||A Review of: Vanishing Point
by Jeff Bursey
There is often truth in an author's belief that reviewers are hostile
to invention. Dale Peck, with his jeremiads in Hatchet Jobs: Writings
on Contemporary Fiction on the works of DeLillo, Pynchon, Faulkner,
William Gaddis and Rick Moody, presents the spectacle of one angry
man in a rope pull against Titans. The London Review of Books, proud
to be heterodox when it comes to political and social issues, is
staid in its opinions concerning fiction, while the Times Literary
Supplement also disappoints. Middlebrow writers such as E. Annie
Proulx, Louis de Bernires and Roddy Doyle are brand names reviewers
respect, and the tiny portion of criticism tucked into a 600-word
encapsulation of their latest effort keeps intact the front that
the write-up isn't an advertisement. Most reviewers choose to rehash
the plot instead of mounting an argument with the work. The late
Frederick Karl offered a handy distinction on the current reception
of novels: "Fiction has been Balkanized, with most reviewers
and critics taking up the cudgels for the conventional and the
easily comprehended; while in the universities and among academic
readers there is greater acceptance of the more intractable fiction
of the Mega-Novelists." In the mainstream media, writers who
push the form of the novel are called experimental-e.g., Harry
Mathews, Joseph McElroy and David Markson-and get little extended
attention. When they are noticed, it's often by a Dale Peck.
As with Reader's Block (1996) and This Is Not a Novel (2001), Markson
almost entirely rejects plot in his latest novel, presenting material
in the form of notes written on index cards. (The same approach is
found in Reader's Block, where the characters are Reader' and
Protagonist', and in This Is Not a Novel, where the character is
called Writer'.) The only figure presented in Vanishing Point is
Author'. The first line reads: "Author has finally started to
put his notes into manuscript form." What follows is a series
of quotations mainly connected to history and art. Here is a
Schmucks with Underwoods, Jack Warner called writers.
Four different horses were shot out from under Ney at Waterloo.
I do not write for the public.
I am not a poet by trade; I am a professor of Latin.
A seminonfictional semifiction.
Obstinately cross-referential and of cryptic interconnective syntax.
Probably by this point more than apparent-or surely for the attentive
As should be Author's experiment to see how little of his own
presence he can get away with throughout.
Author would like to give out little, but his health is frequently
mentioned: "In fact why has Author now and again even found
himself taking a nap, which he cannot recall having ever done before
in his entire adult life?" The preceding is a modest complaint,
but not so the nagging apprehension about why he scuffs his feet.
His memory has been affected-"Forgetting by now that Freida
Lawrence's brother was Baron Manfred von Richthofen"-and this
indicates, when put together with Author's half-hearted admission
that he "probably ought to see a neurologist" about his
missteps, that he is deteriorating. Near the end, notes are repeated
from earlier pages, and there is talk of light, of legends, of a
wasted life. At the close are remarks made to "Dad" to
which there are no responses. Vanishing Point ends with the word
selah, glossed as "pause, or rest."
The quotations are often mordant one-liners on morbidity and failure,
and on the reputations of works and their creators. Author presents
details of Camus's death after recording that a painting by Matisse
had hung upside down for six weeks before anyone noticed. Or he
will present this kind of opinion: "Translator's English, John
Wain called Susan Sontag's prose." At times the cryptic notes
prompt the reader to search for the source of an obscure quote, or
they give pleasure with the sparkly bits of information which Author
has kept like a crow. "Diderot, who was known to gesticulate
excessively in conversation-and was seen to slap Catherine the Great
repeatedly on the thighs. At which the empress was merely amused."
Occasionally, we get Markson's wit, as in this entry: "Wittgenstein's
Vienna. Wittgenstein's Nephew. Wittgenstein's Ladder. Wittgenstein's
Poker." This list of published books leaves out Markson's novel
Wittgenstein's Mistress (1988), and thereby cleverly calls attention
While the bulk of Vanishing Point is entertaining, gradually it is
shown that night is descending on the note-maker. When the speech
of one of Author's children is given in the last pages, we are
pulled out of the fiction we were immersed in-the interior musings
of Author-and brought into a more subtle fiction, in which Author
is a character who may be mentally disoriented, possibly catatonic,
and might have only imagined that he was putting his notes "into
manuscript form." The narrator, until now almost invisible,
forces the reader to re-examine the novel and search for any hints
earlier in the book that this is how things would turn out. It's a
risky move, and Markson handles it adroitly. His frail, aging Author,
shuffling mental index cards on which the culture and history of
the western world has been boiled down, becomes a post-modernist
emblem when the narrative undercuts his authority.
Confounding an audience is a risk writers need to take, though it's
no great blessing if this means one is labelled experimental. Gabriel
Josipovici's essay, "Conclusion: From the Other Side of the
Fence, or True Confessions of an Experimentalist", from The
Mirror of Criticism (1983), sets out that burden, and his words can
be taken as encouragement to those who don't want to write another
predictable narrative that doesn't contribute to the advancement
"It is a shock to any artist who has only thought of getting
things right', of pinning down that elusive feeling which is the
source and end of all creative activity, to wake up one morning and
find himself labelled experimental'. Yet that is what happened to
me.... [M]ost other reviews I received for those two novels,
Migrations and The Air We Breathe, seemed to share the same
assumptions: there are writers and there are experimental writers;
the experimental' is a sub-branch of fiction, rather like teenage
romances or science fiction perhaps, but differing from them in
being specifically highbrow, and, like other highbrow activities,
such as abstract painting and classical music, it is totally
unconnected with the real world; however, we should tolerate this
for the health of art (and to show how tolerant we are).... [F]iction
reviewers still see themselves as somehow the guardians of the point
of view of the man in the street. "
Many authors, certainly Markson's Author, would agree with all that.
Too many reviewers would acknowledge the accuracy of the last
statement, and, unfortunately, see little wrong with it.