Tuesday, December 10, 2002

Dalkey Archive has always been an interesting project. While its track record publishing poetry has been more erratic than not – there is a book Cecil Giscombe, another by Gerald Burns, but mostly it has printed books of poetry written by novelists, even if one is by Harry Mathews & another by his Oulipo colleague Jacques Roubaud – and its record on critical writing even spottier – Viktor Shklovsky’s Theory of Prose is one of the great critical texts – Dalkey’s track record on publishing innovative fiction is unassailable. It is flat out the best publisher of innovative fiction the United States has ever had.

David Markson’s Wittgenstein’s Mistress is a novel, a booklength monolog by a woman who might (or might not) be the only surviving person on the planet. It’s an enjoyable book that I would happily encourage you to read. But that’s not really my intent here at the moment. Rather, I want to look at what a book like this tells me about writing & thus about poetry.

Fiction’s primary trick is to convince a reader than the syntax of its sentences integrates up not just grammatically or logically into an argument, but ultimately into an extra-linguistic phenomenon: a character or narrated world. This leap, from syntax to “voice” & through it to “character,” a nebulous concept at best, is the displacement that accounts for much of fiction’s reality effect. The power of grammar is thus transferred and felt by a reader as the power of the world “coming through” the emptied vessel of language.

Wittgenstein’s Mistress plays with these possibilities. For one thing, the narrator suggests that the book is being composed, rather like a letter. She announces the passage of days between paragraphs, many of which are only a single sentence long. Also, right at the end, in ways that I won’t go into here (so as to limit the number of “spoilers” I might inadvertently insert), Markson (or the narrator) also plays around with the possibility of who she in fact is.

But what is most powerful and telling about Markson’s book is that which goes palpably unsaid. In this way, Markson is miles ahead of most other novelists who explicate way too many of the details. Here Markson does just the opposite, raising other characters and contexts that scream out for explication without ever offering any. It’s not sloppy in the slightest – if anything, his consistency is an index of his meticulousness. The result gives Markson’s text the feel of a real person to a degree almost unimaginable in fiction. It’s that old Zen garden trick of making a circle of stones by pulling one out of position so that the displacement forces the viewing mind to cognitively “make the circle.” I’ve never seen it done better in a work of fiction than how Markson does it here.

I bought Wittgenstein’s Mistress after reading some extravagant review of one of Markson’s other novels, then let it sit for awhile, put off I suspect by the idea of that title, given just how the entire world knows Wittgenstein to have been gay. But the title works on multiple levels – it is in fact explained in the narrative, but even more so alludes to the narrator’s painful attempts to be exact with her language, not unlike Wittgenstein’s own books of philosophy. But what for him is an investigative method in a work of fiction becomes a series of extraordinary quirks. It’s remarkable just how well this works. I have a friend back in San Francisco – not a part of the arts scene as such – who is a great deal like this narrator & I ended up hearing her voice throughout my reading of the book.

Reading Markson’s novel made me think of my late dear friend Kathy Acker & how she used to worry during the composition of her early books about such issues as the construction of character. She was always clear in her own mind that character was just that – a construction. Each chapter in her book, The Adult Life of Toulouse Lautrec, presents a different conceptualization of truth & “the real” might be in fiction, which also includes the concept of character. It’s what Ulysses would have been if Joyce had actually felt some commitment to any of the styles he employed in each chapter. Well, maybe if Joyce had been committed to the idea that plagiarism plus porn equals autobiography.

There is an entire stratum of novels of course written with the idea that readers will identify with a character. A second stratum of novels is written with the idea that the readers will identify not with a character, but as readers & will remain aware of their own presence in front of the text, as though in a conversation with the author.* Finally, there is a tiny stratum of fiction written with the idea that readers will in fact identify with the author, not as a character, but as author. I tend to think that many of the books that I would characterize as fiction for poets – which would include works by Acker, Jack Kerouac, Bill Burroughs, Samuel R. Delany, Gilbert Sorrentino, Kevin Killian, Fee Dawson, Sarah Schulman & Harry Mathews – fall into this final category, or at least waver between it & the second. That border is also where someone like Markson, or W.G. Sebald, seems to fit.

When I read a novel I’m always think about how (or why) the author did this or that. Can Proust get the Madeline into the cup of tea? Can Kerouac really imitate the tape in Visions of Cody? I found myself thinking this way a lot with Markson, whom I’m not sure really expects that in the way these other novelists-for-poets seem to, but for whom it’s a perfectly reasonable & rewarding approach.

All of which made me think of my conversation here on the blog with Daisy Fried. A lot of what I don’t care for in the school of quietude is that presumption of readers falling principally, or only, into the first stratum when it comes to poetry. Most post-avant writing falls into the second category – that’s certainly where I would put Kelly & O’Hara & even Levertov. But much of the writing that compels me most is that which falls into or nearest that third stratum. And that’s where I would put Coolidge & Watten & Hejinian & Armantrout.

* I suspect that Jonathan Franzen’s to do with Oprah had very much to do with a concern on Franzen’s part that his book not be confused with that first stratum of writing.