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BOOKS & THE CULTURE Author! Author! BY JEFF SEVERS Vanishing Point: A Novel By David Markson Shoemaker & Hoard 191 pages, $15. AVhat 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 noteseach just a line or three, and most concerning the difficult lives of artistsare 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 meetAuthor’s many beguiling sentence fragments: “The legend that Goya, at twentyfour, 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 poemor just a group of fun and tragic factoids, drawn together by a mystery man who \(you eventually 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, concerned a mad woman, seemingly the last person on earth, typing out thought after loopy, philosophical thought in singlesentence paragraphs while half-naked in a beach house. Reader’s Block 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 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 narratorsMolloy, 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 interestingif not the onlyplot 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 newshow 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 underwear”; “Pascal’s rotting teeth”; “Giacomo Puccini’s fanatic addiction to duck hunting.” 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 Murders” a title that \(in a g-string? with 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 linespleasures I imagine 22 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 2/27/04