TFW You Realize Maybe David Markson Invented Twitter
Or: The Accidental Diorama of a Novelist’s Life
When I have my laptop open, I have a web browser open, and in that browser, I have Twitter open in a tab. Tweets, those 140-character epigrams, are ripe for comparison with the work of David Markson. “Discontinuous. Nonlinear. Collage-like.” Tweets have genres, and Markson’s epigrams have genres. Even a not-too-close reader will notice the broad categories of epigrammatic lines in his Notecard Quartet: suicides; last words; instances of anti-Semitism and racism; critics. My favorite kind are the ones which have now become appropriated, approximated by a genre of tweet: tfw. Tfw stands for “that feeling when.” A few randomly selected examples from people I follow on Twitter:
tfw you realize the bed in the airbnb is the exact same ikea bed you have in your own apartment back home –@helfitzgerald
tfw when your self-confidence comes back after a fairly lengthy absence –@michelledean
tfw a conservative bitches about bureaucracy but praises economies of scale –@adamweinstein
tfw you working on a story and it just keeps getting weirder and weirder –@ebruenig
tfw you see yr gross cousin at thanksgiving and he’s a hottie now and you’re very confused????? –@jazzedloon
Tfw points to a specific emotion occasioned by a specific happening. But like all good literature, the tfw tweet makes the particular a universal.
David invented this genre of tweet, though he never was on Twitter. My favorite style of his epigrams are those which are phrased to point not at the anecdote being recounted, but the emotion which the anecdote calls up. Tfw. Emphasis mine:
Beguiled by the romance of Gauguin’s removal to Tahiti.
Until remembering that the man deserted a wife and four young children at home.
Author’s pleasure in learning that the main thoroughfare through Copenhagen is named Hans Christian Andersen Boulevard.
Remembering that the Chinese invented moveable type well before Gutenberg. As did the Koreans.
Most of the lines in the Notecard Quartet do not carry these verbs. In fact, we could look at these examples in context, and they’d fit just as well in the overall scheme—or lack thereof, to the uninitiated eye—of the book. But they are there. The verbs. They constitute a small and special genre of Marksonian epigram. The tfw.
I attended David’s public memorial held on NYU’s campus, the fall after he died. That evening, I felt like a spectator amongst all the people he knew. I had to remind myself that I also knew him, however briefly. I helped him once. I was extremely upset when he died. I was upset when I found out his library was sold to The Strand, apparently at his request, putting paid to any notion of how I would ever complete the project that initially brought me into his sphere. Tfw your favorite writer dies before the world ever discovered how wonderful he was.
The kitchen table is where I wrote short stories on a laptop, for a fiction workshop I took three times. In this workshop I sometimes critiqued my classmates work by offering Kurt Vonnegut’s (a friend of David’s) dictum: begin as close to the end of the story as possible. This was something I said a lot, because it’s something I am incapable of doing. I bury the lede. I can’t write a nutgraf. I’ve been accused of this by my friends, family, co-workers. I see where I get the habit, from my mother, and I patiently indulge her when she tells a story prefaced by digressionary mumblings of “It was Tuesday, or no . . . it would have been Wednesday because . . .” When people tell me to hurry up, get to the point, I want to shake them and say, No! This is the interesting part! Climaxes are all the same: climactic. It’s what comes before that that matters. What might seem inessential to you, that is what’s most essential to the teller of the story, and so is also essential to how you understand who is telling the story. Pay attention to whether it was Tuesday because the punchline isn’t ever that interesting anyway.
I watched David’s daughter and her children arrive that evening at NYU. “Watch” sounds creepy and voyeuristic, but it wasn’t like that. I sat in the auditorium and just watched, like a recording angel, with the feeling that no one else could see me, those angels in Wings of Desire. I watched and listened in alteration. Listening to people speak about David was more painful than I expected, so I would stop and just watch, instead. David’s daughter and Lawrence Weschler spoke about him and Weschler was kind of like an emcee, I think, although that isn’t the word.
Looking to my left: Art Spiegelman’s wife was sharing something chocolate-covered with him from a small plastic bag she produced from her purse. They sat near me, across the aisle, and watching them together made me miss my husband, intensely. I missed him so much, that I began squirming in my chair, because they looked to me like a couple very much in love and I saw my own marriage in theirs. Events that overlap the dinner hour awkwardly, as this one did, make my husband cranky and I try to have a snack handy. Tfw a famous cartoonist and his wife are just like you and your spouse.
I am typing on a typewriter at a wooden mid-century modern desk that belonged to the blind mother-in-law of my former boss. I sit at the desk in a blond wooden banker’s chair I bought at an antique store, seven years ago, just after my boss gave me the desk.
The chair had been displayed on the sidewalk in front of the store for a month, eventually marked down to $75 from $150. It is the first piece of furniture I ever owned that hadn’t been scavenged on bulk trash night or handed down hastily at semester’s end. I wheeled it the six blocks back to my first apartment, and felt so proud of my stylish antique. On the way home I passed by a youngish member of the faculty at the college I had just finished attending. He admired the chair and mentioned a little ruefully that he had been thinking of buying it himself. Standing there, I realized I was probably mistreating the casters on the feet by rolling them down the sidewalk this way. Possibly I didn’t deserve my chair. In the face of this older, employed, nearly-tenured professional person who would probably write real things, publishable things in this chair, I suddenly worried that I would have to relinquish it, that I had done something rude. I had pulled the chair out from under the professor. I apologized to him, ridiculously, and he told me—what else?—it was my chair, I had gotten a good buy. Tfw you get one-up on someone older and better established.
My chair, the desk, and especially the typewriter that usually sits on it, look writerly. It’s a turquoise typewriter, a Smith-Corona Corsair Deluxe, acquired at the same time as the desk and chair. On my desk are an old cigar box (A. Fuente’s Short Story cigars, of course) where I store hairbands and foreign currency, a deer skull I found on a Puget Sound beach I moved to just after that post-gradution year, a rock from Montana, and a lamp my husband bought in Boston, before we met. These things are all of a piece, and they make a fine Potemkin writing space. I’m reminded of Marianne Moore’s Greenwich Village living room, which was recreated and permanently installed at the Rosenbach Museum & Library in Philadelphia, the city where I live, the museum where I used to work. Touches of turquoise there too, in the couch, the padded seat of her chair, the Macy’s typewriter ribbon boxes. Her very tiny wooden desk, her blue electric Smith-Corona Coronet resting on it. It’s a diorama.
Weekends, when I go out of town and think I will get some writing done wherever I’ve gone, I think of my tidy, bare little writer’s desk, where I haven’t written anything since I wrote poems in the spring of 2005 and I think, if only I had stayed home, then I would have written.
This afternoon I have forgiven myself for wasting so much time. The skull, my memento mori, never worked its magic, or made its warning ringing enough. Instead of writing I count the years: I’m on the precipice of another fall, the fifth without David Markson in the world, the seventh fall since David Foster Wallace hanged himself, the eighth fall without my father. This afternoon the air is sweet, coming in through my window after a storm. I write at my desk on a laptop computer, not a typewriter.
That year, my first out of college, I set a task to write a poem every day. I did. I typed a poem a day on the typewriter, mostly formal poetry. Sestinas, villanelles, and one weird form I invented myself, using the end rhymes of other famous poems. I got a roll of paper for my typewriter so that I could type like Jack Kerouac, another of David’s friends, but the paper was too wide to fit the damn thing.
My desk is an echo of a desk that produced astounding books. Books that wrenched my heart and my brain. Books that are like puzzles, Matruschka dolls, paintings by Jackson Pollack, built line by line, fragment by fragment until the finished thing is more like a nest or a web, something intricate, beautiful, and impossible to create with these mortal hands. The desk David wrote at in Greenwich Village: in my memory of it, it is a wooden, pigeon-holed desk and an old fashioned typing table, perpendicularly placed to the right of it. His great silver dome-covered typewriter sat on the typing table. There was a skull on his desk also (human). The typescript he showed me of his last novel, The Last Novel, on onionskin paper sat on the desk in a little stationery box. It was beautiful. The whole thing: Novelist’s diorama. Tfw you realized you’ve modeled your desk after the desk of your favorite writer.
So, the punchline: I had a very youthful and misguided notion, six years ago, that I would write a concordance to David Markson’s books. I called him up—he was listed—and asked if anyone was working on a concordance to his books and he said no, not to his knowledge. He also said that I was crazy, but ok, go ahead, he’d try to help me. We corresponded and met, and he never discouraged me. But I went back to school, and time passed, and a life I never envisioned for myself became the life that I live, and the concordance was never completed. And years crept by and I never wrote anything that was as good as the indexing work I was doing on his books. My literary reference project sits with some of the white postcards he was famous for, in my little desk, hidden in my diorama.
The rest of the punchline: in the short time I knew David, I told lots of people about him, and one of those people was impressed with his work and had never heard of him, and this person was in a position to invite writers to give readings and so David got to read at the 92nd St Y. I was able to do that.
And maybe a final punchline: the afternoon I first met him, David told me a story about David Foster Wallace, who he knew, and sadly, outlived. I’m probably not the only person who has heard the story, but today, this afternoon, it’s my secret. It’s a tiny thing, an anecdote from one writer I knew and whose books I love, about another writer I never knew and whose books I loved. Tfw you know a secret and keep it to yourself. Tfw you think about a writer whose work you envy and adore in equal measure, and because of whom your desk will no longer be a diorama, but a workbench.