I cannot come to this review unbiased. Few new novels would excite me as much as one from David Markson, as he has been writing unusual and brilliant novels for decades at a slow and steady pace. Starting with 1996′s Reader’s Block, he has written three books that form a sort of trilogy (the other two being This is Not a Novel in 2001 and Vanishing Point in 2004) in a genre that is purely his own. To this informal series Markson now adds The Last Novel. Each is best described by Markson’s own words: one line of Markson’s that appears in some form in each of these novels and two quotations:
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.
Not only does this brief excerpt describe the work, but it also gives the unfamiliar reader a taste of Markson’s style and provides a fine example of the collage-like juxtaposition of brief paragraphs that make up the entirety of the novel. The Last Novel is both very easy and very difficult to quote from. On one hand, it is filled with interesting, brilliant, funny, and depressing little bits of text, but on the other hand, shorn of the greater context the book begins to appear like some sort of reference work—unreadable and emotionally distant. This is distinctly not the case. The most successful of collages are a sum greater than the parts, and Markson’s work is successful. In the aggregate these collaged elements gain meaning and emotional power.
The brief paragraphs that make up The Last Novel can be generally but not exhaustibly cataloged as: quotations (attributed and not, but never in quotation marks); biographical fragments from artists, writers, philosophers, and others; and the brief thoughts of Novelist, the mostly absent protagonist of the book. The organization of these elements is “cryptic” (as Markson puts it), but one never feels that Markson is going about it randomly. The example above is an obvious use of meaningful juxtaposition; in other cases it is less so. Often one paragraph refers back to an earlier one, sometimes a few lines up, sometimes a few pages back (to wit: “The so-called Wicked Bible. Dated London 1632. / In which the word not was omitted in the seventh commandment,” and two pages later “Thou shalt commit adultery.”).
This requires an attentive reader and, sometimes, an educated one. Markson draws on an impressive array of sources, and I find it one of the joys of his work to identify one of the unattributed quotations or to make a connection between two paragraphs whose relation is obscure. This isn’t to say that reading the book requires a vast knowledge of history, philosophy, or the arts, but I believe much can be gained in the reading with such knowledge. One might consider Markson’s work an education in itself, for all the information that is offered in this slim novel.
When the stove is clean enough I shall turn on the gas.
Wrote Anna Wickham—twelve years before she hanged herself instead.
Where the synecdoche of tessera made a totality, however illusive, the metonymy of kenosis breaks this up into discontinuous fragments.
Somewhere declareth Harold Bloom.
It may be essential to Harold Bloom that his audience not know quite what he is talking about.
Commenteth Alfred Kazin—pointing out other immortal phrasings altogether.
How many of you are there in the quartet?
While information is not lacking, there is no plot to be found. The closest thing to a character—if one excuses the hundreds (thousands?) of historical and contemporary figures that appear in some context or another—is Novelist, an aging writer, whose thoughts punctuate the text at rare and widely separated points. Novelist is aging and really noticing it: his friends are dying, it’s harder to get around, he is forgetting things. The character, as the author of the book we are reading, adds a metafictional layer to the work, often commenting on the current novel or its predecessors:
Novelist’s personal genre. In which part of the experiment is to continue keeping him offstage to the greatest extent possible—while compelling the attentive reader to perhaps catch his breath when things achieve an ending nonetheless.
In this sense Markson once again describes his work better and more succinctly than anyone.
Shorn of plot and characters, a reader may wonder what there is to be found. Everything. Markson’s experimental style throws out the trappings of realism yet finds a reality more real than mere realism. Its evocation of the experiences of hundreds of personages reveals all the varieties of life: birth and death, success and failure, love and hate, art, religion, and philosophy.
Moreover, in a chapterless novel of short, one- or two-sentence paragraphs the reader finds no place to stop reading and put the book down. The forward movement is relentless from beginning to end, a constant barrage of accumulating passages that offer no escape from human life in all its infinite forms. What could seem a dry recording of facts is actually a moving reading experience.
If one can find no convenient place to stop, there is an endless number of places to start reading. Open the book and read a line. One is drawn to the next and the next. Without having to put together the “facts” of plot or character the reader is easily absorbed into the novel’s world of fragments. As I write this review I find myself picking up the book to find a quote and instead end up reading a handful of pages.
For the reader of any of Markson’s recent novels, The Last Novel will be familiar, but, while it will be familiar, it is not worn of pleasures and novelty. Markson is not working from a cookie cutter; rather his four most recent works display a planned and well-executed set of variations, an issue he addresses directly in this novel:
Reviewers who protest that Novelist has lately appeared to be writing the same book over and over.
Like their grandly perspicacious uncles—who groused that Monet had done those damnable water lilies nine dozen times already also.
This brief passage makes an excellent point about the novel in contrast to other forms of art. Variations and repetitions are much more frequent in painting or music than novels. While many authors take up the same themes time after time (Paul Auster is a good example of this), Markson’s recent works are very similar in form and content (though as far as I can tell he does not repeat his facts). Such variations are difficult to compare from one to the next, but if this variation is not clearly better than the others it is certainly no worse. I’ve read them all multiple times, and there is always something new to be found on the next page.
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