†says one doleful note. Another, one of many critical stingers, says: “A latrine, Baudelaire called George Sand.†And then there are those many beguiling fragments: “Richard Wagner’s pink underwearâ€; “Pascal’s rotting teethâ€; “Giacomo Puccini’s fanatic addiction to duck hunting.â€

Markson has clearly spent years in the footnotes of biographies, gathering wry ammo for the shooting down of creators’ romanticized self-images. But just when you may think you have a lead on Author’s theme, out of nowhere will come a mischievous line, hanging unaccompanied in the middle of the page, like “The G-String Murdersâ€â€”a title that (in a g-string? with a g-string?) is never explained. On a more serious level, this sort of omission contributed directly to my nerdy pleasures in figuring out the origins of some of Markson’s lines—pleasures I imagine (please let this be so) many readers will share. Here, Google (perhaps the end of walking, talking hyperlink-collectors like Markson?) was a great help. One of my searches revealed that the source of a passage I loved (“For art comes to you proposing frankly to give nothing but the highest quality to your moments as they passâ€) was not Author explaining his method but, in fact, Walter Pater. Elsewhere I reveled, sans computer, in a string of unmarked speeches from King Lear, one of several analogues for Author—but no doubt Markson has provided numerous pathways through his maze for the nerdy pleasures of many a different reader.

A whole other strand of Vanishing Point, raising the book’s stakes, concerns suffering on a mass level. We get very brief histories of mental hospitals, poison gas, and the lives of tyrants. Anti-Semitism among geniuses (Chopin, Dostoevsky) is a recurrent target; and Author quotes extensively from a matter-of-fact correspondence in which IG Farben and the Auschwitz Commandant negotiate the price of “a number of women†on whom to test a new drug. Osama bin Laden even appears, though only through another unattributed quote: “They were overjoyed when the first plane hit the building; so I said to them: Be patient.†I think the strategy with these snippets—as with the quotes that seem to come from soldiers manning concentration-camp posts—is to jolt us with what Hannah Arendt famously called the banality of evil, though what connection exists for Markson between the words of artists and of murderers never really comes clear. The book’s true passion ends up being the aesthete’s life, and Author peppers us throughout with the cities and circumstances of writers’ deaths (“Baltimore, Edgar Allan Poe died inâ€; “Sophocles may have choked to death on a grapeâ€). Reading this book, I came to feel, is sort of like walking through an idiosyncratic graveyard of human history, where David Markson has taken it as his right to erect all the tombstones and write all the epitaphs, in order to tell us something otherwise inexpressible about his own life.

While it certainly would help to know your Joyce and Shakespeare and have a bit of French and Latin before entering Markson’s echo chamber, I should note that this isn’t a book that (like, say, Nabokov’s) guards its secrets in a castle-keep of minute canonical references. Instead, Vanishing Point is really about the acts of reading and recall themselves—the way the unconscious can fix things wrongly in the memory and assign great weight to the arbitrary and small, or the way poetry’s music will stick in the head long after its meaning. Author is at heart a mocker and questioner of himself, prodding his brain to remember scenes from Austen, musing over why he’s never made certain connections before, and wondering beautifully, at one point, whether “anyone ever die who is not remembered through the remainder of at least one other entire lifetime by someone….â€

It’s difficult to say more about the course Author takes without spoiling Markson’s game. If your experience is like mine, though, Vanishing Point will be the sort of avant-garde artwork that keeps you asking “What exactly is he doing?†until, just as your patience might seem exhausted, your throat catches in the final pages and you ask, turning back to the beginning, “How exactly did he do that?†Markson’s epigraph, from Willem de Kooning, gives one clue to the book’s ultimate aesthetic mission: “Every so often, a painter has to destroy painting.†Fifteen years ago, in Wittgenstein’s Mistress, that theme of originality through destruction led Markson to the wry image of a woman living in the Met and the Louvre and building bonfires out of masterpieces to keep warm. Now, in both the form and sensibility of these last three books, Markson seems to have made his own mortality central to the question of what, in this world, will endure time’s cruelties. Without getting Derridean about it, it is fair to say that this late Markson insists that novels should embody within themselves the same sort of fleetingness, fragility, and outright self-destruction Author’s notes find in art’s history and in himself.

The book ends with a word that, an earlier note has told us, “marks the end of verses in the Psalms, but the Hebrew meaning of which is unknown.†It may mean only pause, or rest. Such is Markson’s guarded claim to writing, for himself and for us, a new kind of scripture. For at their most transcendent, Vanishing Point’s stark, mournful lines become a monk’s meditations for a world in which the one true God is art, but the major lesson, is still, memento mori. Call it an Ecclesiastes for the vanities of the restless mind. And read it.

Since writing this review, Jeff Severs, a writer in Austin, has discovered (through a Google search) that The G-String Murders was a mystery written by Gypsy Rose Lee in 1941 and later adapted into a film starring Barbara Stanwyck. He regrets ever doubting its reality.

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Published at 12:00 am CST