By David Markson (Dalkey Archive, 1996; reissue, 2007)
David Markson’s 1996 novel Reader’s Block concerns a writer called Reader who plots a novel about a character called Protagonist and, by the by, sketches this novel, the one that the lower-case reader—you, me—reads. It’s less confusing than it sounds, and more emotionally gripping than tangled issues of authorship tend be. It also takes up precious little space on the page. The book consists mostly of snippets concerning artists and writers—facts about them, quotes by them. These fragments tilt toward the truly depressing. That Reader ponders this flotsam, rather than writing his novel, constitutes his block. The first snippet: “Church bells were already ringing, to announce the Armistice in November 1918, when word reached Wilfred Owen’s family that he had been killed in battle one week before.” War, early death, sorrow following hard upon happiness: there are 185 pages of this to go. Markson’s narrators, like Beckett’s, often teeter on the brink of going absolutely bananas, and his approach is two parts Eliot: as plangent, tonally, as Prufrock—the monologue of another aging, lonely man—and possessed of the appropriative strength of The Waste Land. “These fragments I have shored against my ruins” neatly summarizes the book, as the book’s back jacket duly notes. “Has Reader sometimes felt he has spent his entire life as if preparing for doctoral orals?” the narrator asks himself near the book’s end, after citing some 150 pages of literary and artistic arcana.
It’s enough to make anyone miserable, and yet sifting all this misery is not without its consolations. Categorize chaos, and perhaps you can keep the sadness that comes of it at bay. As coping mechanisms go, this would seem a decidedly male approach. What do men want? Not to go crazy is a good start, but sometimes, to stave off insanity, you have to do things that seem nuts. Often, the result is less than nothing. In rare, wondrous cases, the result is something like Reader’s Block.