A Bit of an Experiment

I’m in a patch where I have so many posts I’d like to do that I had better get a move on or else the impetus for some will wither and die. I spoke about reading ‘writerly’ fiction a few days ago, and Bookbox’s comment that he’d like to see some gave me the idea of sharing a bit of an experimental novel with you. If you are still reading on after that sentence, then good for you! You are a brave and courageous soul. Now the author who sprang to mind was David Markson, although apparently he doesn’t like the term ‘experimental’ and prefers ‘playful’. You can be the judge of that yourself, as I’m going to quote a large-ish chunk now, and then take you through a cursory reading of it.

This comes from Reader’s Block, the story of an author, known only as Reader, who is contemplating writing a novel.

‘Why does Reader rarely remember that the Septuagint is so called because seventy scholars allegedly translated it from Hebrew into Greek in seventy-two days?

Geoffrey of Monmouth. Wace. Layamon. Marie de France. Chrétien de Troyes. Malory.

Nora Barnacle was a hotel chambermaid when Joyce met her.

Eva Hesse was dead of a brain tumor at thirty-four.

When Rembrandt’s possessions were sold at bankruptcy in 1656, the included paintings by Raphael, Giorgione, and van Eyck. And seventy-five Rembrandts.
And did not bring in enough to discharge the bankruptcy.

Theodore Dreiser was an anti-Semite.

Bathsheba Everdene.


The tyranny of the ignoramuses is insurmountable and assured for all time.
Said Einstein.

Inside the basement section of the house at the dunes, a stairway climbs to the floor above. Because of the subdivision, the entrance at the top of the stairs has been sealed. In effect, the stairs now mount to nowhere.
Protagonist has set up the first of his unpacked books on some of the steps.

What you get married for if you don’t want children?

Georges Braque came extremely close to losing his sight from a head wound in World War I.

Or perhaps not a novel?

Is he in some peculiar way thinking of an autobiography?’

I feel I should somehow stick my hand up and say, yoo-hoo, me again, Litlove talking. Because all those voices are disorienting, no? And did you enjoy it? Did it feel playful to you, or just bewildering and confusing – or worse, a collection of esoteric references designed to make you feel inadequate culturally?

Let’s begin with the obvious things because it’s often useful to say them. We have a collection of fragments here, although fragments of what is immediately unclear. There’s no description to set a scene for us, no clear-cut characters or dialogue, nothing to situate us in a landscape or a situation. One of the first questions readers ask themselves (consciously or not) is: Who’s speaking? And the first way this novel plays with us is to refuse a straight answer. My immediate response on reading it was to assume we had the random thoughts of one person, not connected causally but by association. However, given that Reader – the main character whom we know is thinking about writing a novel – is referred to at the start in the third person, clearly this isn’t going to be a first-person narrative. If it’s a stream of consciousness, then it’s narrated from a position outside of Reader’s head, but as if it were possible to see into it.

Some of the fragments are very erudite – pretentious even. Whilst that oddly ungrammatical phrase ‘what you get married for’ seems to come from a different voice altogether. As do the fragments that seem in some way to be reflecting on the composition of the novel, wondering whether it is ‘perhaps not a novel’, or questioning whether an autobiography is at stake. And the bit about Protagonist – particularly because s/he is called a protagonist and arrives accompanied by some vestiges of realist description – seems most likely to come from the novel-in-composition. So, we are obliged to recognise that we cannot neatly cohere the fragments into a unified voice, or perspective. We are stuck with a patchwork, where subtle changes in tone and register and concern indicate to the reader that different perspectives have come into play. It’s like being on a party line, where lots of anonymous speakers are having a conversation, only their interests are so disparate, the positions they speak from so unlike one another, that we cannot imagine any logical, realistic way that all these different fragments could come together. In fact, the only space that could hold such disparity is the realm of fiction itself, an infinitely elastic space where anything is possible.

Let’s look at the preoccupations of the narrative – which is rather like answering all the brown questions in a game of trivial pursuits. I can’t bring myself to care about the Septuagint and think that Reader can’t remember it for jolly good reasons to do with memory space and mental effort. Then follows a bunch of Medieval writers. Nora and James Joyce will be familiar to most people. Eva Hesse was a sculptress who managed to escape Nazi Germany with her family and emigrate to America. Rembrandt I’m again guessing will be familiar as a Dutch painter. Theodore Dreiser was an American realist who I’ve never read but wrote rather dreary and depressing novels, I think. Bathsheba I only know about because one of the set texts for my school friends doing A level English literature was Thomas Hardy’s Far From the Madding Crowd. Lidice was a mystery and I had to search online. Apparently it was a Czech village, completely destroyed by the Germans in WWII, and not as a usual casualty of war (if one can put such words together) but as a staged atrocity, a massacre. Einstein will be familiar and Georges Braque was a Cubist painter.

It’s a bit of a mixed bag at first, but then some themes seem to emerge – the troubled lives of artists, for instance, and the concern with WWII and the Holocaust. In fact there is much uncertainty hovering around the figure of the artist – they die young, or remain unrecognized in their lifetime, or have unappealing politics. If we return to the difficulty we had of making all those voices cohere into one position, we can see that they may all be nagging thoughts within Reader’s mind, blocked and struggling to compose a work, assailed by doubts about whether it is worth doing, doubts about the reception and the value of what is being produced, anxieties about what remains posthumously. The quotation from Einstein sort of fits in here, as a reminder to the writer that any desires s/he may harbor to change the world are at risk of being dashed. Those speculative voices about what is being produced – a novel or autobiography – could equally be projected concerns, as the author imagines what people might say to themselves in their own minds as they read the work.  And how can we fit in the Holocaust? It could be part of the evaluation of art, an indication of its pointlessness, when opposed to the visceral reality of tragic events. It could be a personal preoccupation of Reader, or it could be nothing at all, a mere coincidence.

So you can see that the point of this passage is to make readers work – and work we inevitably will. It’s almost impossible to read those fragments and not try and do something with them, search for patterns and for significance. What do you think? What struck you most reading it? Because one thing is for sure – this is going to have a very different impression on different people. It also occurs to me, having written this, that this sort of reading I find very performative. It makes sense to me when I’m teaching, but it isn’t something that I find it natural to do – at least not at this level of intensity – when I am alone. I think it’s the sort of book best approached by brainstorming with a bunch of people who have a healthy disregard for the pretensions of art. You can have fun with it, so long as you accept not to be intimidated by it. Would you pick it up?

22 thoughts on “A Bit of an Experiment

  1. Hmmm ! Sometimes I wonder what I’m getting myself into! Yes I can see the fun of this, but I’m not sure how long I could take it for. Glad you are such an erudite commentator. I know the line ‘What you get married for if you don’t want children?’ is from T S Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land’, which is another work of art made of fragments, which reveals the possible nature of the narrative here more clearly. In its way that was once experimental writing,as was Joyce, of course. That all ties in with Braque’s cubism. The opening bit about the Septuaguint, is about a work from different voices or authors too, I take it. I’m guessing that Lidice might well have seemed far from the madding crowd, but somehow became entangled in it, but as a ‘staged’ event might be parallel to a work of art which is also staged, and that suggests all sorts of complex issues. I know W H Auden said that a poet writing a poem was the ultimate act of dictatorship, but I’m not sure I agree. I think he was referring to the formalism of writing poetry in stanzas. Could I also suggest that as the topic is Reader’s Block, this might equate to Writer’s Block, and what is being hinted at here could be how the weight of the literary and historical past can press down on readers as it can on writers. I like the image of the stairs which are blocked off which are being turned into a stairway of books, which fits in with this. I guess of course that the point is that unlike a traditional narrative which orders its materials and leads to a causal ending, we are given lines of possibility which we can pursue ourselves and reach our own unfinalised positions on. This is quite fun, but what I would make of a complete work I don’t know. Maybe I’ll try picking it up and finding out.
    Can I just add that you might be interested in a programme on Radio 4 on Sunday 17 January at 16.30 about Anne Sexton, and there is an essay by Zadie Smith on the net called Two Paths for the Novel, which looks at traditional and experimental fiction up to a point. It’s easy to Google. I think it’s on the New Yorker site.

  2. Here’s what I thought. It mostly consists of questions. 😉

    It’s impossible, reading this, not to think of how the same techniques (fragmentation, juxtaposition, line breaks) function in poetry. It has the nothing-but-what-is-necessary tautness of poetry. Should I consider these fragments paragraphs or strophes for instance? Should I be reading with my poetry hat on?
    Poetry reading is a fundamentally different skill to reading a novel. With my fiction hat on, it might be hard to imagine ‘any logical, realistic way that all these different fragments could come together’ – that is, difficult to draw causal connections, to construct the bones of a narrative whole. A story generally requires some unfolding and Markson is deliberately obstructing this process. Reading a poem, however, is more like examining an object behind a screen – no touching. The poem is divorced from any expectation of narrative drive or forward motion; it is a collection of words in a box, static, strictly the sum of its parts. Generally poets pick their words with tweezers, like entomologists, and novelists feed the engine with shovel-loads.

    If I’m reading with my poetry hat on, will I be more sympathetic to the effect Markson is trying to create? I’ll probably be less concerned with narrative, chronological meaning – what’s going to happen next – and more concerned with the interaction of linguistic elements, the quantum-like connections that coalesce and dissolve upon reading. I’ll concentrate upon smaller units of meaning: words rather than sentences.

    All this is to say: I don’t know how to approach this without reading it all. More intruigingly, I don’t know how Markson intends for me to read it. It may be that his intention is simply to blur the lines. Is there any point to reading 300 pages of a ‘novel’ like a poem? In any case, I probably think of ‘poetry’ (I’m certainly thinking of a certain sort of poetry) in my own idiosyncratic way. Other people will approach it differently. Who knows.

    Another really interesting post. Thanks. 🙂

  3. Interesting. As I read through the excerpt I felt like I was peering into a writer’s notebook. I visualized hastily written snippets scrawled on the page, with little regard for any lines on the paper. Perhaps even writing in a graphic pattern, like a mind map, with connectors — lines, arrows, circles — over the page showing the connections between the random thoughts. And, having lots of such notebooks (and nothing to show for it), I also filled in the context of a frustrated writer who has lots of ideas, but no capability (at least not yet) to pull it all together. The “writer” is so frustrated, in fact, that he doesn’t call himself a writer, but a “reader”. In this context, I could fly over those references that I didn’t get, like Bathesba Everdene, without worrying too much that I didn’t know who Bathsheba was. As a note in the writer’s notebook, it doesn’t matter; what matters is what is to come of all of these seemingly unrelated pieces.

    Add to this another layer that as a reader I know that the writer — not the character of the writer, but the writer Markson — is playing with the reader of his work. That this is a gimmick that provides not only random thoughts, but all of the things that tradition/non-experimental (I hate to say “un-playful”, to use Markson’s word) narrative does — develop character and plot — even if I as the reader have to make it up as I read along.

    Would I pick it up? Perhaps, but if the work is lengthy and this continues like this throughout and at such a breakneck speed, I might get discouraged and give up. Or, on the other hand, it might be like the first time I read Calvino’s Invisible Cities, which created a tension that stopped just short of frustration, leaving me with a taunting challenge to not put the book down & continue reading until I could figure it out.

  4. I would pick it up, but I’ve read Markson before (Wittgenstein’s Mistress) and know a bit of what I’m in for. I found WM interesting but too long, even though it wasn’t very long. I felt as though I got what he was up to after about 50 pages and after that, there didn’t seem to be enough that was new to justify keeping on. When I read your excerpt I thought, well, if I could just read a bit more maybe I could get it. But I would keep thinking that no matter how much I read, right? I have this assumption that if I just got a bit more context everything would come together — which I’m guessing is not true. But as a reader of traditional novels, I’m conditioned to think that way. Which idea Markson is playing with, of course!

  5. I found it interesting. Like you, I discarded what wasn’t relevant for me. And then I found it quite easy to imagine this as one person’s stream of consciousness which includes other voices (or another voice). Without your prompting I wouldn’t have read it but I know you wouldn’t ask us to read it unless it was interesting so I was happy to do so. And then the comments about readerly fiction make it more fun to read since I know that I’m going to be doing more work.

    It’s interesting for me because there are apparently random fragments which then start coming together in a more coherent way. That’s the point at which I would choose to engage more or give it up as pretentious clap-trap! But I liked it.

  6. Oh this is fun! I love your commentary and the comments from others. I’ve not read Markson before but he’s on my list and I intend to read him and still intend to.

    As I was reading the excerpt I was thinking that it was an example of the creative process for the narrator and the actual reader of the book. The narrator Reader is thinking about writing his novel and what to write about and all the thoughts and doubts that come with that. The reader holding the book is made to be a writer going through the creative process too because we have to somehow figure out what all the fragments are about and create some kind of meaning/story with them.

  7. I am happy to hear you say that teaching a text like this would make it more meaningful – I can see that. Reading it alone would be a lot of work. I’ve never tried to spend time on something like this, and I’m actually curious if I would enjoy it. My gut reaction is to say no, not alone I wouldn’t. With a group, as you suggest, I might find it a much more interesting venture. Even worthwhile.

    Until I read your thoughts I assumed it was one person^s stream of consciousness, and I also assumed it was the Reader toying with ideas to put together for a novel. Would a fiction writer enjoy the book?

  8. Litlove, I have this marked as unread on my reader so I can come back to it. I did read the passage, and to me it read like writer’s notes, but I want to come back to this and read what you have to say about it. I’ve been trying to squeeze too much into my days this week, what with revising and no childcare. But the weekend is coming and more time.

  9. Litlove, you have written about one of my favourite United Statesian ‘experimental’ novelists.

    I think that with this book, and the three volumes that follow (_This is Not A Novel_ [2001], _Vanishing Point_ [2004], and _The Last Novel_ [2007]), Markson has given us a sequence that bears re-reading as a whole. But each book stands on its own; and within each volume are echoes, so that what may not seem worth noting on one page suddenly coincides with a remark four pages on. If this was a traditional narrative, much brick and mortar would have gone into the intervening pages to make them a wall that one could make sense of due to its brute visibility. What we have instead, in a manner of speaking, are windows without walls. These notes – that are written on index cards, it seems – are co-existent with spaces, the whiteness around and between the lines, that indicates open-endedness, indeterminacy, lack of closure, and no ultimate resolution. Some readers will want to fill the space in to give themselves a narrative, where there will be “patterns and… significance” galore. Markson gives us the choice to do that, to pursue all the lines, to an end that may be of less worth than the journey, or we can allow the restless text, to change the metaphor, to exercise its freedom (within a cage nevertheless) while we content ourselves with seeing flashes of it, imagining the larger whole that is suggested but not quite visible.

    Or that’s another way to look at it.

  10. Very interesting … I became so immediately frustrated and annoyed that I didn’t even bother to try to find any relatedness among the fragments. Clearly I am not the ideal audience for experimental fiction. 🙂

  11. The first (stream-of-consciousness) thoughts that sprung to my mind when reading this passage were: “Graphic novel” “Thomas Pynchon.” “So, he likes the number seven.” “Pretentious.”

    “Playful” or “fun” were bullied and kicked about and nearly lost consciousness. “Fun” is for, as I just said on Dorr’s blog, Raymond Chandler, not something like this. At what point do we decide that trying to come up with some new form or some new movement when there are infinite numbers of ways to make the old form fresh and, yes, “playful” just looks plain silly? Perhaps “The emperor has no clothes” also ought to have sprung to my mind.

    Delving deeper, I instantly dislike the writer as the person I imagine him to be (posing, hat crooked on head, with a permanent smug smirk on his face). Human beings want stories. That’s how we make sense of the world. Sure, if you know enough about psychology, you can certainly play around with that, and you can also make people extremely uncomfortable (and not in a “good” challenging way, like when you make someone address his or her own bigotry, but in a way that says, “I could drive you — or anyone — insane, you know, if I wanted”). Someone deciding to make us work very hard to try to make sense of the very thing meant to help us make sense of the world seems selfish and very unfair (and, frankly, sadistic) to me.

    Having said all that, just because I am curious, yes, I’d pick it up, but for me, it would be like going to some large and varied art museum. I like to go look at Mondrian and see what he managed to do with color and lines and all that blank canvas, and I am extremely curious about, say, something like a toilet tank sitting in the midst of a room on a pile of sand with a red ball next to it, wondering exactly what the artist expects me to think. Ahh, but then, after getting all that out of the way and feeling virtuous (and informed enough to be able to discuss them with others), I will go seek out the Romantics and the Impressionists, which is where I really wanted to be all along, and will spend hours imagining I am living inside the paintings of Turner and Renoir and Monet or imagining I am sitting next to them while they paint that scene and asking questions about it, knowing that one of the questions won’t be, “Do you enjoy messing with people’s heads?”

  12. “I think it’s the sort of book best approached by brainstorming with a bunch of people who have a healthy disregard for the pretensions of art.” Yes and for that reason I wouldn’t be likely to pick it up on my own, but would be glad to be pushed to do so in a book club or something like that.

  13. I agree with your last point. It’s a book to be worked through in a group so you can come to a better understanding of it and possibly become able to love it and see more when you read it alone? This post does inspire me to have another crack at the current SofG book before the deadline, which I found incomprehensible when I started but will now have another go at.

  14. But I like the Brown questions in Trivial Pursuit–they’re the only ones I can answer! So yes, I probably would pick this book up, and set it down in a hurry, thoroughly intimidated. Still you have put Markson on my radar, which may prove to be a good thing.
    This is the second blog I’ve read today that has gotten me thinking of Mr. Calvino–could that be a sign? 😉

  15. nicole – I will look forward to your thoughts on Markson! I’ve just read a Michael Dirda review, which seems to be saying that the best fun is spotting all of Markson’s quotations and fragments, but I sort of hope this isn’t true.

    Bookboxed – what a marvellous reading! Good on you for spotting the Eliot and I absolutely agree that this is writer’s block at its most writerly for the reader (with a small r). You make so many fantastic connections here – I really enjoyed reading your thoughts. And thank you for the heads up on the programme and the essay – I’ll be following both up.

    dervish – Bravo! Another fabulous response to the passage! The novel is like this from start to finish. Wherever you dip in, you find the same structure and similar concerns. Your questions about poetry are very apposite, although of course the answer is that this is neither fish nor fowl, and the very undecidability is another tension line along which the work progresses. I’m interested that you wonder how Markson intends for you to read it – I suppose I hardly ever think of such things. Once the book is out of the author’s hands and into mine, then it’s cue the evil laughter and the rush of power to the head. 😉

    Cam – that’s wonderful! I love the image of a writer’s notebook, which seems just the visual the fragments require – a finished work in progress, as it were, to add to the various contradictions of the text. And you’re right – Markson does signal that he is playing with us, loud and clear, and we have to take that into account, however we see fit. The novel IS like this all the way through, and that repetitive quality is both brave and daunting, I think. Funnily it’s that quality to it that I find hardest to come to terms with – the extent of the formal constraint. But you remind me I must read Invisible Cities – I’ve wanted to for years!

    Dorothy – I know exactly what you mean. At what point do you give up on that ‘something’, that readerly prize for continuing to read? You’ve got me thinking about what that something might be. It’s knowledge, or mastery or meaning, perhaps, one of the big rewards of a book, and we need it – or at least the promise of it – across the extent of a narrative, I think. Or else we are reading not for the story, but for something else altogether – a new relation to creativity, perhaps. But that’s less apparent to the average reader, I would think.

    Pete – I wondered, reading your comment, how much this was actually like a psychotherapist’s day job – all those fragments coming off your clients, all seemingly random and yet linked in hidden ways, the difficulty of assessing which preoccupations are the most meaningful, the odd but persistent repetition… I don’t know – it just occurred to me as I was reading! 🙂

    Stefanie – yes, I do agree! This IS about genesis, about the act of creativity as it hovers on the verge of producing something. I liked that aspect of it most of all. It felt like this was the description of a kind of hypnagogic state, one in which reading was like dreaming and dreaming was like creating. I would love to know what you think of Markson when you read him!

    verbivore – I think that part of my post was misleading, in that the most likely interpretation is to see this as a stream of consciousness, and from a writer considering a prospective new work. You are quite right! I certainly enjoyed it a lot more knowing that my blogging friends were all going to come up with marvellous contributions to the debate. It had made the experience of reading it much richer for me. I don’t know whether fiction writers would like it – it might feel awful, like being plunged into that horrid state of confusion that precedes work! 🙂

  16. Lilian – just whenever you feel like it, is good by me. I quite understand the difficulty of getting to blogs when life is so demanding! Good luck with the edits. 🙂

    JB – ah I knew you would have something splendid to say about it! I very much like the image of windows without walls, and the infinite choice that Markson allows his reader in the act of sense creation. And you are quite right about the echoes – that was one thing that posting a passage prevented me from exploring. I tried to find a bit that demonstrated the reverberations in the text, but as you say – you need three or four pages to really make that work. I knew there were other novels that were similar but did not realise how many, or how connected they were. I’m not sure I could read all four of them – or at least not unless you were in the book club too!

    David – lol! Go and pick up James Herriot or some Wilkie Collins to take the taste away. 🙂

    Emily – lol! I’m not sure I’ve ever heard you so riled up by an author before! Well, your comment was fun, even if Markson wasn’t. Thankfully, the book world is huge and there is enough in it to please everyone, one way or another, or to provide contrast or even just a reminder as to why other books appeal to us so much more. I have sympathy for the position that sees this as messing with the reader’s mind, and sympathy also for the position that suggests experimental work makes us more aware of the way we use our own minds to create meaning, that no matter how realist the work is, we are more responsible for what we take away from it than we always realise. Those Impressionists, after all, painted in a form that was not so dissimilar to the way Markson writes. I’ve heard his work described as ‘verbal pointillism’ by Michael Dirda, and it seemed quite apt. Still, there is thankfully no requirement for you ever to tangle with Markson if you don’t want to, and I can at least be happy NOT to have messed with your tbr pile! 🙂

    Lilian – I enjoyed it much more, knowing that my blogging friends would all be making wonderful contributions to the debate!

    Jodie – you were fab in the last discussion we had with the Slaves, so I’m very much hoping you’ll be able to join in. I haven’t picked up the Stevie Smith yet, but will do in the next few days. I’m gathering it isn’t traditional realism, eh? 🙂

    ds – the brown questions are the only ones I stand a chance of answering! 🙂 Don’t be intimidated by Markson, or anyone, ever, of his ilk. The great thing about books is that they can be enjoyed completely privately, so no one need ever know how you felt or responded. So you could always take Emily’s approach (see above!) of telling Mr Markson what for if ever he was starting to make you feel insecure. And yes! Calvino! I’m reminded of him now, too. 🙂

  17. I know my limitations and I hate to admit that this might just be beyond them, which is sort of depressing as everyone else seems to be willing to give the book a try. When you mentioned playful rather than experimental I thought this sounds good–playful is much more optimistic, but I stopped reading not even halfway through to get to your commentary. I don’t do well with really ambiguous writing. I think I could only read a book like this is in the setting you describe–a group willing to pick things apart and try and make sense of them. I can see the playfulness after the fact, but I wonder if for me getting to that point might be sort of painful. This seems to be a weakness in my reading.

  18. Danielle – it’s a preference, not a weakness, and everyone is allowed to have those. Did you read Emily’s feisty comment – there’s one possible response to not quite getting on with a Markson novel! 🙂 And I would rather group read this sort of thing, too. I really enjoyed everyone’s comments and saw things, both good and bad and unusual in the passage that I hadn’t noticed before. Perhaps that’s the only truly useful thing to come out of studying literature – you realise that your own perspective is always limited one way or another, and that the more people you get together on a reading, the richer that reading is. And this is quite okay – just perfectly normal. 🙂

  19. The Smith is off the wall stylistically, even for a kind of stream of conciousness/poetry mash up I honestly lost the thread quite a bit during the first 25 pages and there was some stuff about Jews, that I did not know how to interpret because I couldn’t understand what she was saying. But I will be ready to go again after my YA book interlude I think.

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