July 2005

Joey Rubin

features

An Interview with David Markson

"You may be the last person" David Markson tells me, "to ever see me wearing this beard. I'm lazy, but I'm finally going to shave it off." He's not laughing when he says it, but it does seem laughable that Markson -- who, at 77, is still writing, reading and energetically joking about both -- would characterize himself as lazy. Best known for the difficult and mesmerizing novel Wittgenstein's Mistress (1988), Markson has been writing steadily, and influentially, for more than half a century. During that time, he's also garnered the ironic reputation for being the consummate "unknown and underappreciated" author of his generation. But born in 1927, and part of a literary era that included many luminaries (Markson reminisces about his interactions with Dylan Thomas, Jack Kerouac, Phillip Roth and Joseph Heller, among others), Markson's literary output has been anything but lackluster. That he writes slowly may be true, but his projects have been undeniably deliberate. Through seven novels, one book of criticism, three "entertainments" (as he calls his early crime novels), and one collection of poetry, Markson's work has always been meticulous in its intellectual rigor, impressively original in its content and lyrically stunning in its execution.

Markson hesitates to label his work "experimental" and instead characterizes his novels -- both "literally crammed with literary and artistic anecdotes" and "nonlinear, discontinuous, collage-like, an assemblage" -- as "playful." Yet what makes Markson's work captivating, and important, is that it "still apparently [manages] to evoke some of the most old-fashioned sorts of fictional response" either in spite of, or because of, its "play." His challenging books should be placed alongside the works of Pynchon, Gaddis, and even Joyce; the fact that they are less well known -- a fact that Markson laughs off without malice -- is our own loss.

In Going Down, the 1970 novel that was just reissued this year, the "old-fashioned responses" that Markson's work inspires are myriad, and emotionally charged. The story, which is told in a jagged, non-linear fashion -- jumping between Mexico and New York, the present and each character's personal memories -- is centered on the ménage-à-trois of three confused and peculiar characters. The third-person narrative, which swirls in a manner reminiscent of Faulkner, is emotive because it presents "the consciousness of [the] characters, what goes through their minds" in a manner that gives remarkable access to what's going
on in their hearts. It's a stunning work and the fact that it is now readily available as a reissued paperback is remarkable; both for Markson, who deserves to be recognized for something other than his lack of recognition, and for those readers who have so far missed out on such an significant writer.

Bookslut joined Markson, pre-summer shave, in his West Village apartment, in the early humidity of June.

Let's start with Going Down; is there a special reason why it is being re-released at this point in time?

No, not really, though there was talk about it a few times by other publishers that just never developed. But I'm very pleased with my present house, Shoemaker and Hoard, and when I showed it to them they said yes. It's too early to tell if it's selling, but I finally seem to have just enough of a late-life readership that it may. Well, and in fact some people had appeared to be looking for it and have told me that the prices on the web for the original hardcover were inconceivable. I sent one, intending it as a gift, to a critic in France, and she sent me back 150 dollars. I told her she as out of her mind -- and that lunch is on me the next few times she gets to New York.

You started writing Going Down while still living in Mexico. Why did it take nine years after you came home for you to finish it?

Laziness is always the first honest answer for me in regard to any such questions. But I did write a comic crime novel in between, and The Ballad of Dingus Magee, and I also taught for a couple of years. While Going Down kept going in and out of the drawer.

You were there between 1958 and 1961, I believe. What sent you?

Money, in a good part. Or lack of it -- meaning that you could live on nothing, almost literally. But of course my devotion to Malcolm Lowry and [Lowry's novel] Under the Volcano played a major part too.

Going Down, like Wittgenstein's Mistress, deals with characters on the brink of madness. In WM, the reader wasn't sure whether Kate was crazy, or actually the last person on earth. In Going Down, Fern, the central female character, seems to hang off a similar cliff. Why this theme, why your interest in it?

Well, it all starts innocently enough with Fern. When she is alone in New York, isolated, almost talking to herself about the emptiness in her life -- and then laughingly telling herself she is going out of her mind. As anybody might, unseriously, under the circumstances. Oh, but with that deformity I gave her too [one of Fern's hands is badly deformed], which makes it rather more than unserious. And all this was of course a structural setup for what comes later, in Mexico, at the book's climax, when she finds the other girl, Lee, hacked to death with a machete. Obviously then she does go over the edge pretty damned far.

Like Kate supposedly did, finding herself the last living person on earth -- again, is there something about people at the edge of sanity that appeals to you?

No, not at all, it's just inviting. What the hell, craziness is a lot more dramatic to handle than sanity. Which Dostoevsky proved all those years ago -- trying to write a book about a perfectly good person and it's the one volume among all his major works that's a total botch. Unlike all his others, filled with lunacy and suicide and murder, et cetera. Or think about ninety percent of all the literary protagonists we find most memorable -- Ahab, Heathcliff, Stavrogin, even all the way back to Don Quixote -- every one of them is certifiable.

Madness and religion do often get coupled too, as a literary theme -- in your work as well as in those.

It's much more symbolic than real, of course. When Fern lifts her hand in front of the blind infant and its eyes seem to move -- as if she's some sort of sainted prostitute out of old hagiography or some such. But of course it's just that she has turpentine all over her hands, from her painting, which I mention several times. I didn't do that in WM, I don't think, because I was too preoccupied with all the philosophy that's buried in there. Wittgenstein himself, but Heidegger also, though nobody's picked up on him. But with Going Down, yes, even if it's frequently a matter of local Mexican superstition rather than religious per se. I had a head full of it, after three full years in the country. Indeed, one of the loveliest compliments I ever got was from a bright Mexican gal who used to call me "el estúpido gringo" because my Spanish was so bum -- but when the book came out all those years later she said, "All you ever seemed to do down here for three years was drink, but damn it, you were paying attention."

You'd done a couple of private detective novels before writing Going Down, a "seriously literary" novel. Was there any sort of natural growth between writing genre fiction and writing Going Down?

No connection at all. I remember an essay someone wrote -- I forget where -- that expressed genuine astonishment that I'd begun as a so-called crime novelist and ended up writing Wittgenstein. But will it make sense if I say that I was never a -- quote -- crime novelist? I was always the person who was going to write Wittgenstein and the others, but at that earlier juncture I simply wasn't getting it done. So this was simply a way to keep my hand in, so to speak. And I'd been a paperback editor for a few years, so that I'd read a good deal more of that stuff than I ever would have normally -- meaning I knew how to do it. The third of them, called Miss Doll, Go Home, came about only because someone asked me to write a comic crime film script -- and even before it didn't get made I'd asked my editor is she'd take a fictional version of the thing. Well, and then even Dingus Magee, though it's infinitely closer to literature then those other things, got started as something of a fluke too. Earlier, I'd written some Western stories for magazines, and on that basis a different editor asked me to do a Western novel. But the minute I started I realized that concept bored me, so I turned it into a satire. And eureka, made money on it too. The only time in my life I've ever had a real payday.

Which was almost forty years ago, if I'm correct. And now you are the author of Wittgenstein and all the rest. And yet, still something of a token underappreciated author. How do you feel about that?

Token, I love the word, yes. I seem to get written about that way, lately. Somebody sent me a clipping from the Los Angeles Times, and somebody else sent the same thing from The Chicago Tribune, about some bloggers banding together to promote authors they feel haven't reached the audience they deserve -- such as "the David Markson's of our world," or something like that. And then in the Times here in New York there was something similar, a passing mention of little-recognized writers, and naming me among them. One of my friends told me to be careful before I become well known for being unknown.

How does it make you feel, not being as widely acclaimed as many of us believe you should be? Is it frustrating?

Listen, you write the way you do because you have to, and because it's who you are. But nice things happen too, reputation or no. Just recently, for example, a letter from someone here in town, whom I don't know at all, wanting nothing, simply telling me that if I need anything -- if I want to say "lift this" or "move that" -- I should give him a call. Or someone else, saying that he's recently read Wittgenstein for a second time, and that he did it aloud, sitting alone in his apartment and speaking the entire book to himself, simply to capture the rhythms and taking two days to do so. Or then again, on a much more concrete level, at least two books about my work are being written that I'm aware of, and several essays or chapters in critical studies, and so forth. What more can someone in my position ask for? In some small way you're finally paying back the debt you owe to those books that moved you and got you started in the first place -- books like Lowry's, in my case, Willie Gaddis' The Recognitions, Joyce, any number of others. Or am I making all this sound precious, here? [Laughing]

Speaking of influences, of other books -- I want to make a point to mention the size of your personal library, hanging on all the walls surrounding us, floor to ceiling.

Actually, there were more. I've sold off quite a few in the last ten years or so, just for breathing space. And in all honesty, I've been very tempted lately to dump the whole lot of them.

Wow. Why would you do that?

For starters, I'm seventy-seven -- toward what eventuality am I holding onto them? How many of them am I going to reread? Over there to your right, the fiction -- Hardy, George Eliot, Dickens, even Faulkner, whom I once worshipped -- am I ever going to open 99% of them again?

Some of them might be worth money?

No, virtually none. If you look closely you'll see that they're all worn and faded -- well, I've never kept dust jackets -- plus, they're written-in and whatnot. A lot of the spines are even so tattered that they're scotch-taped to hold them on.

First editions?

Oh, sure, some. My Catch-22, probably. I knew Joe Heller before he wrote it, so I bought it as soon as it came out. Portnoy's Complaint also, since I'd read excerpts beforehand. Four or five Faulkners. And others, I'm sure. But they're all in the same beat-up condition as the rest.

Are any of them inscribed?

Some are, yes. But I've generally been so broke that the most valuable of those I've sold long since. Like my Under The Volcano, say, or Dylan Thomas. Or an On the Road. Which, incidentally, Jack was so drunk when I asked him to sign it that he jammed the pen right through the flyleaf.

Kerouac, Lowry, Gaddis, man. Quite a roster of past masters. Where did I read that you no longer pay attention to more recent fiction?

It's true. Any fiction, really. I hate to admit it, and I don't really understand it, but it's some years now -- it just seems to have gone dead for me. Not just recent stuff, but even novels that I've deeply cared about -- I try to reread and there's none of the reaction I used to get, none of the aesthetic excitement or whatever one wants to call it, all a blank. With one exception of course -- I can always reread Ulysses. In fact I went through it twice, consecutively, just a few years ago. But hell, that's not like reading a novel, it's more like reading the King James Bible. Or Shakespeare. You're at it for the language. But even The Recognitions, which I think is categorically the best American novel of the twentieth century, just doesn't do anything similar for me. It did, the first four times I read it -- and four is not an exaggeration, by the way, in spite of its length -- but the last time out it just went flat. It's not the books, I'm sure, it's me -- I'm just not bringing the same receptiveness to them that I used to.

No other exceptions?

Oh, well, there are books by friends, that you do give yourself to. You approach them with a different psychological stance, somehow, wanting to enjoy. And doing so. As with the most recent Gil Sorrentino, for instance. Or Ann Beattie's new collection of stories. But there's simply no impulse toward anything else, and certainly not toward the latest generation. They all seem like they shouldn't have driver's licenses, even. You do become aware of the names, of course. Who are they, Lethem, Foer, Eggers? Are they mostly named Jonathan?

You know of them, but you're not interested in reading them?

Seriously -- to paraphrase Ezra Pound, there's no record of a critic ever saying anything significant about a writer who came later than he did. You grow up getting interested in books, and the writers of your own generation or the generation or two before your own are the ones you pay most attention to. But listen, I'm scarcely as bad as some of the people I know. But good lord, some of the people I went to college or even graduate school with pretty much quit about nine days after they got their diplomas. And haven't read a poet since Auden, or a novelist since Hemingway. There was one fat novel I did read. In 1996, in fact. I remember the date because my novel Reader's Block had also just been published: Infinite Jest. Before I'd heard of David Foster Wallace, way back in 1990, he'd written a very perceptive long essay on Wittgenstein's Mistress for a periodical. Even though I was never able to solve the structure of his novel, to understand why it ended where it did, I admired the hell out of it. Eight or nine years ago even, I wasn't reading with the equipment I possessed when I was younger. But pat me on the head, I did manage to get through one novel that long in the past decade.

What nonfiction do you read then?

Again, something very similar is happening. Right where you're sitting, those nine shelves behind your chair, except for a few on the bottom, every single book there is philosophy. But I've quit almost completely. Criticism, that whole next section there, even that I read less and less. And nonfiction, I read that less because of interest and more for research value -- all those intellectual bits and pieces in my later books, I've had to do a lot of browsing to hunt them out. At times it's almost gotten me into a habit of skimming instead of seriously reading. It's something I have to fight, repeatedly.

And what are you reading at right now?

Someone asked me that no more than two days ago, and do you know what the answer was? In all honesty, I said I'd spent about an hour that more rereading some Zbigniew Herbert, and then had stopped to look up something in this year's Who's Who in Baseball -- and the next thing I knew I was reading that for just as long.

How much is age a factor in all of this -- and not just in your reading habits, do you feel it affecting your work?

Oh yeah, it's there. Forgetting all the damned medical problems that pile up, to begin with there's a lower energy quotient. It used to be, when work was going well, I could sit at the desk ten or a dozen hours; now I'm ready to go and put my feet up someplace after half that time. But your head just doesn't work as well, either. I'm not just talking about forgetting names, words, everybody does that, though of course it does become more extreme. But I mean simple things like judging a sentence. I'll make a note about something I plan to use, and rewrite it five or six times -- this just the note itself, knowing it will get revised any number of times additionally when it's actually part of a manuscript -- but almost always there's this gnawing sense that it's still nowhere near what it should be. Or where it would have been ten or fifteen years ago. I'll get it right eventually, dammit, but the sense of lesser facility -- slower perception, maybe I mean -- really does exist.

To change the topic -- or maybe not to -- I've been sitting here staring at that ancient typewriter near where you're sitting. Do you not have a computer anywhere?

People have begun to laugh at me, finally, for holding out. In fact, an amusing story about it. A young woman called me the other day, from France, a college student wanting me to solve a disagreement about Wittgenstein's Mistress she's been having with her professor. And then she said something about e-mailing me, and I told her I had no computer. So then she asked, "But what do you write on, a typing machine?" "Typing machine," I loved it. And it wasn't any question about faulty English, because she spoke flawlessly. So what I realized was that she was young enough so that the word "typewriter" had never once been part of her active vocabulary. Like "gaslight" or something, for somebody my age.

It's definitely not a commonly used word among members of my generation.

All I need to hear. Meaning that the bus has long since pulled out and here I stand at the side of the road. In the rain. Thanks a lot, fella.