The Ends

Broom

Wittgenstein's Mistress

Part 5 of 5

Pages read: 200-240, so many times I lost track

At the end of the last column, I suggested that my appetite for knowledge of Kate’s past has not been satisfied. Well, in these, our last forty pages, it was, along with, as DFW promised it, attendant tears.

Kate doesn’t jump immediately into confessional mode; she slides into it unwillingly over the course of twenty-two pages. It begins with a playful reimagining of soap opera plotlines from Ancient Greece (As Troy Turns?) and during that time Kate naturally mentions Helen’s cat. Helen’s cat leads her to write about an episode that took place in her loft before the Fall, during which a number of friends may or may not have helped her write to famous people to enlist their help in naming her new cat. (In this section, facts slip through her fingers in more noticeable ways, perhaps because we’re more familiar now with the information she’s working with.) And that cat leads to the cat of many years ago, the one named Cat or Gato (recall our conversation about naming things) who belonged to her son, here called Lucien almost uniformly. And then the remembrance of the unutterable of Long Ago: Lucien’s premature death from meningitis, Kate’s infidelities (“one sometimes merely fucked, too,” she says, and that profane word seems to burst like a bullet out of the dispassionate, academic prose), Adam’s drunkenness, and the murky questions of cause-and-effect surrounding all these tragedies.

The whole book, in some sense, was a means by which to distract herself from this trauma, and yet all the book was naturally leading directly to it. In fact, after she talks about Lucien’s death, and sputters a bit, trying to regain her footing, she wonders if perhaps she could have avoided the topic all together.

So that what I realized almost simultaneously, in fact, was that quite possibly I might have to start right from the beginning and write something different altogether.

Such as a novel, say.

Here she hits a wall. If she wrote a novel, it would presumably have to be about people, and “people” would lead her back to Lucien. But!

Because what I am also suddenly now thinking about is that it could be an absolutely autobiographical novel that would not start until after I was alone, obviously…

As a matter of fact it might even be an interesting novel, in its way.

Here Nemira and I stop, delighted at this bit of meta-fiction. “We are reading it right now!” Nemira says. “And it is interesting—in its way.”

Which is to say a novel about somebody who woke up one Wednesday or Thursday to discover that there was apparently not one other person left in the world.

Well, or not even one seagull, either.

And here, via her notional novel, she gives a rather comprehensive explanation of her story, delineating the series of events more cogently than ever before. She wakes up one day, maybe a Wednesday, maybe a Thursday, to find herself totally alone. There are no living creatures at all, “except for various vegetables and flowers.” The heroine’s anxiety seamlessly segues into her becoming mad, before she eventually realizes that she was, in a very true way, just as alone when the world was populated with people as she it is when it is empty of them.

Which is to say that even when one’s telephone does function one can be as alone as when it does not.

Or that even when one still does hear one’s name being called at certain intersections one can be as alone as when one is only able to imagine that this has happened.

So that quite possibly the whole point of the novel might be that one can just as easily ask for Modigliani on a telephone that does not function as on one that does.

Of course this makes me think of “the broom of the system” and of Wittgenstein’s assertion, in what is known to philosophers as the “Big Typescript,” that mathematics is not a “natural science.” As a comparison, he writes, “You can’t mistake a broom for part of the furnishing of a room as long as you use it to clean the furniture.” The meaning of the broom, then, is its function––as a cleaning apparatus. So when an object ceases to function as it is intended to, what has it become? A relic.

Even if something else that has obviously become evident here is that I would not be able to keep out of my heroine’s head after all…

And which has now given me the curious sensation that most of the things I do write often seem to become equidistant from themselves, somehow.

Everything is equidistant from everything else, as her refrain goes.

Nemira says in frustration, “I must admit to an outstanding feeling of dissatisfaction at not fully having solved the puzzle of the equidistance. Things being equidistant from themselves is trivial. Wait… scratch that. Things being equidistant from themselves is not trivial, it’s impossible. Or it’s zero.”

“The distance from me to me is zero,” I say, puzzled. “But the distance between Me and the me I write about, the me as character is… what? It’s easy to see how one might feel that there is a distance there.”

And as I say it I instantly ask myself a question I cannot answer: is this comforting or terrifying?

Somebody is living on this beach.

Our final meeting was actually on my birthday. The days leading up to it were shockingly productive for me, in that I actually did a bit of work on a book I’ve been trying (and failing, more or less) to start writing for over a year now. I gave myself the morning off to potter around, read part of The Broom of the System (I couldn’t help myself!) and prepare lunch for Nemira and myself. Probably about halfway through shelling some edamame, I had a moment where I sensed an oncoming attack of what I’ve come to call “writer’s vertigo.” It’s this curious sensation that I get when I allow myself to take notice of the specter omnipresent in my peripheral vision. This wraith is two parts isolation to one part nonexistence, or perhaps impotence, and it lives in silence. To acknowledge it is to ask yourself what exactly it is you’re doing here, if anything at all. It is to consider that you might be an insect charged with some Sisyphean task like trying in vain to build a tower out of grains of sand. This fear is something that haunts all of us, but perhaps the writers and artists of the world see it creeping about a little more readily, because they spend so much time quietly and by themselves, tinkering with the tiny worlds they have created, in which they are alone. (Make no mistake––even if you are, like me, primarily a nonfiction writer, you’re making shit up. You can try as much as possible to stick to the facts, as Kate did, but in the end you’ll just construct a simulacrum.) When I see this apparition out of the corner of my eye, I tell myself to ignore it, to keep shelling the beans, and come hell or high water, do not reflect! If you succumb to the temptation to examine, to remember, you will realize what Kate has had no choice but to conclude: that she is, and always has been, alone.

It feels all sorts of wrong to theorize as to whether Kate is a stand-in for Markson, but it’s an irresistible scab to pick. Some fiction demands that you consider its author, just as DFW claims certain novels “cry out for critical interpretation.” So much of Markson’s work is meta-fictional, and so much of it revolves around a narrator endowed with Markson’s intellectual fascinations and Markson’s personal memories. In other words: he brought it on himself. Perhaps it feels wrong to me because it would mean considering that Markson led a miserable, solitary life. The concentric conclusions one must draw from this––that his marriage was unhappy (and ergo his wife was unhappy to some degree), that his relationship with his children was fraught (and ergo his children were unhappy to some degree,) that he was all alone up in his Greenwich Village loft and none of us passing by thought to reach out (and ergo we are all unhappily locked in ourselves)—add up to a whole lot of unhappiness. “So for that matter poor practically the whole world then, more often than not,” as Kate says. If one chooses to move through the Markson oeuvre––as I have, although anachronistically––one might conclude that this loneliness becomes increasingly prominent as one ages and faces, as we all do, one’s own Fall.

A story that feels somehow relevant but perhaps isn’t: two weeks ago from when I’m writing this, my fiance’s grandfather, who is ninety-five, had a heart attack. When the doctors checked him out, they discovered that due to multiple organ failure, he likely had somewhere around six months left to live. Ever since his wife passed away he has been living by himself, occasionally going out to play bridge or taking in a movie with his friend Irma or having a scotch on the balcony of his apartment. I’ve always thought of him as almost invincible, despite my having had every opportunity in life to understand that no human being is. Yes, I realized he might be slightly wistful at times, but he was upbeat enough. He’s in such great shape for his age! as the refrain goes. And then this past weekend, when I went out with his family to organize the apartment for his return from the hospital, I saw something that stopped me in my tracks: a tiny grocery list, taped to the fridge, in a neat but faintly shaky hand: TONIC, LIMES, BREAD. He is not alone, because he has people who love him, but they are more often than not out there, whereas he is the only one inside the house. (Side note: I’m writing this from an abandoned house, I kid you not.) I suspect the ghost that lives in silence has been quite a companion these past few years. And yet we all go on making our skirt sculptures, organizing our facts, rearranging our books, buying our tonic and limes, typing and typing and typing, in spite of it.

There’s more to say here––about a quixotic journey toward the castle, about what happens when you become literally the sole source of action in the world, about why she would bring up the concept of fame so late in the book––but I’d be fighting to hold on to something (this project, my typing) that is too big to pin down. What I really wanted to submit as the sum total of this commentary was, “Whereof one cannot speak, one must be silent.” But I couldn’t do that, for many reasons, some of which you probably understand by now. Still, I should confirm that all the words preceding and including the final ones here do a grave disservice to the depth of feeling I have for Nemira, and Markson, and Kate, and David Foster Wallace, and you.

Kelsey Osgood is a freelance writer who lives in Brooklyn. She has contributed to The New Republic, The New Yorker, Salon and Vice. Her first book, How to Disappear Completely: On Modern Anorexia, is out in paperback.

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