Fare Forward: Letters from David Markson
Ed. by Laura Sims
powerHouse Books, 2014
153 pages / $12.95 buy from powerHouse Books
1. The first of paragraph of the New York Times obituary of David Markson grants him the following description: “almost always surprisingly engaging and underappreciated.” Which strikes me as one of the most damningly reluctant compliments I’ve ever read one person give another.
2. almost always surprisingly engaging
3. David Markson, in a letter written two months before his death: “Everything I can think of would be making me repeat myself—and I almost prefer the silence. (Actually, I hate it.)”
4. It is endlessly frustrating to attempt to begin a review about a book about Markson. All sentences begin to feel like collections of adverbs and prepositions.
5. Yet adverbs tell us how a verb occurred. Prepositions place us in space. Nothing occurs in Markson’s later work. The only space in which his later novels take place is in the roving scope of the writer’s mind.
6. Nobody comes. Nobody calls. Reads a line from Reader’s Block.
7. Laura Sims’s collection of letters from Markson, called Fare Forward: Letters From David Markson. A series of postcards from a Greenwich Village address, from a writer almost nobody read, who had quit reading novels altogether.
8. Writing to Sims before a reading he was giving in 2007, who had told him she’d planned to bring friends, Markson asked: “But why in hell would you punish any good friend by making him/her go?”
9. I have the sense that this review is going badly, so I’ll here quote the late David Foster Wallace’s lackadaisically phrased claim re: Markson’s Wittgenstein’s Mistress—“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.”
10. Adverbs, too, are splattered all over his obit: “Mr. Markson’s books expressed, both mischievously and earnestly, the hem-and-haw self-consciousness of the perpetual thought-reviser. He wrote mostly monologues, or at least the narration seemed to emanate from a single voice, though the books were not necessarily narrated in the first person.”
11. almost always surprisingly engaging
12. Fact: Fare Forward contains letters written by David Markson to the poet Laura Sims between 2003 and his death in 2010. It does not provide a broad, sweeping view. Very few of the letters stretch longer than a page. Sims, in her introduction, writes: “This book of letters is not meant to be a comprehensive memorial to Markson the Man or even to Markson the Man of Letters—it reveals a slice of Markson’s life, as shared with one person through the years”.
13. Sims, continuing: “The letters here provide a snapshot, not a panorama, but a snapshot is remarkably appropriate for Markson—it gives a narrow, intense glimpse of a man whose work has been narrowly, but intensely adored.”
14. narrowly, but intensely adored
15. pretty much the high point of experimental fiction in this country
16. Markson, to Sims, in ’06: “You think you’re a poet? Ha, get this. I’ve just received royalty statements on mine, for Jan ’05—the usual delay of six months, plus processing. In that earlier six months—a dozen years after publication—I sold SEVEN COPIES! Willie Yeats is turning over in his grave. Eddie Poe weeps where he lies. Johnny Keats whimpers. SEVEN COPIES! IMMORTALITY. Ha.”
17. almost always surprisingly engaging
18. The most brilliant novelist whose novels weren’t really novels and who was not really read by really much of anyone, one might call Markson, even though I feel guilty for doing so; it seems like the only thing anyone ever says in essays—what essays there are, that is—on his work. They all seem to go like this: Goddamn, the guy was obscure. Goddamn, the guy was a recluse. Goddamn, it seems like all sorts of people have heard of him but have never read him, or once opened a copy of Reader’s Block and thought oh my god, there’s no fucking story.
19. Well, there is no fucking story. Per se. And I’ve often wondered if David Foster Wallace’s absurdly lengthy review in praise of Wittgenstein’s Mistress actually did Markson more of a disservice than anything else. Reading Wallace’s essay is like reading a book through eye-bandages; more is obscured than illuminated.
20. Mr. Markson’s / mischievously / perpetual thought-reviser / mostly monologues / at least the narration / seemed to emanate / from a single voice / the books not necessarily narrated / in the first person.
21. Actually, I don’t have a beef with adverbs. I like them. Although in the above case they seem to indicate a marked inability or lack of confidence in the idea being asserted. Reading Markson’s obituary seems like someone put a gun to the writer’s head and said make him sound brilliant and the obit writer thought, oh shit, because trying to apply descriptors to Markson’s style is like trying to explain the terror of seeing the swinging of mesocyclone-type wall clouds in the sky—the kind that bring death to the Southern Plains of Kansas and Oklahoma—to someone from Southern California, who’s never seen it in action.
22. The cover of Sims’s collection features a photo of the cold and austere ruggedness of an anonymous mountainside as its cover. The photo is beautiful, and the inference is that Markson, too, is difficult. Which is true, in a sense. Your first hour with Markson will be your hardest. You must keep going. Keep pushing, and let his prose reformat the fucking interior of your brain. Reading Markson is not like climbing a mountain. His books are not huge, throbbing-cock tomes; not a one of his last four novels breaks the two hundred page-marker; Reader’s Block, This is Not a Novel, Vanishing Point, and The Last Novel rove with a vicious concision, a hypnotic explosion of the very art of reading. Setting your eyes on the pages of these books is like descending into the depths of a mind ascending, a mind whirling through the immense vault of everything it’s ever seen, read, or learned.
23. From the beginning pages of Markson’s last book, The Last Novel: “His last book. All of which also then gives Novelist carte blanche to do anything here he damn well pleases.
24. “Which is to say, writing in his own personal genre, as it were.”
25. From Wittgenstein’s Mistress: “Was it really some other person I was so anxious to discover, when I did all of that looking, or was it only my own solitude that I could not abide?”
Nathan Knapp’s writing has appeared in or is forthcoming from Frequencies, Parcel, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, The McNeese Review, Specter Magazine, and others. He edits The Collapsar and lives in Stillwater, Oklahoma.