DAVID MARKSON assured his place in literary history 20 years ago with the publication of “Wittgenstein’s Mistress,” a playful, dizzyingly intellectual novel full of cultural references that managed the neat trick of having narrative verve without a proper narrative structure. The 1988 book, rightfully considered his masterwork, marked a turning point for him by moving away from the Faulkner-esque style evident in his novels “Going Down” (1970) and “Springer’s Progress” (1977) toward even greater narrative minimalism, as seen most recently in “This Is Not a Novel” (2001) and “Vanishing Point” (2004). Markson’s oeuvre demands careful attention from the reader, but those who persist will be rewarded, if only by experiencing the peculiar sensation of a mind stretched beyond its usual limits to reveal a new network of connections, great and small.
Before Markson became the author of what he terms “semi-nonfictional semi-fictions,” he was a struggling writer with a master’s degree from Columbia, a couple of years’ worth of reading slush-pile entries at Dell and Lion Books (two of the top pulp-fiction publishers of the postwar era), and several novels nowhere near completion. “I was always the person who was going to write ‘Wittgenstein’ and the others, but at that earlier juncture, I simply wasn’t getting it done,” Markson remarked in a 2005 interview. To support himself, he relied on his acquired knowledge of the conventions of crime fiction to concoct three of what he calls “entertainments” that were originally published by his first employer, Dell.
The first two of these novels are now back in print in a single volume recently reissued by Markson’s current publisher, Shoemaker & Hoard, inviting the question of whether his ventures into genre territory are a legitimate precursor to his later, more serious efforts. The answer, as it turns out, isn’t just a simple yes but rather an example of how a prodigious talent makes restrictions work for him and not vice versa.
One need only look at the opening paragraph of “Epitaph for a Tramp,” originally published in 1959, to see that Markson operates on a higher, brainier plane than most of his fellow pulp travelers. “You know how hot the nights can get in New York in August, when everybody suffers -- like the vagrants in the doorways along Third Avenue without any ice for their muscatel? Or all the needy, underprivileged call girls with no fresh-air fund to get them away from the city streets for the summer?” Right away, and with the choicest of details, Markson catapults the reader into the singular voice of Harry Fannin, an Upper East Side-dwelling private detective with shrapnel in nearly every major part of his body and a sense of humor that is equal parts sardonic and introspective. By the end of this opening chapter, Fannin is holding the freshly bleeding corpse of his ex-wife, Cathy. That Fannin investigates the murder is a given; more interesting is how Markson opts for the most personal of motivations for his detective protagonist, deviating from the Raymond Chandler/Dashiell Hammett formula into the territory of Ross Macdonald.
Fannin returned two years later in “Epitaph for a Dead Beat,” with crimes that are less personal -- several young women connected to a bohemian poet are murdered -- but the novel is more assured, thanks to its vivid depictions of the Beat movement as a contemporary development and its stinging satire of the publishing industry, eerily reminiscent of the recent O.J. Simpson-Judith Regan debacle. “Yes, my little confession.... I wonder how many copies it will sell -- a million, do you think? Surely, at least a million,” wonders one of the many aspiring, ambitious writers who turn up in the novel.
Both books lead Fannin down seedy trails to illicit sex, drug pushers and other shady characters who occupy Greenwich Village. Cathy is as "[p]romiscuous as a mink ... about as discriminating as a hungry hound in a town dump.” A brute props Fannin into place “with all the effort of Pancho Gonzales hoisting one for the serve.” Colorful details deliberately distract the reader from the plots, which are workmanlike at best -- clearly the result of Markson’s disinterest in crime novel mechanics. He’s too busy peppering “Tramp” with seeds of themes and subject matter he would grapple with in his literary works: baseball (Fannin ponders “what the Red Sox would do for base hits when Ted Williams finally quit”), bad puns (“Zen Buddhism” becomes “Zen Bedism” and then “Zen Nudism”), the writer’s struggle for relevance and the artist’s relationship to creative pursuits. He also makes a stunning array of literary allusions and cultural references; many names -- including Modigliani, Akhmatova, Callas and Mansfield -- figure prominently in “Wittgenstein” and later works.
“Tramp” and “Dead Beat” provide intriguing snapshots of the young author’s thought processes. In “Tramp,” he displays his enduring admiration for William Gaddis’ “The Recognitions” in the form of an excerpt from a graduate student’s term paper. In “Dead Beat,” Markson entertains himself -- and, by extension, the reader -- with more bad puns, wordplay (“Percy Bysshe Fannin, the Shelley of the Sherlocks”) and even backward mirror-writing.
More important, Markson gives his characters, especially Fannin, surprising emotional depth often absent in the work of his pulp contemporaries. The Fannin novels may not be “the best since Chandler,” as the jacket copy declares, but they hold up well nearly 50 years after their original release and are fascinating literary curiosities for devoted Markson fans and crime-fiction lovers alike. *