Where do I even begin? I suppose that question means that David Markson succeeded in his novel in which readers enter the mind of Kate, the supposed last person on earth. I say supposed because I am unsure. She is presumably the last person alive, yet I must also say that I cannot rule out that she is simply a solipsist. The novel, as you can tell, is at its core an exploration of Wittgenstein’s philosophy of language. Oversimplified, words and their meanings are created by their use, and thus do not have standardized, dogmatic meanings. Someone who is deeply into Wittgenstein’s philosophy just read that and threw up a little in their mouth.
Kate’s narrative is readable, but disorientating. She jumps from topic to topic much like Samuel Beckett did in his writing. The difference being that in a book like Molloy, there are no breaks from the narrative, it just goes in a long, unbroken stream. In Wittgenstein’s Mistress, Markson writes in the same style as Wittgenstein in Philosophical Investigations. This style in itself can be tedious and I felt that at times. I would not necessarily describe the book as enjoyable, though it is likeable. I wouldn’t recommend it to someone who is first starting to wade into the waters of experimental fiction.
But what is the book actually about? I find this question difficult to answer. I’m tempted first and foremost to say being alone. You walk away from the novel questioning whether or not Kate is mad or if she really is the last person alive, but then you must ask yourself if that question is the wrong one. Does it make a difference whether Kate is mad or sane? Her the meaning behind her thoughts does not seem to change in either scenario. Even from a standpoint of “plot” (There is not one in Wittgenstein’s Mistress, other than Kate glancingly remembering that she once had family) it is no less tragic or uplifting to imagine that she is really the last person on earth over the idea that she is mad. All the meanwhile, her narrative meditates on a plethora of famous painters, writers, and philosophers and one cannot help but notice how she prizes some of their madness. It is only in their madness that they escape the crushing weight of the anxiety of existence. Even Kate, in her self-acknowledged breaks from writing the narrative, takes these breaks due to depression, mentioning consistently that she can distinctly separate when she is in madness and when she is not. She, however, never tells you how she knows.
We, the readers, are plunged into the trauma of trying to make sense of all the connections she is making as she essentially writes down the thoughts that snap into her brain. She is comic and tragic throughout the novel, but this does nothing to help the reader understand how to feel with her. She is a box of language that suddenly reminds you that she is a human being, and then you feel the weight of such a thought; meaning that you wonder how distant we all are from one another. There is a chance that as all this is happening, Kate is just a normal person who isn’t even the last person on earth, but is just writing her brain out for the reader. One does not know what to believe most of the time as she contradicts herself constantly, or plainly gets facts wrong, causing the reader to seriously question how to take what she is saying as true when she writes what is essentially art trivia and follows it with something like, “On my honor, Willem de Kooning said that.”
I’m left wondering as I read if she, even through constantly pondering art and its history (a typically “noble” thing. Something in America people think of as something only smart or arrogant people do), is simply doing all of this to avoid facing herself. Whether or not she is packing her brain with all of this information to avoid coming to terms with her own humanity, and that this is her prized madness. Essentially that she is valuing finding out what it means to be human in order to avoid confronting what it means to be human. Thus when her own actual experiences seep into the narrative and she reveals that she is incredibly depressed, that is when her madness ceases. I will be honest, that is most likely a full reversal what what is actually happening in the novel.
“Was it really some other person I was so anxious to discover, when I did all of that looking, or was it only my own solitude I could not abide?”
David Markson, Wittgenstein’s Mistress
I really struggle in deciding how to rate this novel. I need to explore Wittgenstein more to get its full effect, I’m quite sure.
Recommended to: Graduate students. I joke, but only slightly. This is a book that would be much better understood with multiple people explaining what they were taking from it.
Avoid as if it was a Jeff Dunham special: I wouldn’t necessarily tell anyone to avoid it, but if you absolutely positively need a story for you to like a novel, then you won’t be able to abide this novel even a little bit.