Markson's `Vanishing Point': abstraction as narrative magic

On Books

January 25, 2004|By Michael Pakenham | Michael Pakenham,Sun Books Editor

I am not a credible critic of a great deal of the fiction held sacred by the magistrates and myrmidons of many of this nation's schools of writing - and by small literary journals inhabited by them. To the extent that I read what often is called "experimental" and sometimes "postmodernist" fiction, self-referential insistences tend to make me queasy. Writers writing about writers writing of writing's deep agonies. That sort of thing.

Thus prejudiced, I am of a mind to conclude that Vanishing Point, by David Markson (Shoemaker & Hoard, 208 pages, $15) is not of those ilks at all, though other critics may insist it is. I found it an enchanting, irresistible banquet of mind nourishment, majestically innocent of academic pomposity, vulgar narcissism and culture-war polemic. A marvelous, page-turning read.

Markson, now 76, has written, among much else, six previous novels, a volume of poetry and another of criticism. He has received numerous awards and fellowships. He lives in New York. His Wittgenstein's Mistress, published in 1988, was his most celebrated work so far - though it first was rejected, he has said, by 54 publishers.

Markson's technique, or device, is brazenly unorthodox. This book is a series of little snippets, from one word to a maximum of five or six lines. The narrative voice is presented as "Author" - never "the author" and not otherwise described. Author is writing on a 40-plus-year-old portable typewriter. The bits are presented as notes taken on 3-by-5-inch index cards that fill two shoeboxes. There's an early declaration that "Author is pretty sure that most of them are basically in the sequence he wants."

Though the work is not really Joycean, if you have enjoyed Ulysses in whole or part you'll catch onto Markson's undertaking without a struggle. If on stage, screen or between covers you have found delight in the absurdist works of Samuel Beckett in Waiting for Godot or in Eugene Ionesco's provocations, including Rhinoceros, you will be on solid ground to grasp this volume's idiom.

Early in the book, Author defines it as "Nonlinear. Discontinuous. Collage-like. An assemblage. As is already more than self-evident." He pretends or perhaps struggles not to involve himself in the story. But his occasional comments, no longer than the other entries, neatly weave a portrait of a consciousness - though a wispy, ethereal one. As the material accumulates, a sense of a strong philosophical or aesthetic personality evolves.

Many of the bits appear to be simple entertainments - "Karl Marx never in his life saw the inside of a factory." Or: "Aaron Copland, on listening to Ralph Vaughn Williams' Fifth Symphony: Like staring at a cow for forty-five minutes." A lot of the material is ancient, from early Greek and Roman history and literature. At the other extreme are facts and observations that are entirely up to date: "The greatest work of art ever, Karlheinz Stockhausen called the destruction of the World Trade Center."

Author dismisses any idea that he knows where the book is headed. And then, halfway, come these lines, without instructive context: "Obstinately cross-referential and of cryptic interconnective syntax. / Probably by this point more than apparent - or surely for the attentive reader. / As should be Author's experiment to see how little of his own presence he can get away with throughout." That's the book.

I decided early on that I would not devote my next year to determining how many of Markson's bits are authentic and how many fanciful. But taken as a whole, they present the glory of a rich and deeply cultured mind. Literary, architectural, musical, artistic, political and scientific history are drawn together in ways that are unifyingly powerful. They make clear that Markson, among other virtues, has a fabulous eye and the discipline to have compiled a commonplace book of uncommon brilliance.

Almost magically, these snippets expand in their capacity to fascinate. They have crackling acceleration, from one to another. The text moves along with the captivating drive that usually comes only from a narrative that's intricately, suspensefully plotted or ecstatically musical. The ideas themselves grow into a sort of critical mass of energy. Then, artistic, literary sophistication plays counterpoint to rollicking, frolicking absurdity.

Many of the bits are written in inverted forms that call attention to the less obvious element of the statement, giving surprise: "Very great is the number of the stupid. Said Galileo." Or "There are always more fools in the majority than in the minority. Said Anatole France." Or "As I write, highly civilized human beings are flying overhead, trying to kill me. Begins an Orwell essay dated 1941." Almost no one gets off easy, present company included: "Odious vermin, Henry Fielding called critics."

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