How to be Alone
Wittgenstein’s Mistress by David Markson
Read if you liked Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and Midnight in Paris.
Status: Yours if you want it.
I LIKE TO THINK I HAVE PLENTY OF PATIENCE FOR EXPERIMENTAL FICTION. Even when it exceeds my capacities, I still like Joyce and enjoy Pynchon very much. The benchmark “difficult” novelist these days is David Foster Wallace, and there’s considerable evidence on this blog that I get a kick out of reading his work.
Wallace himself was a fan of another “difficult” writer, David Markson, in particular his 1988 book “Wittgenstein’s Mistress.” In a 1999 piece for Salon, Wallace called it “pretty much the high point of experimental fiction in this country.” And on the book’s back cover he praises the novel as, “A work of genius…An erudite, breathtakingly cerebral novel whose prose is crystal and whose voice rivets and whose conclusion defies you not to cry.”
What catches the eye here is the teasing of an ending with tear-jerking emotional resonance. For all its charms, experimental fiction is not often touted for its emotional resonance. The promise in this tiny blurb was something I returned to often while reading “Wittgenstein’s Mistress,” as I regularly flipped to the back to see exactly how many pages I had left before reaching this allegedly thrilling conclusion.
I should have taken more note of “breathtakingly cerebral,” which accurately describes the other 95 percent of the book before the ending. The novel follows a female narrator who is, or believes she is, the only person left on the planet earth. This is a promising start as far as narratives go, but it remains unexplained. As a New York Times review said, “Her status owes nothing to science fiction and everything to Samuel Beckett.” The woman, who we learn is named Kate, drives abandoned cars in and around the empty major cities of the world. She camps out in various places, mostly art museums, where she burns frames for warmth, and of late has found herself in a house on a beach where she’s using a typewriter to document some of her thoughts. The result is a stream of consciousness travelogue — written mostly in one sentence paragraphs — punctuated with information on great artists and works of Western civilization. A random opening of the book yields mentions of Cervantes, El Greco, Theotocopoulos, St. Theresa and St. John (both ‘of the Cross’), Taddeo Gaddi (whom she often conflates with William Gaddis), Artemesia Gentilieschi, Archimedes, and Galileo.
If, like me, you are inclined to hit up Wikipedia right now then maybe you understand why “Wittgenstein’s Mistress” can be more difficult than most difficult reads. And if, like me, you haven’t read any Wittgenstein, then you’re not likely to be moved by the ontological horsing around Markson’s character engages in. (I won’t even mention not getting the joke in the title because I never knew Wittgenstein was homosexual.) Without the background knowledge of historical figues and their ideas that are alluded to or directly referenced, it’s easy for the rambling, repetitive narrative to feel tedious. To test the reader’s patience. Even if that reader likes to think he has plenty of patience for experimental fiction.
And yet, you may still find something there. Including that promised ending.
Throughout, the narrator refers to a family and a remembered life before the Earth emptied out. The lone survivor questions are never answered, and Kate’s sanity is less than firmly established, leaving it unclear whether she is truly the last human on the planet, or if she is just isolated enough to feel that way. The longer it goes on the more you realize that there are plenty of people living in our own real world, on this fully stocked planet, who have no one to talk to and nothing to interact with but books, history and paintings.
Regardless of whether you’ve read all the things Markson – and by extension Markson’s narrator – has read, you can still recognize “Wittgenstein’s Mistress” as a book about loneliness. It is the story of us when we read. Especially when we read too much, or as the narrator puts it, when we have “actually gotten more accustomed to a world without any people in it.” The book can be approached, and no doubt appreciated, as “breathtakingly cerebral,” but it ultimately refuses to let the cerebral break with the emotional. Kate’s story unfolds in a world where there is not much left of ontology except for the loneliest etymology. It is moving to see what that does to her humanity.