In both Reader's Block (1996) and This Is Not a Novel (2001), David Markson constructs what seemed to be not novels but instead collections of brief anecdotes, quotations, and factoids. Neither volume is narrated, and neither offers the conventional gratification of observing human lives enmeshed in a plot that proceeds through tension toward resolution. In each case, the reader is invited to impute novelistic design to disparate statements—usually about eight to ten to a page. If “found poetry” is verse whose virtue lies in selection and arrangement, not invention, Markson has demonstrated his mastery of found fiction. He writes nonfiction novels that, unlike the famous cases of Truman Capote's In Cold Blood (1966) and Norman Mailer's The Executioner's Song(1979), do not attempt to adapt contemporary events to the conventions of nineteenth century narrative. Formally more daring, his books instead offer the raw materials for story in an assemblage of ostensibly random information.
Vanishing Point constitutes the third volume in a cycle begun with Reader's Block and This Is Not a Novel. In its aspiration toward death and silence, the series might resemble Samuel Beckett'sThe Trilogy, comprising Molloy (1951; English translation, 1955), Malone meurt (1951; Malone Dies, 1956), and L’Innommable (1953; The Unnamable, 1958). Vanishing Point, in fact, quotes the opening line of Malone Dies: “I shall soon be quite dead at last in spite of all.” Yet Markson is more radical in his challenge to novelistic tradition. His book constitutes a brilliant disappearing act, by a shadowy figure called Author, who, from the beginning, strives to erase his traces. “What Balzac would make of a novel of Author's” is one of the text's fragmentary statements. Through his prodigious creation of the vast, multivolume La Comédie humaine (1829-1848; The Human Comedy, 1895-1896), Honoré de Balzac became the prototype of the novelist as garrulous storyteller, and it is likely that he would have no idea what to make of Markson's odd, terse effort. It is up to the reader to make a novel out of Vanishing Point.
“T. S. Eliot was afraid of cows.” “There are 16,696 lines in the Iliad.” “Seventy thousand people died in London in the Great Plague of 1665.” Instead of satisfying one's curiosity, such curious snippets of information dispersed throughout the book provoke a reader to wonder just what they are doing there and what connection, if any, they have to one another. Unlike Reader's Block,Vanishing Point has no character named Reader, but it demands a reader willing to take an active role in discovering patterns where others, like Charles Matthews, writing in the Chicago Tribune, might dismiss the disparate entries as so much “intellectual popcorn.” One is told that Richard Wagner wore pink underwear but not why that detail is important or relevant. Turning the pages rapidly, compulsively, more than one critic has voraciously devoured such tidbits while questioning whether the entire experience provided any literary substance.
Scattered among more than fifteen hundred entries are some that appear to be reflexive, to offer clues to the nature of Vanishing Point itself. The terms “Nonlinear. Discontinuous. Collage-like. An assemblage” clearly apply to Markson's own book, as does the paradoxical description “A novel of intellectual reference and allusion, so to speak minus much of the novel.” “A seminonfictional semifiction” is another way of characterizing Vanishing Point, as is “Obstinately cross-referential and of cryptic interconnective syntax.” To discover the cross-references and make the arcane connections, a careful reader must do more than merely quote the book back at itself.
An integral part of experiencing Vanishing Point is making the effort to discover patterns and preoccupations in Markson's mélange. To begin with, most of the entries offer information about or statements by writers and other artists. Most emphasize the brevity and the misery of their lives. The poverty suffered by Pierre Corneille, Thomas Chatterton, Edmund Spenser, and others is a recurrent motif, as is the illiteracy of the mothers and wives of writers, including François Villon, Walt Whitman, and Giambattista Vico. Markson...
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