What is the point of life?
In this 1996 interview with Chris Lydon, Wallace says that somehow the present culture has taught us that “really the point of living is to get as much as you can and experience as much pleasure as you can and the implicit promise is that will make you happy.” That’s a sort of simplistic overview of the whole novel’s theme, but it fits with the ideas related to why alcohol and other pleasurable substances maybe don’t ultimately lead to happiness. So, if pleasure and entertainment are not at the core life’s purpose, what is? Or what should be?
The Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous starts out by trying to convince you that you are an alcoholic. Pretty much every defense you can think of to rationalize getting drunk is refuted, or at least diffused, right up front. The idea of the responsible “gentleman drinker” whom every alcoholic aspires to be is debunked as myth right out of the gate. AA teaches you that the solution to stopping drinking is what we sometimes call “soul-searching” or what The Big Book sometimes calls being “properly armed with facts” about one’s self. This soul-searching leads to abandoning pride, a “confession of shortcomings” and the inevitable conclusion that the ability to stop drinking lies outside of one’s self.
Chapter 2 of the Big Book states the result of this soul-searching pretty starkly:
The great fact is just this, and nothing less: That we have had deep and effective spiritual experiences which have revolutionized our whole attitude toward life, toward our fellows and toward God’s universe. The central fact of our lives today is the absolute certainty that our Creator has entered into our hearts and lives in a way which is indeed miraculous. He has commenced to accomplish those things for us which we could never do by ourselves.
This is the organization that Ennet House requires its residents to attend every week. When life becomes impossible, they send you to AA.
In the book we are presented with many case studies of substance abuse, but the two most prominent are Don Gately and Hal Incandenza. One is forced into a halfway house after years of drugs and crime. The other is just starting to experience the spiritual side-effects of substances. We think of Hal as primarily a pot smoker, but he also drinks.
Hal’s mother, Mrs. Avril Incandenza, and her adoptive brother Dr. Charles Tavis, the current E.T.A. Headmaster, both know Hal drinks alcohol sometimes, like on weekend nights with Troeltsch or maybe Axford down the hill at clubs on Commonwealth Ave.; The Unexamined Life has its notorious Blind Bouncer night every Friday where they card you on the Honor System. Mrs. Avril Incandenza isn’t crazy about the idea of Hal drinking, mostly because of the way his father had drunk, when alive, and reportedly his father’s own father before him, in AZ and CA; but Hal’s academic precocity, and especially his late competitive success on the junior circuit, make it clear that he’s able to handle whatever modest amounts she’s pretty sure he consumes — there’s no way someone can seriously abuse a substance and perform at top scholarly and athletic levels, the E.T.A. psych-counselor Dr. Rusk assures her, especially the high-level-athletic part — and Avril feels it’s important that a concerned but un-smothering single parent know when to let go somewhat and let the two high-functioning of her three sons make their own possible mistakes and learn from their own valid experience, no matter how much the secret worry about mistakes tears her gizzard out, the mother’s.
Right here we are introduced to a family with a history of alcohol abuse (which ended in suicide for Hal’s father), a protective and worried mother, a private-school system that is so ingrained in equating success with the ability to “handle” substances that it tolerates a degree of underage drinking in the process. Wallace is quite clever in entertaining the reader (a blind bouncer!) as he doles out these diagnoses of systematic, societal-level problems that it lulls the reader into believing we are now insiders aware of all this modern-conundrum stuff too, but in the end don’t we want things to turn out well? Can’t we all just get along?
And Charles supports whatever personal decisions she [Avril] makes in conscience about her children. And God knows she’d rather have Hal having a few glasses of beer every so often than absorbing God alone knows what sort of esoteric designer compounds with reptilian Michael Pemulis and trail-of-slime-leaving James Struck, both of whom give Avril a howling case of the maternal fantods. And ultimately, she’s told Drs. Rusk and Tavis, she’d rather have Hal abide in the security of the knowledge that his mother trusts him, that she’s trusting and supportive and doesn’t judge or gizzard-tear or wring her fine hands over his having for instance a glass of Canadian ale with friends every now and again, and so works tremendously hard to hide her maternal dread of his possibly ever drinking like James himself or James’s father, all so that Hal might enjoy the security of feeling that he can be up-front with her about issues like drinking and not feel he has to hide anything from her under any circumstances.
What Avril values is this need for security and honesty when in fact her choices have created the exact opposite of her intentions. Hal is not open and honest with her about anything. He smokes pot in secret, addicted more to the solitude and self-punishment than the substance itself. He does not feel secure in the world or in his emotionally distant relationships.
The answers to the questions about how should one live are not answered explicitly in Infinite Jest, they are implied and inferred. The first step involves seeking meaning outside of one’s self, outside of the cage of one’s head. And at a very basic level, that’s the definition of religion.
I should probably explain how this all started.
A couple months ago, I was listening to the November 5th episode of Matt & Dave Laird’s “The Great Concavity” podcast when, around the 22-minute mark, the conversation turned to Wallace’s Kenyon College commencement address. At this point in the podcast, they’re discussing the section where Wallace talks specifically about which things it’s OK for us to worship and therefore derive our sense of meaning from. Drawing a distinction, Matt noted:
“…He [Wallace] says something about ‘If you worship money and things, if that’s where you get, you know, your meaning out of life, you’ll never have enough. If you worship this other thing—if you worship beauty and sexual allure, you’ll always feel ugly, you’ll die a million deaths. All that stuff is him saying: ‘Don’t worship anything except a higher being.’ And that’s really where I think me and Wallace personally, like as a philosophy, part ways in that I disagree with that. And I think that that’s not the definition of ‘atheism’—because he says: ‘in the day-to-day trenches of adult life there’s no such thing as atheism,’ and he says: ‘everyone worships.’ And I say worshipping is different than a belief in a higher power. […] You can tap real meaning in life from something that is not centered out of a higher power. And he says: ‘no, it has to be,’ and for me that’s a little bit different.”
Matt’s distinction is interesting to me in a couple of ways. First, this part of the commencement speech had stuck in my craw for what sounds like the same reasons Matt cites. Though my grandfather was a Methodist minister and I grew up going to church, I don’t consider myself to be a religious person—at least not in the dogmatic or doctrinal senses that “religious” generally connotes. Second, I line up with Wallace’s opinion just about always, and so for Wallace to restrict the acceptable places for me to “tap real meaning” to a list of outmoded spiritual traditions had bothered me. Just so we’re on the same page, this is the relevant sentence from Wallace’s address:
“The compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of God or spiritual-type thing to worship—be it J.C. or Allah, be it Yahweh, or the Wiccan Mother Goddess, or the Four Noble Truths, or some inviolable set of ethical principles—is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive.”
I wondered, “What’s the commonality between the items on this list that keep them from eating us alive?” Do these traditions share some particular quality that keeps them from ultimately bending back inward, toward the self, that keeps them from cultivating in us the selfish desire to accumulate and display the things that Wallace names: money, beauty, power, intellectual mastery? Why this particular list?
The answer has everything to do with Wallace’s phrasing. His wording here provides a clue, I think, to his source material.
As Matt mentioned in his last post, I’m finishing up a dissertation on Wallace. Specifically, I’m using a Recovery Studies framework to cast the differences between Wallace’s use of theory in his first and second novels as those of a “recovering theory-addict.” And back when I listened to this episode of TGC, I’d been working on a chapter that looked at the influence of 12-step programs like Alcoholics Anonymous on Infinite Jest. Consequently, the language of AA’s central text (technically titled Alcoholics Anonymous but usually referred to in meetings as “The Big Book” to avoid confusion with the program itself) was still fresh in my mind. And so as I listened again to the commencement address, Wallace’s phrasing—“God or spiritual-type thing”—and the plurality of choices in his list of religious traditions had a familiar ring to it.
The particular resonance I heard (and continue to hear) occurs in chapter 4 of The Big Book, titled “We Agnostics.” In the chapters that lead up to it, alcoholism is presented as a self-inflicted problem, with the self here understood as a tripartite construction comprised of the “mind,” “body,” and—crucially—the “spirit” of the alcoholic. This “spiritual” side of the self is basically the human capacity for numinous or spiritual experience—something like the feeling of being moved emotionally by the sublime. The Big Book presents it as an explanation for the preponderance of religions in so many disparate cultures, for the “persistence of the myth”—whether it be true or not. But most importantly, they see this innate spiritual capacity as something that is exceptionally and singularly human. In the “We Agnostics” chapter, The Big Book elaborates on how this third component, the alcoholic’s “spiritual” or metaphysical aspect, must be reformed.
In it, we read that as agnostics, some of the first members of AA had difficulty following the second step. This amounts to a fairly big problem for someone in AA because the rest of the 12 steps hang on the acceptance of the first two: “1. We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable” and “2. Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.” Now, writing as former agnostics who had been able to overcome their skepticism, the authors are “at pains to tell why we think our present faith is reasonable, why we think it more sane and logical to believe than not to believe, why we say our former thinking was soft and mushy when we threw up our hands in doubt and said ‘We don’t know.’” I’ll spare you the quotation of the entire argument, but it basically boils down to this: when the agnostics looked closely at what held them back from being “restored to sanity” through belief in a “Power greater than [them]selves,” they found it was another belief—a belief in their own ability to reason, or a faith in their reasonable faculties:
“…let us think a little more closely. Without knowing it, had we not been brought to where we stood by a certain kind of faith? For did we not believe in our own reasoning? Did we not have confidence in our ability to think? What was that but a sort of faith? Yes, we had been faithful, abjectly faithful to the God of Reason. So, in one way or another, we discovered that faith had been involved all the time!”
Now, with regard to the “particular resonance” I mentioned hearing above, this next bit is where the bells started going off:
“We found, too, that we had been worshippers. […] Had we not variously worshipped people, sentiment, things, money, and ourselves? […] Who of us had not loved something or somebody? How much did these feelings, these loves, these worships, have to do with pure reason? Little or nothing, we saw at last. Were not these things the tissue out of which our lives were constructed? Did not these feelings, after all, determine the course of our existence? It was impossible to say we had no capacity for faith, or love, or worship. In one form or another we had been living by faith and little else.”
The authors go on to explain that the matter of their conversion was no small thing; if they had not been primed to accept the necessity of handing over their wills over to a higher power, they probably wouldn’t have been able to do it—save that they had recently experienced a particular event in the narrative common to all addicts: hitting bottom. And at the point in David Foster Wallace’s life when The Big Book crosses his path, hitting bottom is precisely where he found himself.
I think that ultimately, the items on Wallace’s approved worship-list are there because they’re traditions that direct us toward a love of something outside of ourselves as their primary principles—Christianity’s first two commandments, for example, are to “Love God with the entirety of the heart, intellect, and will,” and that basically, if the first commandment is properly understood and followed, that you can’t help but follow the second: “love others as yourself.” The spiritual traditions that make up Wallace’s list are variations on that same theme (something like Augustine’s “Love, then do what thou wilt”).
The realization that Wallace drew on this passage (and many others) from The Big Book for his writing continues to affect my own thinking and writing in numerous ways. At the very least, it shapes the way I read Wallace’s usual obsessions—everything from sincerity and authenticity to formal concerns like the role of metafictional technique.
In an interview, Cormac McCarthy famously said “The ugly fact is books are made out of books. The novel depends for its life on the novels that have been written.” Infinite Jest is no exception. The books that Wallace drew on for inspiration while constructing his novel include Don DeLillo’s End Zone, The Cinema Book, and many others. Perhaps the book least familiar to me but most familiar to Wallace—and the most influential on Infinite Jest—is the core text of Alcoholics Anonymous, titled simply The Big Book.
In conjunction with the 2016 Infinite Winter project, Rob Short and I will post here on various ways The Big Book, other AA literature, and AA in general helped shape Wallace’s fictional project. This issue also intersects with other major themes and topics at work in the novel, including the ideas of belief, faith, morality, and agnosticism—so we will likely get into those issues, too.
This blog will not be “spoiler-free.” That’s probably not ideal for first-time readers of the novel. However, the book has been out for 20 years now and there is a sizable population of readers who have read the book or re-read the book several times.
I’ll let Rob write a formal introduction (if he chooses!) but you should know that he is a PhD candidate at the University of Florida, writing about David Foster Wallace. The work he has presented at the DFW conferences in Illinois is remarkable because it consistently breaks new scholarly ground, but is highly accessible (and relevant) to general readers. He and I have discussed these issues (about Wallace and AA and “worship”) privately for a while now, but I figured this is as good a time as any to invite others into the conversation and help us work out these ideas more publicly.
Based on the book To an Early Grave by Wallace Markfield, Bye Bye Braverman is a 1968 film directed by Sidney Lumet. In several places I had read that it influenced Wes Anderson so I wanted to find it and see if I could identify any specific references or influences. I really enjoyed watching Lumet’s film and felt like it was the sort of 1970s film that fits with Anderson’s overall aesthetic. If nothing else, it’s worth seeing Boss Hogg in a serious role and Jessica Walter (Lucille Bluth) at the apex of her sultriness. Markfield also wrote a novel called Teitelbaum’s Window, which sorta echoes “Tenenbaum.”
Complicating matters a bit is the fact that a close associate of Anderson’s (and Owen Wilson’s) is named Barry Braverman. Barry Braverman met the Wilsons because he shot commercials and industrial films for Owen, Andrew, & Luke’s father, Bob (an advertising executive and operator of a public TV station), in Dallas. The Criterion Collection edition of Bottle Rocket in fact includes Braverman’s short film Murita Cycles. More on it from the Criterion Forum:
The 27-minute 1978 short, which apparently served as a heavy influence on Anderson and Owen Wilson, is a portrait of Barry’s father, Murray, an eccentric man who runs a “bicycle shop” in Staten Island (though it’s become sort of a “junk shop” as he collects all sorts of junk and fills his house and even his shop, literally right to the door.) It isn’t exactly a flattering portrait (at one point you hear Braverman’s sister yelling at him for “ridiculing” their father) and it’s not always easy to watch, but this is such an interesting item to add to the DVD and I’m glad Criterion and Anderson felt inclined to include it.
Maybe Braverman’s film about his father influenced Anderson more than Lumet’s film, but visually, I believe both had an impact on Anderson’s evolving style.
Matt Zoller Seitz said at one point that Anderson is not the kind of filmmaker “who made references, but the kind of filmmaker who had influences” and I believe that Lumet’s Bye Bye Braverman had at least some effect on Anderson.
Jessica Walter, aka Lucille Bluth from Arrested Development, in Bye Bye Braverman (1968).
I’ll always associate Jack Warden with the film classic Problem Child.
The plot of Braverman does sound like a Wes Anderson movie. It’s about three friends in Manhattan going to the funeral of a friend (Leslie Braverman, the deceased whom we never see) in Brooklyn. It’s a movie about writers, death, friendship, and New York City. There are a few points where the elements from the film’s story seem to be reflected in Anderson’s work. But more apparent are several visual elements of the film that clearly influenced Anderson’s signature visual style.
Braverman opens with shots of the main characters as children, somewhat reminiscent of the way The Royal Tenenbaums begins with the main characters as children.
In fact, Anderson is often criticized for dwelling too much on childhood or trying to recapture a “lost” childhood that doesn’t really represent reality. The Royal Tenenbaums, with its reimagined version of New York City, also seems to fit best with Braverman‘s now-gone visual depiction of the city, although a flashback sequence from The Darjeeling Limited seems influenced by Braverman as well.
The name “Braverman” itself shows up in The Royal Tenenbaums when we learn that Margot, an aspiring playwright, “received a Braverman Grant of $50,000 in the ninth grade.” Hard to say if this is reference to the movie or to Barry. Almost all of the characters in Braverman are writers or playwrights or aspiring to such careers.
Braverman features a character named Holly Levine (played by Sorrell Brooke aka Boss Hogg) who is a writer and book reviewer and wears a beret quite similar to Max Fisher’s in Rushmore.
One of the best scenes in Braverman is when three of the friends are in Holly Levine’s new car discussing their competing knowledge of comics. Holly mentions that there is a chance he will be teaching a course on popular culture titled From Little Nemo to Lil Abner. His friends laugh and mock him, saying he doesn’t know enough about comic strips to be an authority, so they begin to quiz him.
“Who used to say in moments of angst, Golly, Moses, I got the whim-whams all over?”
Holly quickly answers “Rooney, Little Annie Rooney!”
This whole scene is taken almost verbatim from Markfield’s novel.
This old MTA bus scene reminded me of The Royal Tenenbaums as well.
In a later scene, we see an NYC city bus that closely resembles the Green Line Bus that Margot takes in Tenenbaums.
I love the little details like that.
The four friends on their way to a Brooklyn funeral recalls the flashback scene in The Darjeeling Limited where the three Whitman brothers (accompanied by Peter’s wife Alice) are on their way to their father’s funeral in Brooklyn–when Peter (Adrien Brody) decides to stop the car and pick up their father’s Porsche from the repair shop.
The climactic scene in Bye Bye Braverman ends with the friends finally attending Leslie Braverman’s burial at a cemetery in Brooklyn, which to me is similar to the closing cemetery scene in The Royal Tenenenbaums which of course ends with Royal Tenenbaum’s burial.
Because Bye Bye Braverman focuses on adults and adult friendships, it feels more mature and sophisticated than most of Anderson’s work. Though they share some visual style and aesthetic elements, Anderson could learn a thing or two from Lumet in terms of engaging deeper with the ideas he pursues between characters.
Desolation of Avenues Untold by Brandon Hobson
Civil Coping Mechanisms / $13.95 paper / 306 pages / August 25, 2015
The lost sex tapes of an aging Charlie Chaplin occupy the secret center stage in this wild, neo-futuristic page-turner. Set mostly in Desolate City (D.C.), Texas, we meet Bornfeldt “Born” Chaplin, who surely must be related to The Tramp. Yet, his last name is merely a coincidence. The Tramp’s grandson turns out to be a former punk rocker (somewhat similar to Bucky Wunderlick) named Caspar Fixx.
Hobson, author of Deep Ellum, revels in pulling all the strands of this novel together and then letting them run loose and then pulling them back together again.
Hobson mixes in a framing device similar to Nabokov’s Lolita, a character named “Brandon Hobson,” and various other postmodern features that feel less like narrative tricks and more like comfortable gears for a writer at the top of his game. This is American fiction at its Ray-banned, smoke-blowing, cameras-are-rolling coolest.
Throughout the novel there are several nods to David Foster Wallace and Infinite Jest: a lengthy filmography, scatological word play (Yushityu vs. Mishityu), and at the center of it all a riveting, cult film pursued by many. But, Hobson’s furious delight in naming characters, throwing them into surreal scenarios, and then expanding on the social problems of the day is less Wallace and DeLillo and more reminiscent of Pynchon in his heyday.
Another thing that separates Desolation from many other serious literary novels published these days is that it is actually fun to read. Just as one could picture Thomas Pynchon smirking when he wrote about erections, muted horns, Pig Bodine, and Doc Sportello, it’s easy to imagine Hobson taking utmost delight in creating Bleaker Street, naming a list of workshops available at a porn addiction conference, rolling a J, and listening to records with good old Dick Swaggert, professor of film studies at Thom Yorke College.
In the end, the question surrounding the hypothetical Chaplin sex tapes is one we must ask ourselves practically everyday now, a question about The Entertainment itself. With unfettered, instant access to pretty much every known human depravity, when a new spectacle or vice is revealed, when intense suffering can be passively consumed on a mobile screen, we must ask each other: Would you watch?
There has been something like “David Foster Wallace studies” for a decade now, maybe longer. Stephen Burn’s reader’s guide to Infinite Jest was published in 2003. A Companion to David Foster Wallace Studies was published in 2013. The first academic conference on Wallace was held in Liverpool in 2009. The Second Annual David Foster Wallace Conference was held last week, in May 2015, at Illinois State University in Normal, Illinois.
I didn’t get to attend half as many panels as I’d liked to, but I did get to read several other papers that I missed (in the past two years of conferences) after the fact and I noticed that there are some clear trends emerging in the scholarship, now in 2015. So what follows is just my own general impression of what people are doing at this point in time. It’s way more complicated and there are tons of mini-niches that I’m not even touching on here, but this is a broad-strokes overview of my own thoughts.
My own paper at this year’s DFW Conference was about Section 22 of The Pale King (the story of Chris Fogle), so I was attuned to other mentions of Fogle’s story. In fact, there were at least two other papers that talked about Fogle’s conversion from a wastoid to a tax examiner. In previous years, I think it was Don Gately’s story that was used as the most common example of Wallace’s fictional project about redemption and adulthood. I was happy to see Fogle mentioned in so many places because I believe that section of The Pale King contains some of Wallace’s finest writing.
Several papers talked at length about Baudrillard’s simulacra and the phases of the image. This is a rich subject for engaging much of the post-post-modern (or whatever) literature out there today and so it’s not too surprising that so many scholars have brought it to bear on Wallace’s work.
Wallace’s relationship to religion and the supernatural, both in his work and in his life as an artist, is fascinating because of how it evolves over time and how that belief or concept of the supernatural is reflected in his work. Current work in this area shows that theology / religion stands as a major element in Wallace’s fictional works.
4. The Letters
Stephen Burn’s keynote address at this year’s conference was centered around his effort to assemble a collection of Wallace’s letters on writing (rather than personal letters). Because of some difficulty securing permissions, it’s unclear when and if Burn’s manuscript will be published. It might take a couple of more years before we see this book, but it stands to be a major contribution to DFW studies. Burn separates out Wallace’s correspondence into three eras: The Apprentice Years, when DFW wrote to older masters; The Genius Years, when DFW wrote to contemporary writers; and the Emeritus Years, when DFW wrote to younger writers. The letters also reveal a lot about what Wallace was reading at each stage in his career.
On Twitter, @erasing asked me what I hated about the “new” Google Maps UI (and Street View) in particular. I gave him a brief answer there, but thought it might be worth spelling out in greater detail why exactly the interface for the Classic Maps was better.
I should say in advance that @erasing has created several Chrome bookmarklets that alleviate some of the pain of switching to the new Google Maps (for me, anyway). If you care deeply about the photography and imagery of Street View, you might be interested in these: http://scottdavidherman.com/gsv/
1. Classic Maps Street View had a built in full-screen toggle. Now, you can get to full screen in your browser (Cmd-shift-F on OSX, F11 on Windows) but it’s no longer a feature of Street View specifically. Maybe this sounds like a minor thing, but I think it is one of the best selling points of Street View: how good the imagery looks, full-screen, on a big monitor.
2. With the new Google Maps, there are no leader lines or static arrows on streets—so you often can’t tell which direction to click to move forward. Maybe this works OK on actual streets, but more and more Street View photography is off-road. Let’s say you are exploring the top of Enchanted Rock. In the old version of Street View, there were arrows pointing which way the camera moved, so you would at least know where to click (they would fade away if you didn’t move the mouse for a second). It looked like this:
The new UI combines the arrow and circle so that you have to move around to see if and when there is a line to follow. There is no way to tell where exactly to click. The giant X is supposed to be a target, but it also moves. In this case, it’s actually behind the arrow:
3. New Google Maps defaults to the “political” map view rather than the satellite view. Maybe there is a way to change this default setting but I hate it. I don’t understand why the majority of users would prefer a less realistic view of the world.
The satellite view contains vastly more information than the cartoonish political view.
If there is a way to change this default view, I’m sure it requires you to be signed into your Google account. Please comment on this post if you know how to change the default.
4. I could live with many of these annoying features, but perhaps my main complaint about the new Google Maps Street View is how much junk there is on the screen. They have added so much cruft and junk to the main view that it’s often difficult to see the main image. Scott’s bookmarklets are amazing because they instantly hide all this junk.
5. In the new version, I also think the blue lines that show where Street View imagery is are way too faint.
Why make the lines so faint? There are some instances where it is so faint that it blends in with the background and disappears completely.
6. In the new version, when you drag Pegman over to the map and drop him into a blue street, there is this three-second, bullshit animation that is completely unnecessary.
So, in sum, I thought there was nothing really wrong with the Classic Maps and no need to make all these “enhancements” to the user interface. Maybe some of these are linked to the use of WebGL Maps imagery, but I don’t know about any of that nonsense.
However, I did discover that there exists a link where Google Maps Classic still works: https://www.google.com/lochp Does anyone know what “lochp” means?
The poet Laura Sims wrote her first letter to novelist David Markson in 2003: a fan letter expressing her love of Wittgenstein’s Mistress. Markson’s reply was collegial enough that she replied again, and the chain continued for years. At one point in their correspondence, Sims prints out some blog entries about his work and mails them to Markson. His response is “HOW CAN PEOPLE LIVE IN THAT FIRST-DRAFT WORLD?” What Markson can’t see is that much of the Internet takes the tone of his letters—informal, often joking, and not written with perpetuity in mind. Markson’s self-deprecating humor shines throughout. He struggles to leave the house—he lives in text.
This new book of letters, Fare Forward, includes 66 letters from Markson (spanning 2003–2010), an interview Sims conducted with Markson for Rain Taxi, Markson’s introductory remarks for an AWP panel organized by Sims, and an Afterword by Ann Beattie. Sims’ side of the correspondence is omitted and she uses footnotes to explain the context of Markson’s replies. This slim volume is welcome now because fans and readers will be grateful for anything that keeps Markson’s voice in print. But it is only a sliver of the letters Markson produced in his lifetime. Where are the decades of correspondence with other writers? Are his letters to Malcolm Lowry, William Gaddis, and other influential writers lost forever? Some of his letters are already in literary archives or scattered across private collections. Markson’s letters to Gilbert Sorrentino went to the University of Delaware. Some of his letters to David Foster Wallace and Steven Moore reside at the Harry Ransom Center, but the immense effort required to track down all of Markson’s letters likely does not figure well in a publisher’s profit and loss statement.
It seems inevitable that many of these letters—and the stories they contain—are lost forever. But, throughout his work, Markson makes it clear that preservation of art does not necessarily correlate to preservation of fame.
The Carmina Burana. Any and all names of the original vagabond thirteenth-century poets long forgotten. [Reader’s Block, 47]
The poems of Catullus were lost for a millennium. Tradition has it that the single manuscript discovered in Verona in the fourteenth century had been used to stop a bunghole. [Reader’s Block, 112]
It is difficult to find those places today, and you would be no better off if you did, because no one lives there.
Said Strabo of the lost past. [This is Not a Novel, 185]
Which stories—or letters—survive into the long future, even electronically, is ultimately more a product of luck and coincidence than any sustained effort of preservation or curation: a letter is sold to The Strand, an email is deleted, and a manuscript page gets recycled. Perhaps Strabo is correct that we would be no better off knowing every detail of the lost past, perhaps it is a fallacy to believe that the stories we lost to paper and time and happenstance are any more meaningful than stories we willfully ignore today. Yet, Markson himself was a stickler for details and exactitude and the deeper our history, the more willing we are to preserve it, the more likely writers like Markson will be appreciated long after they are gone.
In Nicholson Baker’s book-length ode to John Updike, U and I, Baker at first contemplates writing a lengthy appreciation of his recently deceased hero, Donald Barthelme, but arrives at:
“Why bother? Barthelme would never know. . . . He had died somewhat out of fashion, too, and I was curious to watch firsthand the microbiologies of upward revaluation or of progressive obscurity.”
Three and a half years have passed since the Markson died and he seems headed toward the progressive obscurity to which Baker alludes. However, the microbiology of his reputation evolves somewhat with the release of these letters.
Markson’s last four books (Reader’s Block, This is Not a Novel, Vanishing Point, and The Last Novel) were admittedly not bestsellers aimed at a general audience. They were all narrated by a nameless Author who only occasionally interrupted a stream of literary and art history factoids. And yet they were page turners—the best sorts of novels without feeling like a guilty pleasure. Evan Lavender-Smith called these books “porn for English majors.” So it’s likely that these final four novels of Markson’s will remain cult classics, and his early novels are interesting but not groundbreaking. But, Markson did write one novel that is an unabashed masterpiece: Wittgenstein’s Mistress.
Like Author, Markson was acutely aware of his advanced age and his lack of recognition. It is one thing to be relegated to the dustbin of history, but quite another to be buried alive.
About the 2004 presidential election, Markson writes “I hope neither of you slashed your wrists after the election. I was gonna jump off the roof here, but my sciatica hurt too much for me to get over the railing.”
His last postcard to Sims ends: “Meantime nada here. Everything I can think of would be making me repeat myself—and I almost prefer the silence. (Actually, I hate it.)”