Markson’s technique, or device, is brazenly unorthodox. This book is a series of little snippets, from one word to a maximum of five or six lines. The narrative voice is presented as “Author” – never “the author” and not otherwise described. Author is writing on a 40-plus-year-old portable typewriter. The bits are presented as notes taken on 3-by-5-inch index cards that fill two shoeboxes. There’s an early declaration that “Author is pretty sure that most of them are basically in the sequence he wants.”
I decided early on that I would not devote my next year to determining how many of Markson’s bits are authentic and how many fanciful. But taken as a whole, they present the glory of a rich and deeply cultured mind. Literary, architectural, musical, artistic, political and scientific history are drawn together in ways that are unifyingly powerful. They make clear that Markson, among other virtues, has a fabulous eye and the discipline to have compiled a commonplace book of uncommon brilliance.
Almost magically, these snippets expand in their capacity to fascinate. They have crackling acceleration, from one to another. The text moves along with the captivating drive that usually comes only from a narrative that’s intricately, suspensefully plotted or ecstatically musical. The ideas themselves grow into a sort of critical mass of energy. Then, artistic, literary sophistication plays counterpoint to rollicking, frolicking absurdity.
Many of the bits are written in inverted forms that call attention to the less obvious element of the statement, giving surprise: “Very great is the number of the stupid. Said Galileo.” Or “There are always more fools in the majority than in the minority. Said Anatole France.” Or “As I write, highly civilized human beings are flying overhead, trying to kill me. Begins an Orwell essay dated 1941.” Almost no one gets off easy, present company included: “Odious vermin, Henry Fielding called critics.”
From time to time Author asks a question and answers it, sometimes a page or more later. Things like this: “If the sun were to go out, how long would we continue to see the sun?” Then the next entry: “Why has Author composed that line as a question when he would have known how to calculate the answer by the age of twelve or thirteen?” And then, a full page later, with no other connection made, this bald declaration: “Eight minutes, twenty seconds. Give or take.” Index cards. The trick works. Well.