Friday, July 20, 2007

The same book over and over

I have not yet read David Markson's new book, The Last Novel. Even so, I was a little surprised to see this review at Quiet Bubble, in which Markson is said to have "licked this flavor of ice cream too many times" and The Last Novel is said to be "a retread of This Is Not A Novel, only more reticent about the narrator and less emotionally engaging". I clicked over to the review from The Reading Experience, where Dan Green admits that he "[has] to agree" with the assessment--also surprising. Well, less surprising, I guess, than strange, or unexpected. A strange thing to say about Markson and this book, an unexpected criticism to see leveled by readers open to work like Markson's. After all, Quiet Bubble doesn't say that The Last Novel is bad, or even weak. In fact, The Last Novel "is terrific if you’ve never read Markson before". As with the previous books in what Quiet Bubble calls the Markson Quartet (which I like: no doubt we can expect the collected set to be reissued in an attractive Everyman edition, just like Updike's Rabbit books or Cormac McCarthy's Border Trilogy, right?), Markson (or Markson's proxy) is preoccupied with death--the deaths of artists, of people he's known, with his own mortality. Quiet Bubble says:
...outliving his usefulness—being outdated—is one of the primary anguishes motivating The Last Novel.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:

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 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.

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.


Dan Green said...

Honestly, I thought the ice cream had been licked pretty thoroughly after the first two. Reader's Block and This is Not a Novel are two great contributions to the American experimental fiction tradition, but the other two just seem to me more of the same. I expect a writer of Markson's calibre to move on to something else, something just as original as Reader's Block.

I won't rule out the possibility that sometime in the future I'll re-read the four of them and come to a different conclusion, one similar to the suggestion you make here.

Richard said...

Hi Dan -

Fair enough. I have to admit that this post and others of mine are written with an awareness, whether I explicitly say so every time or not, that I have had similar responses. I recall that when Vanishing Point appeared I felt a slight dip in my anticipation--another book like that?. But I'm wondering whether that dip, that reaction, is fair to the work.

And I wonder what it is realistic to expect of even a writer of Markson's calibre (and age, don't forget). That is, if we take the content of the books seriously, combined with the recent real-life evidence, such as that Bookslut interview, we have a writer who is aging, who has lost interest in the normal modes of telling a story (not that there as anything normal about either Springer's Progress or Wittgenstein's Mistress), or of even any mode of telling what could be called a "story". In that interview he talked about no longer being able to remember things. I'm not suggesting that we give a book a pass because of external factors. If a book's bad or boring or stale, so be it, a writers age or health or minority status (to pick one factor not relevant here) notwithstanding. I don't know, I'm just talking. But maybe he really is done writing. And maybe the manner that we anticipate new works from even non-mainstream or non-conventional writers encourages careerism of a different sort, and we don't really look at bodies of work, per se, but assess them, "yes" or "no".

Dan Green said...

Maybe he is done writing, although I hope not. Something tells me that Gilbert Sorrentino, for example, would have kept writing into his senescense if he could have, and the same goes for Stephen Dixon.

At any rate, I'd still like to see what other alternatives to "normal modes of telling a story" Markson could come up with.

Richard said...

Yeah, so would I.

As it happens, I had Sorrentino in the back of my mind as someone who right up till the end was not only writing but was pushing against the form, trying new things.