Unless like Guy de Maupassant one had taken to crawling about on a floor and eating one's own excrement, say.God, poor Maupassant.Well, but poor Friedrich Nietzsche, too, actually.If not to mention poor Vivaldi while I am at it also, since I now remember that he died in an almshouse.And for that matter poor Bach's widow Anna Magdalena, who was allowed to do the same thing.Bach's widow. And with all of those children. Some of whom were actually even more successful in music at the time than Bach himself had been.Well, but then poor Robert Schumann as well, in a lunatic asylum and fleeing from demons. One of whom was even Franz Schubert's ghost.For that matter poor Franz Schubert's ghost.Poor Tchaikovsky, who once visited America and spent his first night in a hotel room weeping, because he was homesick.Even if his head at least did not come off.Poor James Joyce, who was somebody else who crawled under furniture when it thundered.Poor Beethoven, who never learned to do simple child's multiplication.- David Markson, Wittgenstein's Mistress
I am astonished at how universal the praise for this novel is. Everyone seems to appreciate the author's wit and tenderness and sensitivity. Literary-fiction types who would normally dismiss anything experimental right out of the gate fall all over each other in talking it up. The disturbingly smug afterword waves the book's 52 rejections in the air as if the book's quality were now so unquestionable that this total is another mark of its greatness. David Foster Wallace is moved, not uncharacteristically, to flaunt his philosophy BA and laud the novel as "a dramatic rendering of what it would be like to live in the sort of universe described by logical atomism" (although this description seems to me a rather superficial non-sequitur).
I will not say that the emperor has no clothes--disputanding about gustibus is kind of a lost cause anyway--but I will admit to feeling some puzzlement about this critical reception. To put it plainly, I don't think Wittgenstein's Mistress is especially sensitive or tender (certainly it is less so than many works of the Oulipo school, or even those of my own experimental-fiction-writing friends), or even especially philosophical or intellectual. It is true that the novel's constraints, unlike many similar works, are not sufficiently constricting as to seem wholly artificial, and that may explain its cross-genre appeal. For the rest, I am unconvinced that there's a there there.
What many critics have taken for tenderness, I think, is the inherent poignancy of the novel's premise. "Last person on Earth" is a subject--like cancer or drug addiction--that generates emotional response of its own accord. Beyond that, there is little to say. Yes, the narrator avoids sensitive topics by retreating into trivia, but when the trick is sustained over two hundred-odd pages it begins to look less like keen psychological observation and more like arbitrary authorial convenience. This is not, to be clear, a failure of realism: that is not the author's objective and it is unclear what a realistic depiction of this world would even look like. It is a failure of commitment to the world one has created, and especially to its sole inhabitant.
The intellectual "wittiness" and Wittgensteinian references are, I think, even less successful. The former amounts mostly to a collection of rather inbred winks designed to appeal to people who pride themselves on their knowledge of high-culture trivia. It is true, and in fact quite excellent, that the novel puts the ultimate value and meaning of this trivia into question--yet by the end we still have no motion towards or evidence of any interesting conclusions about the subject. Perhaps I am a dirty lowbrow mouth-breather, but two hundred pages of boring stream-of-consciousness punctuated with random proper nouns is not evidence of education or wit so much as pedantry. Talking to Markson's narrator at a party would be a nightmare.
Wittgenstein is there, of course, but this does not seem to help. The sheer strain with which Markson jams the reader's nose into his intertextuality is a sign that what we are dealing with is yet another system of winks that lead nowhere and produce nothing. The novel might use Wittgensteinian language and make Wittgensteinian jokes, but as a confrontation with Wittgenstein's ideas it is a dismal failure. (She has a painting of her house and talks about a lot! Get it? Ha ha ha!). One reason Wallace's "logical atomism" comment misses the mark is that the novel isn't really about those ideas at all: he might provide the excuse, and perhaps the structure, but his presence neither creates dramatic tension in the book nor resolves it. This suggests pretension rather than insight.
Wittgenstein's Mistress is not horrendously bad, and it is certainly not irredeemable. It could work, in fact, quite well, on a single condition: that it be written in the form of a sci-fi short story by Ted Chiang. Here's a guy who has turned his genre into a vehicle for serious ideas and serious emotion--and has never, unlike Markson, been tempted to write more than necessary. (See, for instance, Exhalation, a similar and I think superior exploration of the same theme.) As for the rest--well, wovon man nicht sprechen kann, darüber müss man schweigen.