Saturday, November 25, 2017

David Markson, Wittgenstein's Mistress (1988)

This is one of those books that constantly comes up in amazon recommendations and whatnot, but not 'til now did I find the wherewithal to read it. This is that unusual thing: a Dalkey Archive original. Usually they either publish translations or reprints of American literature that doesn't have the clout to stay in print otherwise, but occasionally they'll also put out something for the first time! I know a number of Gilbert Sorrentino novels were also thus published. But this, I think, is their most well-known. So.

This book is about a woman who is apparently the only person left in the world, for reasons that are never specified. She makes a few allusions to her previous and current life, but mostly she discusses culture. Culture culture culture. The main things she goes on about are composers, Renaissance painters, and the Trojan War, but there's lots else. And it's all written in an unending string of short (often just a sentence, never more than two or three) paragraphs.

I'm not super-familiar with Wittgenstein, although I did study him a little bit in some sort of class in language WAY back in the day and I also saw this weird movie about him with Tilda Swinton (not as Ludwig himself, but wouldn't THAT have been a kick?). But I did a bit of reading as I was reading this novel, and I know enough to say that one of his chief concerns was language and the way that it can or cannot represent the world. Certainly, that's a lot of what this novel is about.

I'm afraid I must demur from the general rapturous praise that Wittgenstein's Mistress has received. The afterward--by David Foster Wallace at his most Davidfosterwallaceish--is not enough to get me onboard. I was sort of enthusiastic in the beginning, but Markson's--or his narrator's--writing tics get real old real fast, and what they're in the service of is a series of achingly banal observations about semiotics and linguistic ambiguity and whatnot. If you think it's in any way compelling that William Gaddis' name last name is sort of similar to medieval Italian painter Taddeo Gaddi's, maybe this will be your thing, but it's not mine. I mean, not that I think these observations are meant, individually, to be particularly striking, but I think they're mean to have a cumulative force that they don't really seem to. None of it probes particularly deep into anything, either. Half the time she'll mention someone just to say that she's sure she doesn't know this person at all and dammit, I'd be interested if you had anything to say about The Recognitions, but if all you've got is that the author's name sounds sorta like some other guy's name, I'm not feeling it.

Then there's the fact that the book is really emotionally arid. There's just no feeling, and nothing ever builds to anything. Also, the entire narrative is completely flat. If you expect anything about the second half to be different than the first I have a surprise for you! I mean okay yeah she starts mixing up names and facts and things seem to be on the verge of falling into semiotic chaos in proper postmodern fashion, but that's all you get. The novelty wears off quickly, and then it just gets really boring. It's, uh, kinda easy to understand why this was, supposedly, rejected fifty-four times before Dalkey picked it up. The fact that I like experimental fiction doesn't mean I have to like all experimental fiction, and I feel safe in calling this experiment a failure and saying that I won't be reading any more of Markson's books.


Anonymous Women of Once Upon a Time pontificated to the effect that...

This is a great poost thanks

11:21 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home