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  • Solitary Inventions: David Markson at the End of the Line
  • Joseph Tabbi (bio)

The work is solitary: this does not mean that it remains uncommunicable, that it has no reader. But whoever reads it enters into the affirmation of the work’s solitude, just as he who writes it belongs to the risk of this solitude.

—Maurice Blanchot, “The Essential Solitude”

So that as I say, there went my novel practically even before I had a chance to start thinking about a novel.

Unless on third thought it just might change matters if I were to make it an absolutely autobiographical novel? . . . .

Which is to say a novel about somebody who woke up one Wednesday or Thursday to discover that there was apparently not one other person left in the world.

—David Markson, Wittgenstein’s Mistress

Among scholars of electronic textuality, it has become an article of faith that the new writing spaces, whatever their eventual look and sound on the screen, will be spaces of interaction and collaboration. Yet scarcely anyone supposes that online interactions will resemble the community and shared field of references that have been, traditionally [End Page 745] , preconditions for realist fiction. The majority audience for hypertext narrative, linked by satellites and fiberoptic cable from suburban homes to the larger world they have protected themselves against, would seem to have ensured that solitude will remain the essence of literary work in the new media. 1 They are, rather, works that enable readers to remove themselves from the ongoing rush of information and reflect on the space of reading and writing.

By solitude, I do not mean social isolation or loneliness, the concentration necessary for literary composition, or even the desirable anonymity that urban novelists traditionally could take for granted (whether the tradition was nineteenth-century naturalism or urban modernism): “In the past,” writes the novelist Jonathan Franzen, “when the life of letters was synonymous with culture, solitude was possible the way it was in cities, where you could always, day and night, find the comfort of crowds outside your door” (51). In the past, David Markson might have generated an entire conventional novel from an encounter between a protagonist and a stranger nodding hello in a Greenwich Village street; as late as 1991, a character in a Paul Auster story could document an entire Brooklyn neighborhood by photographing the view, and the people who randomly pass, daily at noon in front of his corner shop window. Such neighborhoods, once the norm, are becoming more and more rare in U.S. cities and towns. Now, “in a suburban age, when the rising waters of electronic culture have made each reader and each writer an island, it may be that we need to be more active in assuring ourselves that a community still exists” (Franzen 51). And if it no longer does exist? Are we to expect the novel, like every other entertainment medium, to participate in the cultural work of replacing diminishing bourgeois and public spaces with its own, very different, imaginary worlds?

Franzen is a novelist in his thirties who began with the intention to write vast, socially engaged novels in touch with the literary avant-garde and in reach of a mass audience, the sort of novel that is still written by only a very few writers—DeLillo, Pynchon, Gaddis, Didion, Rushdie—who established their careers before the great independent houses in the U.S. consolidated and began to concentrate on sure-fire popular titles, not in order to subsidize serious work (the old rationale), but to provide material for the film and entertainment conglomerates with which most publishers are now affiliated. 2 These older [End Page 746] writers of the sixties and seventies—self-conscious “outsiders” though they are—momentarily benefited from a mass audience in large part created by nonliterary media that had, for the first time in history, become universal in the U.S. and western Europe. Today, the same corporate structure appears to have little use for the infinitely complex, infinitely accurate representations of itself that one finds in meganovels of the mid-seventies (and the fatwa on Rushdie is only the most dramatic indication of how little use a large...

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