Wednesday, December 17, 2014

FARE FORWARD - LETTERS FROM DAVID MARKSON by Laura Sims (a review - of sorts)

I won this book. Seriously. I joined Goodreads and won this book. I never win anything! (Okay, there was that one time I won lawn seats from Tower Records to see The Cure in concert. But Tower Records is a ghost now, and Robert and the boys played more of their manic-poppy stuff, not the cool-depressive stuff, so that doesn't really count, right?)

It wasn't a miracle that I won. It wasn't magic. I entered to win. At the time, my thought process was, "Hey, my friend from college just released ANOTHER book. My dreams of being a famous author are shot, so this should pour salt on the wound pretty well. But I can't really BUY the book. That would be some form of a psychological and masochistic suicide attempt. But if I WIN the book, then, hey, that's the universe telling me that I suck and that is a much more effective pain." I can't shut up in my own internal dialogue, help me.

Back in reality; however, my friend from college, Laura Sims, has had several books of amazing poetry published and I was interested to see what this new book entailed. And the record of a correspondence with David Markson was, to my mind, the sort of literary equivalent of trading jokes with Jonathan Winters over a coffee-fueled afternoon at Starbucks. Or sharing a karaoke stage with Leonard Cohen singing Tom Waits songs.

To clarify, I must admit I was not a huge reader of David Markson prior to this book. I always considered Markson to be a "writer's writer" or at least someone to read with an English degree tucked into your belt, prepared to be wielded at a moment's prompting. Being neither, I shied away from Markson's novels, not thinking I would not enjoy them, but that they may be too "difficult," a term Markson humorously uses to describe Sims' own poetry.

But I took a deep breath and opened the cover. Here is what I discovered. (You will notice that I did not do the obligatory quotation frenzy within this review. Most of what I write will be what I felt after reading the book. I like to say that I am more about the "groove" of a song than the lyrics, but we are talking about books, so aren't the words the important thing? Perhaps, but those words tell a much better story than I ever could, so go read the book yourself. Buy it though. Laura has a future to consider.)

Reading FARE FORWARD was a pretty fantastic experience. Honestly. I read the whole book in one sitting. That is not something that happened for me in almost 15 years. Through the pages, Markson comes across as an aging uncle at times, alternating between teasing Sims, trying to impress her (even though the correspondence began by Sims writing an "impassioned fan letter" to him), mentoring her, and more. This is not meant to minimize Markson, but it did humanize him, especially to a novice like myself who held him on such a pedestal.

I learned things about Markson I didn't know previously (mostly through my own forced ignorance of the man) like his method of using index cards for his novel creation, his humor, and also his pride in knowing his place in the history of the written word. Markson appears as someone very exacting in what his work means, how to read it, how it (and he) should be presented, and how his legacy is defined. Not in a negative manner, just as one who has accepted that he is who he is and he has created what he has. Not that he wouldn't hold a grudge, but he also seems to acknowledge the folly of such a course of action.

Concerned at first at only having half of the correspondence presented (Sims only shares Markson's letters, not copies of her own missives to him), Sims does a very good job of keeping the narrative going. Her notes on the text, smartly presented along with the corresponding parts of Markson's letters, provide a feel for how the conversation ebbed and flowed. This technique made the book feel less like a collection of postcards and more like a story was being told.

And that story...

This isn't Markson's story. We hear about his efforts at writing a novel. And we hear about his physical ailments. And we hear about his days and his evenings. We get to know him, however briefly, but we don't hear his story. Yes, he talks about his own doings and his own adventures, but we have to remember the context of these letters.

Markson is writing to a younger fan who is beginning and building her own literary career and life. We read Markson responses to Sims' engagement, to Sims' first book of poetry being published, to Sims' jobs and travels, and to Sims herself. We feel Sims' sweet sarcasm and gentle teasing of Markson in his returned barbs. We come away from the book feeling like we "know" Sims a bit more than Markson, even though we may "understand" Markson better at the end.

This is not a criticism. In a way, Sims has presented the first chapter of her memoirs through the eyes of David Markson. (How fantastic is that?!?!) One has to wonder with whom she will partner to lay out the ensuing chapters. In many ways, I find it to be a very innovative form, one which would no doubt be appreciated by David Markson himself. And given his obvious affection for Ms. Sims, I am sure he would be proud.

In short, do not choose this book if you are looking for a biography of David Markson. It makes no claims to be such a tome. but it is a fascinating sketch. It is a photographic essay through the words of snail mail - brief moments in time, frozen and shared to allow his story told around it and be grounded. As such, it accomplishes a grand task - it brings Markson down from the "too-revered-to-read" bookshelf and into my hands to read and enjoy. And for that, this book is indispensable.