Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Wittgenstein's Mistress

I'll be honest. This abandonment of the reading desert is not without its catalysts. By far not. It's been spurred by a whirlwind in my head, the kind that makes me want to shut myself off from the rest of the world and listen to AM stations out of Quebec with a lot of static. It's been part injuries and illnesses and potential illnesses – my own and others –overbooking myself, and living with a toddler who is intent on driving me absolutely bonkers for an hour and a half about eating breakfast (or, really, pretending to eat breakfast…and dinner, and every other time I try to feed him), and then asking for a bear hug and a kiss. Maybe also that for a month or two, my part of the world suddenly assumed Seattle's climate, without the perks of a really great scene and coffee shops on every block, and now suddenly it's Louisiana.  It's part other stuff too.

Usually I feel this way in the fall and early winter even numbered years, but for some reason here I am in spring of an odd numbered year. Which is disorienting in itself. I always look to books for bearings, but strangely, the books I look for are fractured themselves. Now is not the time for funny, or upbeat. (Do I ever do upbeat, though?)

I tried to read Wittgenstein's Mistress last year (of course, in the fall/early winter of an even numbered year), but it didn't work for me at the time. Sometimes you have these things. So I've been flitting from one book to the next lately (literally with piles stacked next to my bed of maybe 15 books), but this time WM stuck. It's fractured, too, and feels like a cocoon. Which is what I really need right now.

Kate, the narrator, contends that she is the last person alive – or at least as far as she can tell. We have to take her at her word for it, because she's all we've got.  Every review I read for the novel said we are "lead to believe" that Kate was the last person, leaving me to expect some clues in the end that she really was just insane.  Yes, some devastating things happened to Kate (the death of her child, etc.) and some of these reviews suggested that with that devastation, Kate lost it and therefore we cannot take her word for the state of the world.  It's possible, of course, but there isn't anything particular hinting one way or the other.  We can take her at her word, or not.


WM doesn't have a plot.  The idea that she's the last person alive is just the starting point for Kate's thoughts.  This isn't a story about she is became the last person alive, or how she has dealt with being the last person alive.  It's Kate, alone, in a house on the beach perhaps a decade or more after she stopped looking for other people, typing her disjointed thoughts, which are not about her life but about philosophy, art, music and the Trojan War.  This may seem odd, but I thought it was perfectly normal.  When you're disjointed – as one might be if one were the last person alive, or, of course, if one is crazy enough to think one were the last person alive when really one isn't – these are the types of things that may come up.  Sometimes, in such situations, it's much, much easier – and more soothing, more calming – to think of facts, to think of things completely unrelated to anything, independent of you, the feeler, instead of focusing on what is happening in that moment that has made one feel disjointed. Here, Markson perfectly captures what happens to our brains when we – ok, I – feel isolated and alone.  It's perfect pitch.


What's most amazing about WM is that it works even if you don't know anything about Wittgenstein (though it works much better if you do).  Though I read The Odyssey, I haven't read The Iliad, or many of the other ancient Greek works that are referenced here – that would have heightened my understanding, but it worked even without it.  This novel made me want to put away Arabian Nights and get my Bulfinch's Mythology out again. 


I loved this book.  It was everything I expected it to be, which is often not the case.  I'm sure that when once again I get to another fall/winter of an even numbered year, I will pick it up to find my bearings in the color of the cat Kate saw at the Coliseum.  




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