When it comes to experimental fiction, no one outshines David Markson. David Foster Wallace revered him, and in a 1999 article for Salon.com, said of Markson's “Wittgenstein's Mistress:” a novel this abstract and erudite and avant-garde that could also be so moving makes "Wittgenstein's Mistress" pretty much the high point of experimental fiction in this country.
Much the same could be said of “Reader's Block,” written eight years later, as well. It is comprised of a disjointed mishmash of cultural and literary quotes and anecdotes. Interspersed with these entries is a running commentary on the nature of the book itself, as well as “Reader” trying to work out the details of a book he is having trouble writing. “Reader” is how the narrator sometimes refers to himself, which is explained by the introductory quote from Jose Luis Borges: First and foremost, I think of myself as a reader.
However, it is not all as simple as that, as narrator = Reader = Protagonist (main character of Reader's book.) This trichotomy of Markson's is exploited and explored thoughout the book, making for a fascinating conundrum of who is who.
With respect to what is what, as in what this book actually is, the narrator is not exactly sure.
Nonlinear? Discontinuous? Collage-like?
A novel of intellectual reference and allusion, so to speak minus much of the novel?
Many of the entries have to do with isolation, mental illness, death, incest, the Holocaust, etc… However, the frequency of two particular categories far exceeds any others:
So-and-So was an anti-Semite
So-and-So committed suicide (sometimes going into detail, sometimes not.)
With respect to the first category, it is not altogether clear what Markson is striving for. Those he brands as anti-Semites run the gamut from Saint Thomas Aquinas to Dostoevsky, with scores and scores of writers, philosophers, artists and scientists in between. It is never stated why they could be called as such; all we have is just the statement that So-and-So is.
In addition, there does seem to be a preponderance of entries that deal with the Holocaust. So, is Markson saying that anyone he classes an anti-Semite would have approved of the Holocaust, thereby making them as much of a monster as the Nazi’s actually responsible? If so, this would in turn nullify any contributions they might have made (which, by the sheer number of those “outed,” would be a very large percentage of the Western canon—i.e. all of the books that narrator/Reader/Markson has enjoyed reading over a lifetime.)
However, not all is Holocaust and suicide. Many of the entries are just little tidbits he has picked up among the books he has read, and he often creates interconnections between them, sometimes playing them against each other to great comic effect. For example, in one entry, it is revealed that Mallarme learned English for the specific purpose of reading Poe. Then, five entries later, there is a quote from Henry James, who said, “an enthusiasm for Poe is the mark of a decidedly primitive stage of reflection.”
As for the book Reader is contemplating writing, he does not yet have a name for his main character, Protagonist, so starts trying on names of characters from famous books: Raskolnikov, Bloom, Mr. Kurtz, Mersault, Harry Haller, Molloy/Malone/Estragon, etc… He constantly shifts back and forth between them and others, and then back to just plain Protagonist as Reader tries to make up his mind. He never does.
Also changing constantly is the setting of the novel. Does Protagonist live in a house in a cemetery or in an isolated house on the beach? Both are explored, making up storylines to go with each, but again, he never settles on one.
What is Protagonist’s background? Having trouble creating a world for protagonist, Reader starts giving him scenes from his own life (having a son and daughter, having written books, etc…) Also, the statements of isolation (nobody comes, nobody calls, etc…), which are pervasive throughout the book concerning narrator and Reader are also projected onto Protagonist, further blurring the lines between narrator, Reader and Protagonist.
By the end of the book, all of the dark ruminations on isolation, suicide and death have built up to a deafening crescendo. The Protagonist is gone, being replaced by an elderly man (Markson?), and it is asked what if the elderly man in the house at the beach were to walk unremarkably into the ocean? Or if the elderly man in the house at the cemetery were to turn unremarkably to the gas?
The last line of the book:
Wastebasket. What does it mean? Is the wastebasket where all of this nonlinear, discontinuous, collage-like assemblage should go? No, I don't believe so. I believe another conclusion has been arrived at: The world is a bleak, hopeless place where even the so-called giants of literature are really just monsters in disguise. For someone who has built his life around books, this is not a welcome conclusion. And so now all of the entries concerning suicide finally make sense.
Stand on the wastebasket and hang himself. Have I misread it? I don't think so. And what makes the ending even more of a punch in the gut is knowing that David Foster Wallace would certainly have read this book.