Vol. XXVII, #3 New Australian Fiction
Review of Contemporary Fiction
The Last Novel, by David Markson
reviewed by Jeremy M. Davies
Shoemaker & Hoard, 2007. 190 pp. Paper: $15.00.
Markson’s latest novel—composed, as has his every work since Reader’s Block, of fragments, quotations, and anecdotes from or about (mainly deceased) artists, writers, composers, philosophers, and critics—purports to be the last; not only of the series Markson’s latest narrator/surrogate (“Novelist”) is finally willing to acknowledge as such (“Novelist has lately appeared to be writing the same book over and over”—“Novelist’s personal genre. . . . [O]bstinately cross-referential and of cryptic interconnected syntax”), but also, simply, the last novel ever from one of our great writers. May it not be so—but if es muß sein, it would be difficult to imagine a better sign-off. There is nothing portentous here. Gone is the mawkishness and moralizing of Author, in Vanishing Point; gone too the simple exhaustion of Writer, in This Is Not a Novel; indeed, not since the days of Reader himself—the first of these homunculi, and by comparison blithely egocentric and old-fashioned, the most resembling a “real” fictional character—has a Markson novel been so free of the weight of closure; free, paradoxically, of the need to end (and end breathtakingly!). Novelist is a marvelous companion with whom to await the end of the world, or just the end of a life (his). The usual suspects all make their appearances in The Last Novel’s litany of illnesses, deaths, and frustrations (Joyce, Wittgenstein, Malcolm Lowry, Dizzy Dean), accompanied by new and occasionally unexpected co-stars (Lillie Langtry, with whom Novelist has managed to fall in love despite her having died in 1929; Beatrix Potter, who had to pay to publish The Tale of Peter Rabbit; a snippet of dialogue from the heavenly Powell and Pressburger film The Red Shoes), but notwithstanding the general morbidity of the scraps Novelist shares with us—not least about his own grim and lonely day-to-day life in Greenwich Village (well, he can’t be that bad off)—it’s impossible to be anything but invigorated by them en masse, by the clarity and wit of their arrangement, by the magic of Markson’s great trick: to assemble a work that gives us all the pleasure and poignancy of a novel without resorting to a single recognizable trope of novel-writing. If this really is Markson’s last, it’s a tremendous loss to American letters. Either way, however, his readers can only come out ahead.