David Markson, R.I.P.

One of America’s greatest writers has passed on, and even though I shouldn’t have been surprised – he was 82 years old and not in the greatest of health the last few years – I am. Gutted, actually. And based on the reaction on Twitter and various blogs, I’m far from the only one. In a way, David Markson needed the Internet, or more accurately, vice versa, to find his rightful place in the literary world. Quotation approprations, short declarative sentences, quick bursts with acres of thought, meditation on artists and writers at work, and a tremendous study of consciousness marked Markson’s output since WITTGENSTEIN’S MISTRESS (1988) opened with the phrase “In the beginning, sometimes I left messages in the street.” And as our collective attention spans decreased and dovetailed from mass-market pursuits, there was Markson to clue us in to something greater, more amorphous perhaps, but something that pinged the outer reaches of what he termed “seminonfictional semi-fictions.”

Others will chime in with more reasoned and coherent essays on what Markson meant for American literature, and I’ll link to those as I do to other missives below once they come in. But I got to know the writer’s work, and later on, a little bit, the man, through his earliest output, a couple of entertaining and erudite crime novels featuring a scamp of a private detective named Harry Fannin. I’d read THIS IS NOT A NOVEL and had been excited and blown away, and just weeks later I was assigned to write my very first piece for the Los Angeles Timesa double review of those two Fannin novels, EPITAPH FOR A TRAMP and EPITAPH FOR A DEAD BEAT.

Markson clearly wrote the books for money, and a way to make use of some of the genre knowledge he’d gleaned working as an editor for Dell, then one of the pulp paperback mills that couldn’t quite hold a candle to Fawcett Gold Medal’s granddaddy status. But not unlike John Banville’s pseudonymous mystery novels, the Fannin books couldn’t help but betray the rudimentary building blocks of themes and topics Markson spent his entire later career working through: baseball, bad puns, William Gaddis’s THE RECOGNITIONS, and the writer’s struggle for relevance and the artist’s relationship to

creative pursuits. Years later, I’m still not sure both EPITAPH books qualify as great crime fiction, but they stand out in a way that a great majority of the pulp offerings of then and the more contemporary books of now simply do not. But Markson had greater literary and philosophical goals and those are what he should be remembered for.

After that review he got in touch with me – oddly enough by email, through a friend, since he did not own a computer – and we corresponded a little, by postcard and letter. I’d see him at the Strand Bookstore sometimes, one of his regular haunts, shooting the shit with the cavalcade of managers working the review copy desk in the basement (I hope very much that the Strand will publish its own tribute to the man; one of his very last public appearances was there, in the fall of 2007.) That year, I think, is when the critical tide turned in Markson’s favor. He was honored by the American Academy of Arts & Letters, and New York Magazine named him “the best writer you never heard of.”

I saw Markson last at the public memorial for David Foster Wallace. I hadn’t seen him around for several months and asked after him and his health. But the answer, at least to me, was obvious. He was more frail. He didn’t have to articulate his sadness over Wallace’s suicide, that a much-younger man with prodigious talent had died too soon, and that it was a far different feeling from watching friends your own age pass on. A thought passed through my head that Markson might not be around much longer and I should get back in touch, lest the inevitable catch me off-guard. Like many good intentions, it wasn’t acted upon.

And even if there had been plenty of advance warning, that off-guard feeling would have come for all those who admired what David Markson did, who argued whether the Red Sox really were the best baseball team ever, who listened to his stories of being around the Beats and drinking (too much) at the White Horse Tavern, and who appreciated what he meant to a greater literary culture that, only now, may finally understand him in a greater way and accord him proper due. 

Other Tributes and Links: