The protagonist of David Markson's latest novel, The Last Novel (Shoemaker & Hoard, $15, 190 pp.), is known simply as the Novelist. He's a character who, we are told over and over again, is "Old. Tired. Sick. Alone. All of which obviously means that this is the last book Novelist is going to write."
Most of what else we learn about this character is in enigmatic, epigram-style fragments some of them direct quotes about other writers, artists and historical figures. For instance, there's this passage:
In the late spring of 1944, at the height of their efficiency, the forty-six ovens in the crematoriums at Auschwitz were incinerating as many as twelve thousand corpses per day.
It seems a great pity that they allowed her to die a natural death. Said Mark Twain of Jane Austen.
Quoth Charlie Parker, showing someone the veins at which he injected heroin:
This one's my Cadillac And this one's my house.
A dogged attempt to cover the universe with mud. E.M. Forster called Ulysses.
You have to read fifteen hundred books in order to write one. Flaubert put it.
In a nonlinear, antinarrative style described by Novelist himself as one of "intellectual reference and allusion," Markson moves anecdotally and unconventionally through a montage of arts and letters to create a portrait of a lonely, poverty-stricken man. Days pass when Novelist stays home and speaks to no one. When he does get out to visit the pharmacist, for example he "becomes aware of the woman contemplating the conspicuously threadbare and even ragged ends of his coat sleeves." Little by little, through bits of info, Novelist comes to life, even when it is clear that he is slowly dying, coming to terms with the fact that, as an artist, writing his last book means death itself. Death, then, is the antagonist.
Man is the only animal that knows he must die. Said Voltaire.
Jean Harlow was dead at twenty-six.
Karl Marx died sitting at his desk.
Antonin Artaud, sitting up at the foot of his bed.
A heart attack while swimming, Theodore Roethke died of.
Washington Square, in Greenwich Village, Edward Hopper died in.
Through associative leaps, we learn that in "Washington Square, in Greenwich Village, Novelist also happens to be typing this last book. ..."
In short, this novel "in which Novelist will say more abut himself only when he finds no way to evade doing so," is unlike any other work you've ever read, unless, of course, you've read Vanishing Point, This is Not a Novel or Reader's Block, previously written by Markson.
Markson's recurring technique is described by Novelist as "Discontinuous. Collage-like. An assemblage." This device has become his personal genre, but at least one reader (I'll call myself Reviewer) is starting to find his genre a tad too predictable, stopping short of establishing anything groundbreaking from someone who seems to pride himself on taking to heart Ezra Pound's declarative dare to "make it new." Yet Markson has the foresight (and wit) to directly address Reviewer's complaint within the novel itself:
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.
And Time is the only critic without ambition. John Steinbeck said.
I am quite content to go down to posterity as a scissors and paste man. Said Joyce.
Like Joyce, Markson is destined to go down in the world of arts and letters as a self-proclaimed "scissors and paste" guy. He seeks an audience smartly drawn to the struggles and frustrations that come with learning to navigate unpredictable terrain. (Think of Joyce's Finnegans Wake, Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shandy Markson as the strange-tongued offspring of Samuel Beckett and Gertrude Stein.) English novelist Ivy Compton-Burnett was once credited with saying, "I do not see why exposition and description are a necessary part of a novel." David Markson's book is for those who agree. What is most impressive and traditional about the book, in all of its odd glory, is that when Reviewer reached its end, he felt empathy. He felt not only for Novelist, but with Novelist the loneliness that exists for most writers at the ends of their pens.
Peter Markus' novel, Bob, or Man on Boat, is forthcoming from Dzanc Books. Send comments to [email protected].