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Markson’s Masterpiece and Wallace’s Ghost: Wittgenstein’s Mistress 30 years later

By Brad Baronner.

David Markson, Wittgenstein’s Mistress (Dalkey Archive Press, 1988)


Without David Foster Wallace, it’s hard to imagine Wittgenstein’s Mistress reaching as many people.

Pretty much the high point of American experimental fiction, Wallace called it, in his essay “The Empty Plenum”, published in 1990.

Hard to argue that Infinite Jest, published six years later, would not be considered by many to be the high point of experimental American fiction now. Though maybe it transcends the experimental tag.

I vaguely remember a blogger referring to IJ as an elegy for the written word, as if it were the last novel to exist, or matter—if there’s a meaningful decision between those two words.

I do not feel that IJ is the last meaningful novel written, though I do think it says something that it gets treated that way. I’m just not sure what that something is.

Wittgenstein’s Mistress is a novel about, or from the perspective of, a woman who believes she is the only woman left on earth. Since Kate can’t interact with people, she interacts with works of art.

The interactions are not what one might call substantial or analytical. Kate thinks about art, artists, and history, but the insights she has are accidental, or at least infrequent.

Is Wallace writing an essay about WM the literature equivalent of Kurt Cobain wearing a Dinosaur Jr. or Daniel Johnston t-shirt?

WM was released in May 1988, thirty years ago now.

Markson died in 2010, surviving Wallace by two years.

Sarah Manguso, Maggie Nelson, Sigrid Nunez, Jenny Offill, David Shields, and Kenneth Goldsmith are some authors that are influenced by Markson. The list is more female than male and none of them resemble Wallace.

In his essay, Wallace opines that there is something genuinely female about the voice of WM.

Most readers, if they were compelled to make such a distinction, would not hesitate to define Wallace’s voice as male.

I am tempted to look to Lincoln in the Bardo as a possible bridge between Markson and Wallace.

This essay is supposed to be about WM, given that it’s the 30th anniversary, and underappreciated in comparison to Wallace’s work.

The setting of WM is threadbare but evocative. Kate’s alone on the beach, and eventually there are some houses and roads too, though neither of those offer anything satisfying.

Satisfying meaning what though? It’s hard to say in Kate’s world.

Satisfying in the way people can find spaces more satisfying than facts, which isn’t an experience I’ve had, but one that I’m sure can be had. Other people can describe places, at least.

It would be hard to argue that WM and David Markson influenced Wallace as much as he influenced it.

Impossible to argue probably.

Wallace’s essay on WM is one of the best things he’s written, someone more confident than the present writer might say.

Wallace did, after all, get his nose broken in a fight with an apartment neighbour defending WM’s honour.

The essay was also the first thing he wrote in the post alcohol and drug addiction lead-up to IJ.

I think part of why WM is so hard for me right now is that I’m feeling very Kate-ish, Wallace wrote to Steve Moore, while living at a halfway house and working on the essay.

This writer is trying to figure out a way to write through Kate-ish-ness, which might as well be my medical diagnosis.

Wallace defined WM as: a classic for the impotent unlucky sort whose beliefs inform his stomach’s daily state.

What it limns, as an immediate study of depression & loneliness, is far too moving to be the object of either exercise or exorcism, writes Wallace, in one of the many lines in this essay that hinted at his own fiction’s trajectory.

In contrast to other experimental icons whose genius shouts, Markson’s genius whispers, Wallace writes, in one of the many lines that hints at why WM was alien to Wallace, and would remain to be.

Still, Wallace’s essay about WM is possibly one of the more personal essays he wrote.

Similar but more different, the way WM and IJ draw attention to themselves as texts, as written.

Seems silly now, reading that and being a person in 2018, to imagine as David Foster Wallace did, that one would need endnotes to flip to to be reminded that they are reading an 1,100-page book.

More accurately, a more confident person might say, it is a reminder that one is reading a book by someone who wanted to remind you that you were reading a book, even though the heft of it, both physically and stylistically, would hardly allow you to forget.

Though there is something charming in a lot of what you can find out about Wallace that he wouldn’t just be grateful for anyone reading at all.

I, for one, wouldn’t just be grateful, but be convinced I was in a dream if anyone had an 1,100-page volume of my writing.

It is insecure, maybe, my tendency to think that the stature of writing as a medium has to decrease in proportion to other mediums flourishing.

More confident people talk about the “cult of David Foster Wallace,” although it doesn’t quite sit right, on the grounds that hardly anyone seems concerned about the details of the work.

Of course, maybe people not being concerned with the details of the work is what makes it a cult, and not just a readership.

From someone named Dave Eggers, in a foreword for Infinite Jest: This book is like a spaceship with no recognizable components, no rivets or bolts, no entry points, no way to take it apart. It is very shiny with no discernible flaws.

A comedian named Jamie Loftus performed a stunt where she consumed IJ over the course of a year. Consumed as in eaten, not read thoughtfully.

A harsh person might suggest those who claim to have consumed it in the intellectual sense have, in actuality, done no better.

If Mr. Wallace were less talented, you might be inclined to shoot him—or possibly yourself—somewhere around page 480. In fact, you might anyway, Jay McInerney writes in his review.

Some of this is to say, at least, that David Foster Wallace did the opposite of what he admired most about Markson’s novel.

David Foster Wallace’s genius never whispered, one doesn’t even need to be confident to say.

Though it might have been trying to, toward the end, with the project of The Pale King. To say something profound about boredom.

Even then though, the meta-insertion of the David Wallace character seventy pages in. And still with the footnotes.

Not to say it’s bad, someone more confident might argue. It would feel dishonest for Wallace to go straight-up, to totally give into his interest in imitating later-period Dostoyevsky.

Thinking Wallace’s writing is always better when he’s bringing so much of himself to it.

I would cut out all that Quebecois shit. Most of the stuff that’s good there is nonfiction. Was stuff he took from real life, said Mary Karr.

People killed themselves after Kurt Cobain died too, there are some dumb motherfuckers out there, she also said about people getting quotes from IJ tattooed on their arm.

This is still about Markson, though it’s hard not to think about Wallace when talking about Markson.

Wallace would want to be remembered for his work, but one might feel that he exists more as thousands of Markson-like factoids, reflecting the angst of people who are still writing.

Easier to weave Wallace factoids into this Markson-style essay than stuff Wallace actually said or wrote, I think.

Easier, someone more confident might say, for everyone to remember what Wallace said about loneliness and literature, than any particular scene in his work.

I imagine the blank page is a lonelier feeling place than it used to be. So many outlets are less blank and less lonely.

It can feel like Kate’s situation. I’m on a beach with a typewriter without anyone else who has the same set of references.

The only other things existing being formed works of art, which only draw more attention to the mess my own thoughts are managing.

Anecdotes about artists providing some kind of comfort, though potentially unsatisfying comfort.

David Foster Wallace being the biggest source of those anecdotes, because there are so many about him and he’s so frequently referenced.

Almost another inhabitant of the beach? A haunting?

David Markson feels particularly relevant now. Twitter is the revenge of modernism, said Kenneth Goldman on the importance of our current President’s favourite social media platform to modern literature. Though he said that in 2014, well before we had this President.

Wondering about Wallace’s response to Trump would be is something I feel like I should be doing, but it leads nowhere. The ghosts I’d like to imagine having insight have nothing to say other than what’s obvious. What Wallace would say he already has said.

Remembering that Wallace voted for Reagan, possibly twice.

Maybe talking about literature’s relationship with Twitter is dumb now, although that would also make literature seem adrift. Weird that a book with such an obscure and ancient set of references would be made to seem more relevant by Twitter.

Wallace sheds light on why, discussing the curative bent of WM, and its incredible loneliness.

All the anecdotes offered about Wallace’s capacity to watch TV for hours on end.

Prestige TV as novel replacement. Binge watching Netflix.

The difference between what Wallace was doing and modern binge watching is the quality or at least the appearance of quality associated with Netflix. Wallace was watching undeniable garbage and acknowledged it as such.

The quality of Kate’s set of artistic references is something I want to point out, but something that I also think might not matter at all.

A hell of utter subjectivity, Wallace calls Kate’s existence.

Trying to imagine a way it wouldn’t be. If what we experience being saturated by art and culture can be more than a metaphysical hell.

Artistic taste is going to be the new good manners; Kanye West has suggested.

Another Wallace evaluation: Kate’s monograph has the quality of speechlessness in a dream, the cold muteness urgency enforces, a psychic stutter. If it’s true our ladder goes noplace, it’s also true nobody’s going to throw everything away.

I changed the original quote. Our was her and everything was Tractus and WM—either book, it said. Quotes aren’t changed anywhere else in this essay.

For better or for worse, it’s also true that no one is likely to eat WM.

Haven’t discussed Wittgenstein much here, but Wallace does. Discusses him in the way some people discuss Wallace, and the way—in 1990 when he wrote his essay on WM—he was probably wishing to discussed.

By all evidence [he] lived in personal torment over the questions too many of his academic followers have made into elaborate empty exercises, Wallace writes, in the most salient example of such an observation.

The long list of voice-y, clever writers who try to resemble Wallace in so many ways, but almost never attempt to convey his profound sense of loneliness and emotional pain.

A spaceship with no recognizable components, is what Dave Eggers called IJ.

There are parts of WM that allow me to imagine something outside of a metaphysical hell.

A favorite fragment of WM: For some reason a part I always liked was Achilles dressing like a girl and hiding, so that they would not make him go fight.

For some reason I always liked the parts of WM that are like that. Finding something weird that happens in art or history, rather than something simply depressing or sad.

Kate always notes “the things men used to do” after talking about something like child sacrifice or torture.

I like how that wouldn’t work for the Achilles section, how Kate is able to find an example of a man running from “the things men used to do” as we might imagine they should.

In that way it is a lot like finding something worth being happy about on Twitter. Which is not to say that Twitter is necessarily bad, just that it mostly seems to be repeating the same thing despite the number of different voices.

But also that a lot of it is bad, and that there are a lot of us on there noting the things men do, rather than noting the things they used to.

The things they used to do never seems all that remarkable.

IJ feels like a thing men used to do, someone more dramatic might say.

Not that WM doesn’t feel like a thing men used to do.

It’s true that no one is going to throw it or IJ away, though I’ll say that WM offers a more useful way out of my own problems as a writer.

Then again, a ladder that goes noplace?

The curator’s job—to recall, choose, arrange: to impose order & only so communicate meaning—is marvellously synecdochic of the life of the solipsist, of the survival strategies apposite one’s existence as monad in a world of diffracted fact.

A Wallace quote, if you couldn’t tell.

If art and evoking art by way of reference can allow for a more adequate map of our emotions, one may be tempted, like Kate, to live more and more in that map.

Which would make it an inadequate map, or no longer a map at all.

And would make the art facts, and disconnected from actual emotions.

Markson’s style makes facts sad, Wallace writes.

Again with Wallace’s reputation being more prevalent than his work.

You have to deal with Wallace’s shadow in your fiction, this writer was told by his professor.

Wallace’s own response to such a demand, was something I liked imagining back then. Now it seems sad, his shadow being more real than his work to a writing professor.

Wishing ghost was the more appropriate word here, rather than shadow, but I’m confident enough to say that it is not.

Though if his shadow is a problem, maybe WM and Wallace’s essay about it offer something of a solution.

To keep in mind that one of the novels Wallace loved most was so different from anything he ever wrote. To write in that direction.

Wallace did, after all, get his nose broken over the book.

If he didn’t care that much, surely I would not have been so invested in the novel.

And not just because I would not have heard about it. One of the best things he’s written, I’ll say about the essay.

Rarely is our uncritical inheritance of early Wittgensteinian & Logical Positivist models so obvious as in our academic & aesthetic prejudice that successful fiction:

encloses rather than opens up,

organizes facts rather than undermines them,

diagnoses rather than genuflects,

Wallace writes, commenting on a strength of WM and a weakness of everything he didn’t like about contemporary American literature.

One of his most personal essays I’ll argue.

There’s a reason people don’t read books like WM, I was told by the same professor who brought up Wallace’s shadow.

The professor didn’t want me to use the book or Markson as an influence.

It is important to genuflect from time to time, to write and read desperately.

Even then, it will feel lonely.

There are living writers on this beach, too.


 The biographical information about Wallace is indebted to D.T. Max’s excellent Wallace biography Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story. The content and style are heavily indebted to the works of Wallace and Markson (clearly). The minimal amount of Wittgenstein this writer understands is indebted to both Wallace and Ray Monk’s How to Read Wittgenstein.

Brad Baronner is a writer and recent graduate of Allegheny College. He hasn’t spent a lot of time outside of rural Pennsylvania, but wanders all over the place in his writing.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, May 10th, 2018.