Picture a writer in his mid-70s, listless from age and illness, tapping away on his "less and less dependable forty-plus-year-old manual portable" as he struggles to complete his latest work, "a novel of intellectual reference and allusion." Layer in the fact that he's composing the material from notes scribbled on index cards, and that our author--named Author--has "done a good deal of shuffling and rearranging of the index cards," and you've just described the plot, in its entirety, of David Markson's challenging, abstract, and ultimately ingenious book Vanishing Point.
The novel, as Author confesses both early and late, is "Nonlinear. Discontinuous. Collage-like. An assemblage." That is to say, the book is a litany of facts, quotations, observations, anecdotes, recollections, fragments of poetry, and self-reflexive commentary. Vignettes about artists and their entourages, names of places where certain people died and where the Wandering Jew was spotted. Legends and gossip and critical snafus. There are questions: "Did El Greco use hashish?" In-jokes, as when Author rattles off the titles of books--"Wittgenstein's Vienna. Wittgenstein's Nephew. Wittgenstein's Ladder. Wittgenstein's Poker."--leaving out Markson's own addition to the list, his almost Joycean novel Wittgenstein's Mistress. And to top it all off, there are aphorisms, rubrics, musings, meditations, exhalations, exasperations. Moments recovered by a mind searching for meaning as it moves inexorably toward its own demise.
Separated by white space, these discrete entries hurtle by the reader like the points of light in 2001's famed Star Gate sequence, signifying extreme passage by their very blur: "that peculiar lightheadedness still, his sense almost of something beckoning from just beyond the edges of his vision." Eventually, however, they add up. Unmoored from the need to adhere to a conventional narrative, the book offers a resonating portrait of its central character. As Author begins to reach and acknowledge his own vanishing point, the reader who has allowed Markson's lyricism to well up will feel as much emotion for this narrator as for the straightest storyteller.
That Markson achieves this depth of character through a bone-dry catalogue of commentary largely centered on art and death is nothing short of remarkable. Few readers will recognize all the elements strewn throughout the book's dizzying array of erudition, but that's to be expected when confronted with a mind that wonders about things like "what Giotto would make of a Gerhard Richter canvas." Like Markson's previous two novels written in catalogue form, the cheekily titled Reader's Block and This Is Not a Novel, Vanishing Point isn't for everyone. But as it completes a trilogy to rival Beckett's Three Novels in its exploration of interior monologue, it does cement Markson's status as one of the finest experimentalists in American fiction.