Those who adored experimentalist Markson’s previous two outings (Reader’s Block, 1996; This Is Not a Novel, 2001) will be ecstatic anew as the writer keeps up his near-single-handed effort to keep American prose fiction significant, deep, and subtle.
Here is another booklength collection of facts, statements, and—like planted surprises—questions, the whole arranged in a breathtakingly seamless perfection by “Author,” who has put “the notes on three-by-five inch index cards” and at last “is pretty sure that most of them are basically in the sequence that he wants.” And what a sequence it is. Comic, bathetic, pathetic, wrenching, matter-of-fact (“Bach had twenty children, of whom nine survived him”), the entries manage to tell a story—of humanity and humanity’s desires, if you will—without ever once straining to do so, or at least without ever once showing the strain. “The first edition of Darwin’s Origin of Species sold out in one day,” we learn, and, later, “Baltimore, Edgar Allen Poe died in.” The result of Markson’s immersion in these and many other such facts, and of his ineluctably perfect marshalling of them, is a kind of mini-epic—small in proportion and therefore appropriate to our own paltry, lost, uninformed, and diminished age—of Western humanity’s long ambition toward the attainment of art, permanence, beauty, and meaning, all implicitly doomed by the pervasive banality and pseudo-bathos that we’ve degenerated into in our own day: a situation requiring that the tale now be told not in the broad strokes of real epic, but in the quietly understated, guarded, cautious, brilliantly organized yet unobtrusive listing of facts, queries, and assertions that Markson provides—ranging from “a terminal desolation and despair” to the plain fact that “Ravenna, Dante died in,” or “Brundisium, Virgil.” “The ways we miss our lives are life,” we read, wondering whether Author himself penned these words. Then, more sad than is imaginable: “All sorrows can be borne if you put them into a story. Said Isak Dinesen.”
Here, indeed, is a story: brilliant, high, fine, masterful, deep—whether or not there remains an audience capable of embracing it.