The same book over and over
...outliving his usefulness—being outdated—is one of the primary anguishes motivating The Last Novel. [...] More here than any previous novel, Markson (excuse me, Writer) worries about getting old. Again, though, he’s done this better—in the far superior and deeply moving Vanishing Point.Of course, I can't argue this last point, not yet. But it seems to me that, instead of simply comparing the latest one with the previous three, a better course might be to think of them as a quartet, as a collective. I prefer to think of them in the kinds of terms described by Derik Badman in his much more positive review of The Last Novel, which appeared in The Quarterly Conversation. Derik is an unabashed fan of Markson's work, but still his take on the book appeals to me. He admits that The Last Novel "will be familiar" to readers who have read the previous three, but that "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". He quotes from the book, on exactly this topic:
I think it's impressive that Markson has made it four books into "writing in his own personal genre, as it were" before there have been grumblings that he is repeating himself (though I suppose the quoted passage implies that my perception of a lack of such grumblings is not correct). We expect writers, somehow, to always be doing something "new". The "experimental" writer, especially, must always be innovating. But how can a writer always be innovating? Always be shaking up the form he or she uses? Markson, it seems to me, has hit upon a form that is his own, and he has written in it, and continued to write in it, because it is of aesthetic interest to him.
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.
I'm reminded of the jazz musician who blazed a trail in the 1960s and has explored what was then a new, exciting sound ever since, only to be accused of no longer blazing a trail in his dotage, to be found aesthetically conservtive. Even those artists who go against the grain, we all too often demand that they write as we would have them write, play as we would have them play, we who are the consumers of the off-beat, the difficult, the idiosyncratic. We demand, almost, that even they be career-conscious, that they be wary of the reception, that they not bore us through repetition. As if the artistic choices aren't theirs to make. As if the writing isn't its own reward.
Derik closes his review of The Last Novel musing on the question of variations:
This brief passage [quoted above] 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. . .In isolation, then, The Last Novel can stand alone--as Quiet Bubble allows. But we can also read it as part of a set of variations on a theme, or as another entry in a writer's "own personal genre", or both. If, in fact, as Quiet Bubble and Dan Green both claim, this particular variation is not as strong or compelling as the previous examples, this need not mean that Markson has simply gone to the well once too often ("licked this flavor of ice cream one too many times"). Maybe it just means that it's not as good. Maybe a subsequent effort in the same vein would be better. Maybe not. Maybe such assessments are in some respects beside the point. Quiet Bubble's review ends with the suggestion that now is the time for Markson "to step back, regroup, and perhaps rediscover the pleasures of old things." It strikes me as extremely unlikely that Markson, having found his own genre, his own style, would, at his age, with his history of writing, do anything of the kind.