This is not a review.
This book was recommended to me.
An experimental, philosophical novel.
I really wanted to like this book.
I had read the reviews & after being unable for a few years to buy it secondhand, I bit the bullet & bought it new.
The beginning is intriguing.
The concept of the book is dead simple.
The idea is this: Kate is a painter; she is the last person on earth, maybe; she is alone in a house on the Long Island beach
Markson picks up Kate’s dialogue in media res and trusts the reader enough to piece together what the heck is going on: she is the last person left on earth and is making her way through it as best she can, telling us her story as she goes.
Short declarative sentences loop feverishly around her brain, repeating themselves, correcting themselves, contradicting themselves, and filling in missing information many pages later.
The narrator’s voice rings true.
It is frustrating, repetitive, and does not offer much in the way of style and language.
No chapter breaks, no real paragraphs even.
Read at random.
This book received 54 rejections before finding a publisher. This I can believe.
Her little apercus are all about observation and remembrance, the real and the false, blah, blah.
(Joyce, Baldwin, Pynchon, Cortazar).
The book was meandering, rambling & jumped all over the place.
Not that oddness is bad.
It never centers on anything.
It’s the type of book best discussed in groups, since it does bring up some interesting themes—the fragility of memory and sanity, the ineffectiveness of language, the impact of philosophy and literature.
There’s nothing for the reader to latch onto and follow, other than the voice.
What about the subtext?
Like Wittgenstein said, “Whereof we cannot speak, thereof we must be silent.”
I am mad. I am crazy. Yesterday I died but returned in time to write this.
1. Like many David Foster Wallace fans, I’d already read many of the essays collected in the posthumous Both Flesh and Not. I hadn’t read “The Empty Plenum: David Markson’s Wittgenstein’s Mistress” though, originally published in a 1990 issue of The Review of Contemporary Fiction.
I suspect that the Markson essay hasn’t been collected up until now because it is so focused on Wittgenstein’s Mistress—this in contrast to, say “How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart” (Consider the Lobster) which is nominally about Austin’s autobiography but really about much bigger frying fish, like fan-idol relationships and ghostwriting and genre, or “Greatly Exaggerated,” which, again is nominally a review of Dix’s Morte d’Author: An Autopsy but is really more about postmodernism in general. I can’t recall exactly—maybe in his Charlie Rose interview—but Wallace said that he wanted the pieces in his books to be about more than just the ephemeral surface-level topic at hand; like most writers, he was contending for posterity. Wallace’s Markson essay is about Wittgenstein’s philosophy and the state of postmodern or experimental writing in the late 1980s and certain feminist analytic approaches to literature—but mostly it’s a detailed review of Markson’s novel—and it’s not trying to be anything more—which is actually really nice.
2. I read Wittgenstein’s Mistress on David Foster Wallace’s recommendation (I could add the modifier “like many David Foster Wallace fans” here again, I suspect). (That recommendation– “Five direly underappreciated U.S. novels >1960”—is also reprinted in Flesh (perhaps superfluously)). (While I’m getting all parenthetical: I read all five books Wallace recommended and all were excellent).
Here’s Wallace’s recommendation:
“W’s M” is a dramatic rendering of what it would be like to live in the sort of universe described by logical atomism. A monologue, formally very odd, mostly one-sentence 6s. Tied with “Omensetter’s Luck” for the all-time best U.S. book about human loneliness. These wouldnt constitute ringing endorsements if they didnt happen all to be simultaneously true — i.e., that a novel this abstract and erudite and avant-garde that could also be so moving makes “Wittgenstein’s Mistress” pretty much the high point of experimental fiction in this country.
—This is in some ways a condensation of his essay “The Empty Plenum,” where he writes:
Markson’s is not a pop book, and it’s not decocted philosophy or a docudrama-of-the-week. Rather, for me, the novel does artistic & emotional justice to the politico-ethical implications of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s abstract mathematical metaphysics , makes what is designed to be a mechanism pulse, breathe, suffer, live, etc. In so doing, it pays emotional tribute to a philosopher who by all evidence lived in a personal spiritual torment over the questions too many of his academic followers have made into elaborate empty exercises.
3. After Wittgenstein’s Mistress, Markson wrote four more novels, or anti-novels, if you like, sometimes called the note-card novels, novels “of intellectual reference and allusion, so to speak minus much of the novel,” as Novelist puts it in The Last Novel. I read these novels after WM: better-if-not-as-precise (in its metaphoricity) verb: I devoured them. Refinement isn’t exactly the right word, but Markson’s last four novels distill the elliptical and monotone style that he began in WM into a kind of word collage, a frieze of loops, motifs, ideas that the reader has the privilege/burden to construct meaning from. At the beginning of his essay on WM, Wallace posits that the novel is an “INTERPRET-ME” novel; the four novels after WM go beyond INTERPRET-ME—they ask the reader to construct-me, build-me, make-me. These late novels cast away the onus of a narrator; they jettison the already-jettisoned figure of Kate, narrator of Wittgenstein’s Mistress, the last person on earth. And perhaps because of all this, I’ve come to think that they are in many ways superior to WM (or at least showcase a clear evolution in Markson’s style)—that they more purely enact the canon-making, curatorial process that I take to be the core of Markson’s last five books.
4. Here’s Wallace on Markson’s curatorial curve:
The curator’s job—to recall, choose, arrange: to impose order & so communicate meaning—is marvelously synechdochic of the life of the solipsist, of the survival strategies apposite one’s existence as monad in a world of diffracted fact.
Except a big question is: whence facts, if the world is “empty”?
And then Wallace goes about answering this question w/r/t (am I borrowing too many Wallacian shortcuts here?) Wittgenstein’s philosophy. (And this I will not attempt to summarize here).
5. But I will quote Wallace again:
[Wittgenstein] never actually wrote anything about the exquisite tensions between atomism & attendant solipsism on the one hand & distinctively human values & qualities on the other. But, see, this is exactly what Mr. Markson does in WM; and in this way Markson’s novel succeeds in speaking where Wittgenstein is mute, weaving Kate’s obsession with responsibility (for the world’s emptiness) gorgeously into the character’s mandala of cerebral conundrum & spiritual poverty.
6. The greatest weaknesses of Wallace’s essay:
a). He doesn’t do a great job of explicating specifically how Wittgensteinian philosophy—or even themes—are alluded to by Markson in WM. (Or maybe I’m just a weak reader).
b). He gets bogged down in a long discussion of WM as a male-authored text featuring a female narrator w/r/t passivity vs. agency and object vs. subject and Helen vs. Eve (etc.) that I think is ultimately the kind of business far better sorted out in the novel itself.
7. The greatest strength of Wallace’s essay:
He made me want to reread Wittgenstein’s Mistress.
More from David Markson’s interview at the Dalkey Archive:
DM: Originally I was calling it “Wittgenstein’s Niece.” Never knowing, of course, that Thomas Bernhard would eventually publish something called “Wittgenstein’s Nephew.” But even before I submitted it I knew I’d have enough trouble finding a publisher as was—hardly the amount I did have, but some—and so not wanting to compound the difficulty I changed it to “Keeper of the Ghosts.” Which is something I swiped from Lowry, by the way, from a character named Ghostkeeper. But once the manuscript wound up in the hands of a small press that wasn’t going to be worried about recognition value in Downers Grove, Illinois, or among the knuckleheads at a sales conference, I went back to Wittgenstein. “Mistress” had been on the same scratch sheet with “Niece,” and I decided I liked it better by then.
JT: And meaning basically that your heroine is mistress to Wittgenstein’s thought?
DM: Well, along with several other people’s yes. But as I started to say a few minutes ago, the Wittgenstein is frequently most obvious in the very way she questions so many of her own “propositions,” as it were.
From the entry “All Subjects with Fresán,” in Bolaño’s collection Between Parentheses, a list of stuff the late writer talked about with his good friend, which includes (as usual) plenty of references to writers, poets, directors—and some funny jokes as well. Read part of Fresán’s essay “The Savage Detective” — it was the piece that first got me to go pick up a Bolaño. Here’s the list—
1) The Latin American hell that, especially on weekends, is concentrated around some Kentucky Fried Chicken or McDonald’s.
2) The doings of Buenos Aires photographer Alfredo Garofano, childhood friend of Rodrigo and how a friend of mine and of anyone with the least bit of discernment.
3) Bad translations.
4) Serial killers and mass murders.
5) Prospective leisure as the antidote to prospective poetry.
6) The vast number of writers who should retire after writing their first book or their second or their third or their fourth or their fifth.
7) The superiority of the work of Basquiat to that of Haring, or vice versa.
8 ) The works of Borges and the works of Bioy.
9) The advisability of retiring to a ranch in Mexico near a volcano to finish writing The Turkey Buzzard Trilogy.
10) Wrinkles in the space time continuum.
11) The kind of majestic women you’ve never met who come up to you in a bar and whisper in your ear that they have AIDS (or that they don’t).
12) Gombrowicz and his conception of immaturity.
13) Philip K. Dick, whom we both unreservedly admire.
14) The likelihood of a war between Chile and Argentina and its possible and impossible consequences.
15) The life of Proust and the life of Stendhal.
16) The activities of some professors in the United States.
17) The sexual practices of titi monkeys and ants and great cetaceans.
18) Colleagues who must be avoided like limpet mines.
19) Ignacio Echevarria, whom both of us love and admire.
20) Some Mexican writers liked by me and not by him, and some Argentine writers like by me and not by him.
21) Barcelonan manners.
22) David Lynch and the prolixity of David Foster Wallace.
23) Chabon and Palahniuk, whom he likes and I don’t.
24) Wittgenstein and his plumbing and carpentry skills.
25) Some twilit dinners, which actually, to the surprise of the diner, become theater pieces in five acts.
26) Trashy TV game shows.
27) The end of the world.
28) Kubrick’s films, which Fresán loves so much that I’m beginning to hate them.
29) The incredible war between the planet of the novel-creatures and the planet of the story beings.
30) The possibility that when the novel awakes from its iron dreams, the story will be there.