Saturday, June 25, 2011

Reader's Block (David Markson)

Every now and then, we encounter books that can astound us because of its scope and sheer genius. I was fortunate to have read two such books in the past few months, and one of them was David Markson's modern classic Reader's Block.

Critics call Reader's Block an anti-novel. There is no spoken exchange here, no setting, no real conflict. What it is is a collection of facts about writers, painters, composers, a string of brief sentences about their lives (mostly their deaths), their sins, their beliefs, and their dementia. In fact, in this experimental novel, one of the most common facts you will encounter is who has committed suicide and who was anti-Semite (Carl Orff, Chopin, Roald Dahl, HG Wells -- and a few of my other favorite minds, apparently).

Here's a glimpse:
'Philip Larkin:
I wouldn't mind seeing China if I could come back the same day.


Edna St. Vincent Millay died at the first light of morning after having sat up all night reading a new translation of the

I have a narrative. But you will be put to it to find it.

None of Andrew Marvell's best poems was published in his lifetime.

The Queen of Pentacles, Reversed: Certain Evil, a suspicious Woman, a Woman justly regarded with Suspicion, Doubt, Mistrust.

Louis-Ferdinand Celine was an anti-Semite. (p78)'

But in between these facts is the sad life of Reader, who is writing a novel. As he constructs the world of Protagonist, giving him different names (Rasholnikov/Bloom/Mr Kurtz, among others) and placing him in different settings (a cemetery, the garage of an isolated beach house), so does he sift through a lifetime of data in his head. Very early on, the question is asked: 'How much of Reader's own circumstances or past would he in fact give to Protagonist in such a novel? (p12)' As we wade through the debris of Reader's mind along with him, looking for that promised narrative, we begin to construct our own image of him as well. We pick up on what he has chosen to reveal through these facts and ineluctably form perceptions about him.

Because of its fragmented nature, it seems fairly easy to consume Reader's Block in one sitting. I would in fact recommend it because I think you'd lose momentum if you decide to read it in small doses. But what wasn't easy for me was the intellectual digestion that came after. I'm the kind of reader who would look up names and words that are unfamiliar to me. I'll be honest and admit that I didn't look up every name or event listed in the book, but I did spend a good amount of time learning that Kristallnacht refers to a time when Jewish homes and shops in Germany were destroyed (the term means crystal night, or night of broken glass) and that the brilliant Roald Dahl did have his prejudices. But aside from that, what also wasn't easy was trying to see if I understood the book at all. The final paragraphs were an emotional and mental upheaval, perhaps as much of a climax as you can get from such a book, and the last word left me thinking hard about what I thought I actually 'got' from the whole reading experience.

I don't think I've ever read anything that has left me this way. Reader's Block truly shows that Mr Markson writes for writing's sake. He is unafraid to experiment with the medium, to push the envelope when it comes to how literature lets a story be told.


Anonymous said...

I haven't read the book but your review is fantastic! It's the curse of intertexuality--how do you begin to separate Writer from Reader...

dementedchris said...

Definitely. And what also got me thinking was how the dialogue here goes beyond how we often define it. On one hand, you have this writer that exists as a Reader and at the same time there us as readers who are contributing to the text: it's how we read the text and what it signifies that creates the narrative.

Tin said...

Hi Chris! This book looks like an interesting read,I've never come across anything like it. I bet it will provide such a unique reading experience for me. And I do love literary trivia. Great review! :)

dementedchris said...

The literary trivia in itself is awesome haha. I really did try to check the most interesting ones out, to see if they were true (at least, as true as Wikipedia can make htem haha).

skinnyblackcladdink said...

hi Chris

warning to readers, not all Reader's facts are facts.

you may be able to separate Writer from Reader by reading Markson's next book, This is Not a Novel (actually pretty easy to find hereabouts). or not.

really glad you enjoyed this.

found Wittgenstein's Mistress yet?


dementedchris said...


They're not? Now you're making me want to check every detail.

Had a nice conversation with a friend over this one. I'll see if I can find This is Not a Novel but I was looking forward to reading WM next.