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Reader's Block [Paperback]

David Markson
4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (7 customer reviews)
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Book Description

Dec 23 2014 American Literature Series

In this spellbinding, utterly unconventional fiction, an aging author who is identified only as Reader contemplates the writing of a novel. As he does, other matters insistently crowd his mind--literary and cultural anecdotes, endless quotations attributed and not, scholarly curiosities--the residue of a lifetime's reading which is apparently all he has to show for his decades on earth. Out of these unlikely yet incontestably fascinating materials--including innumerable details about the madness and calamity in many artists' and writers' lives, the eternal critical affronts, the startling bigotry, the countless suicides--David Markson has created a novel of extraordinary intellectual suggestiveness. But while shoring up Reader's ruins with such fragments, Markson has also managed to electrify his novel with an almost unbearable emotional impact. Where Reader ultimately leads us is shattering.

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Here is a modernist novel (or anti-novel) with a vengeance. David Markson, whose previous books include Springer's Progress and Wittgenstein's Mistress, has erected a skeletal framework in which a character called the Reader contemplates the creation of a Protagonist. This process never moves much beyond the contemplation stage, which makes for a thin-to-nonexistent narrative. In its place, we get a wealth of quotations, epigrams, and literary tidbits--the pleasurable gleanings of a lifelong intellectual pack rat.

From Publishers Weekly

Now in his 60s, Markson continues to blossom as an experimental novelist. His early work, Springer's Progress, published in the mid 1970s, carried the seeds of the collage technique that the much-praised Wittgenstein's Mistress put to such great effect and which in his latest has resulted in a book often dreamed about by the avant-garde but never seen. "A novel of intellectual reference and allusion, so to speak, minus much of the novel?" asks Markson's narrator, called The Reader. "Or perhaps not a novel? Is he in some way thinking of an autobiography?" "Or does the absence of a narrative progression... possibly render it even a poem of sorts? Not to add avec exactly 333 interspersed unattributed quotations awaiting annotation?" Reader's Block asks all these questions, and the lucky reader will not care a whit, for what Markson accomplishes, despite his doubts, is an utterly fascinating document that in itself is a small education in the history of Western literature, seen through the eyes of a gravely impassioned litterateur. The quotations from his reading that have become Markson's signature are so remarkably sustaining that the book, despite its lack of narrative, is hard to put down: the fate of Auden's royalties (Chester Kallman's dentist father's second wife); the suicide of Adrienne Rich's husband; Conrad's verdict on Moby-Dick ("not a single sincere line"); the Sappho fragment, "Raise high the roof beam, carpenters." The collection of these fragments, which also include a list of nearly a hundred writers deemed anti-Semitic and another list of author suicides, invests this work with a terribly mordant tone and gives Markson's meditation on the novel form a fresh urgency. This is a playful book with dead serious concerns. As The Reader wanders through the life of his extraordinary reading, the endeavor of novel-writing is subtly repositioned as perhaps something that lies about life and needn't.
Copyright 1996 Reed Business Information, Inc.

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Customer Reviews

4.0 out of 5 stars
4.0 out of 5 stars
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The best piece of American fiction in ten years. Nov. 14 1996
By A Customer
If you read one book this year, read David Markson's new
novel. Whether or not you've read any of his previous
novels--which, by the way, represent one of the finest
and most innovative bodies of work of the last thirty
years--Reader's Block will astound you. A beautifully
crafted condensation of language, Reader's Block is the
poetic novel for century's end, recalling those great
Modernist novels at century's beginning. Concerning
the struggles of a writer named Reader, who tries to
write about a character named Protagonist, Reader's
Block is Markson's most refined example of his
telescopic and allusive style. The reader enjoys an
indelible language, told in terse, paratactic
sentences, and it is my opinion that Markson has
always written an absolutely tactile prose. I felt
each word with my fingers. I found myself eating
this novel. The book is also downright fun--for
it is a collage of anecdotes from literary and
art history, anecdotes that reveal the struggles
of ALL writers and artists. This business of art
is not a casual affair. Reader's Block is one of
the purest books ever written, not a novel to
taste but to ingest. We owe Markson everything,
for he is more than gifted and we, struggling
readers, are more than blessed.
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4.0 out of 5 stars Looking for a new/ancient genre? Sept. 24 2001
"Reader's Block" somehow manages to pick up where "This Is Not a Novel" left off, even though the latter was written later. This is managed by TINaN being more polished, more reader-ready, more "practiced," and is thus a good introduction to the genre; but Reader's Block is more true to the genre by being less "produced" and therefore more "honest." And yet, if you go back even further to "Wittgenstein's Mistress," the genre is exploited in the form of actual fiction-- biographical fiction, to be sure, but fiction nevertheless-- so that if one needs fiction as an introduction to the genre, one has it available, and again, Reader's Block will pick up where W'sM leaves off.
I can't speak to still earlier works by Markson, but I can say the "adventurous reader," the literary equivalent of the day-walker who sets out in strange cities with nothing more than a bottle of water and power-bar, will enjoy the adventure of discovering this genre. "This Is Not a Novel" is the packaged tour; "Reader's Block" is the nitty gritty.
Oh, by the way, the genre is called "zuihitsu." It's Japanese.
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This book only got three stars primarily because I had already read Wittgenstein's Mistress, and had seen the emotional response that Markson's style could produce, a response that he doesn't really bring off here. The style still has a certain hypnotic momemtum, and most literate readers will have no desire to put the book down (mostly for the high level of interest one has in the anecdotes), but it lacks the sense of character that the previous book had. Although he tries to create the same sense of loneliness that Kate had in W.M., the lack of a consistent narrative voice never allows us to get any sense of Protagonist or Reader as people, which is perhaps the point but doesn't really allow us to have any emotional ties with them - so the ending is much less affecting than it could have been.
And while W.M. dealt deftly with complicated philosophical issues, the issues Markson deals with here - mortality, bigotry, etc. - seemed to be handled a little heavy-handedly.
Sentences like:
He's completely alone here now.
And passages like:
Four of Freud's five sisters were incinerated by the Germans in 1944.
struck me a little overblown and pretentious, while the allusions and references to isolation in W.M. never did.
So: the book is certainly a worthwhile read, but I would read Wittgenstein's Mistress first. Probably the high point of experimental fiction in our time.
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3.0 out of 5 stars The Culture of Death June 21 2000
Markson's remarkable book is a novel in disguise. It resembles Julian Barnes' "Flaubert's Parrot." That novel was supposedly an encyclopedia of trivia about Gustave Flaubert, but if you read between the lines, you could discern that the narrator was describing his betrayal by his own wife. Here the Reader (the narrator's only name) is, behind a screen of quotations and historical detail, depicting his own threadbare life and contemplating suicide. The remarkable thing is that Reader assembles hundreds of facts that only convince him that he should kill himself. Markson seems to be saying that the whole literature of the West, which is thoroughly represented in the collage-like body of the novel, is a tale of despair and death. This is certainly a gloomy conclusion and not really warranted, in my opinion. But Markson tells his dark tale with style.
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