On the Music of
David Markson’s Novels

Martha Cooley

It’s been noted by many readers of his work that David Markson constructs novels resembling verbal collages or assemblages. Markson himself has used the word bricolage to describe what he’s up to, especially in the later novels, starting with Wittgenstein’s Mistress. They’re magical magpie constructions, one might say. But I think some observations about his language should precede whatever else is said about the architectonics of his work.

His prose has a particular music whose dynamics and elisions are among the most unusual, lively, and complex of our time. As his readers know, a great deal of humor, intelligence, and pathos reside in the syntactical movements of Markson’s language—in the convolutions and inversions of his sentences, in their beautiful pacing and economy—and in their diction, which swings from stately to vulgar, from refined to common, from book-smart to street-smart, touching all manner of registers in between. Watching and listening to how Markson handles syntax, we realize not only how much ideation but also how much emotion can be conditioned and even created by a writer who knows how to exploit the syntactical complexities of the English language.

Here’s a brief example from Wittgenstein’s Mistress:

Although come to think about it I do not believe I ever once gave that cat a thought when I had the other cat that I could not decide upon a name for as well, actually.

Which is assuredly a curious thing to have done.

Or rather not to have done.

Which is to say to have not remembered that one’s little boy had once not been able to decide upon a name for a cat while finding one’s self in the very process of not being able to decide upon a name for a cat of one’s own.

Well, perhaps it was not so curious.

There being surely as many things one would prefer never to remember as there are those one would wish to, of course.

This excerpt comes right before Kate, the novel’s sole protagonist (and, if we believe her—and we do—the world’s as well), finally divulges how her little boy died, several decades earlier. In the contortions of her syntax, we can hear exactly what it’s costing her to confront her own complicity in that tragedy, and why she’s waited so long to do so.

In this novel and others, Markson revels not only in complex sentence constructions but also in the use of contractions. Words are continually left out or lopped off, not to mention pushed up against and weirdly rejoined with one another. This strategy is particularly noteworthy in Springer’s Progress, where a constant collapsing of words brings an acceleration of feeling—the characters’ and ours alike—as well as an ongoing intimacy.

Here’s a taste of Springer thinking about his wife, Dana, a literary agent, as he tries to keep her from noting an affair upon which he’s recently embarked: “Young poet Dana’s coddled’s awarded a prestigious grant next day, wires roses. All her doing, card insists.” (How might that sentence be written in full-fledged English? “The young poet whom Dana has coddled is awarded a prestigious grant the next day, and wires her some roses. His winning is all her doing, his card insists.”)

Springer telegraphs this information in an ultra-condensed manner. His syntax shows off the pell-mell movement of his thoughts as well as his inner urgency, a state of constant mental hurry as he experiences (and tries to suppress) his near-frenzied desire and longing for Jessica, his paramour. At the end of the scene, having asked his wife if she minds his having a drink with the paramour (not identified as such to Dana, naturally), Springer makes this funny observation about his hiding-in-plain-sight strategy for defusing wifely suspicions: “All of the people some of the time.” We can hear what’s left out of the usual line about fooling people—and are thus let in on the truth, which is that Springer’s entirely aware of his duplicity, if not exactly clear on how to feel about it. Or himself.

Springer’s Progress abounds in this kind of thing, but we see such compressions and elisions in all of Markson’s work. And with certain repetitive syntactical movements and gestures comes an accumulation of patterns of perception and feeling. Over and over again, the novels’ protagonists summon and test themselves against repeated words, phrases, and fragments that conjure wants and fears too intransigent or frightening to express directly. Repetition and recurrence thus function in Markson's work the way they do in music—providing obvious leitmotifs, of course, but also working subtly to insinuate emotion without articulating it explicitly. At the syntactical level, these narratives proceed in waves whose rhythms build and disperse, then rebuild and re-disperse—rather like whitecaps arriving in irregular, unpredictable series that nonetheless possess discernible patterns.

Markson has written all his novels since Wittgenstein’s Mistress on 3x5 index cards, first collecting various quotes and anecdotes and then devising what he calls a skeleton—a kind of armature or scaffolding for the narrative. He puts the index cards into a box shaped like an old-fashioned library card-catalog box, narrow and long. Then he delicately weaves into the collected materials the private story of each novel’s particular protagonist. As this interweaving proceeds, he shifts his notecards around, pursuing certain concatenations or interlinkages as he sees and hears them accumulating. He is exceedingly careful in this process, mindful of multiple concurrent effects—sounds and meanings, implications and connections. It takes him a long time to eliminate redundancies, sharpen resonances and echoes, and accumulate tensions. From book to book he’s had to watch for unwanted repetitions. It’s the labor of an obsessive-compulsive writer, one might say, but it pays off.

To me the music of his later novels works as a kind of keening. Not, of course, the breast-beating sort—these books don’t emit any mawkish cries. Grief, especially in the later work, is ever-present but expressed without self-pity. It takes into account both folly and kindness, evil and haplessness. Markson’s recurring syntactical strategies countermand the downward pull of loss; they tug us in another direction, asserting connectivity as the novels’ central artistic and moral value. In this way, Markson’s work displays a deep generosity to the reader. Here, these novels seem to be saying, you do the real work—that of paying attention to how things connect—so we books may come fully into being. And so you may be bound to us, and to one another, afresh.