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Going Down by David Markson

Markson, David. Going Down (1970). Washington, D.C.: Shoemaker & Hoard, 2005.

I always felt that David Markson’s novels were of a fairly consistent oeuvre. Rereading Going Down, his first “serious” novel (there were three pulp novels and one comedic western previous), has reaffirmed that feeling. This novel forms the narrative beginning of a distillation process that results in his latter trilogy (Reader’s Block, This is Not a Novel, Vanishing Point). Barring the early novels, Going Down is both the most narrative and most conventional of the novels. It is also the least innovative.

The novel is a gothic mystery of sorts set mostly in a small village in Mexico during the late 50’s or 60’s. The story revolves around Steve Chance, a disturbed young man, and Fern Winters, a slightly mad painter, who meet in New York and then travel to Mexico where Steve grew up and where his father, a poet, died. They are soon followed by another woman who moves in with them. It’s not giving anything away to say that there is death (or two), a murder on which the plot focuses. Steve is the figure that connects all the other characters yet also the one that seems most absent. He is no hero or even anti-hero but serves as a catalyst, a motivator for Fern who is the character that seems like she is closest to being the hero, as if Markson were headed towards making the novel about her but didn’t get there (and he wouldn’t until almost 20 years later with Wittgenstein’s Mistress).

The story starts in the middle, jumps back, and then moves forward. The narrative point of view is usually in the third person limited but occasionally, and most successfully, moves into a first person stream of consciousness that is quite reminiscent of Wittgenstein’s Mistress. Markson is quite successful in filtering his writing through different characters (including two Mexican villagers), but I felt his writing style in the third person was often too overblown, too narrated, too written. On the other hand, the first person sections (from Fern’s point of view) are often abstract and unusually written, they felt like someone’s thoughts. It is not unusual then to note how much of his later work is in a first person kind of consciousness.

I couldn’t read this book without seeing a number of Markson’s literary influences. Invariably one thinks of Lowry (Under the Volcano) (one of the dedicatees of the book), Gaddis (The Recognitions), and Faulkner (take your pick): the dark mexican setting, the drunkeness, the religious quoting and allusion, the fragmented speech of Steve Chance (very Wyatt from T.Recs), the multiple viewpoints, the withheld information and family secrets. I found the religious content less explicable than in Gaddis, perhaps I need some annotations or perhaps it just isn’t handled as skillfully. At this point, Markson hadn’t quite found his own style, he wears his literary influences on his sleeve, but at least they are influences of very high quality.

Many elements here are seeds of the later works. Chapter Six, written in the first person of Fern, is an embryonic version of Wittgenstein’s Mistress or the later novels. Here, amidst Fern’s consciousness we find the art historical allusions (so many Renaissance painters), the unattributed quotations, the tormented artists (herself included), the bit of madness. Even Steve’s story, his non-writing, his traumatic childhood experiences, the darkly humorous ending, echo all the biographical stories that litter the later novels.

I am focusing much on the connection to his other works because that is what I see most in this novel. That isn’t to say it is a bad novel. It is quite entertaining, dark, atmospheric, intelligent, but also trying a bit too hard (the too written narration for one). This is the excess that had to be cut away for the latter works.

And yes, Going Down is a rather polysemous title. Probably any meaning you could relate to that title is there for good reason.

While I am glad to see this book back in print, I am disappointed that there is not even an introduction included in this edition. Surely someone could have been found to say something about the book, either critically or historically. I guess that will have to wait.