FICTION: Three Chords and the Truthby Joseph Salvatore
Peter Markus, Bob, or Man on Boat (Dzanc, 2008)
Much has been written about Peter Markus’s limited vocabulary. Nearly every review of his previous three books offers a list of his words, often draped in quotation marks and given in no particular order: “moon,” “mud,” “river,” “rust,” “fish,” “star,” “brother.” A recent scholarly essay by the writer Brian Evenson analyzes the frequency with which Markus uses certain words. (Fact: Unlike nearly every writer in English, whose most repeated word is “the,” Markus most often employs the word “fish.”) For a contemporary like Evenson to be doing critical analysis on this less well-known writer’s use of language suggests that something unique is happening in Peter Markus’s work, not only on the level of the sentence, but with respect to the entire narrative design. We are dealing not only with the repetition of a scene, as in, for example, Tim O’Brien’s “How To Tell a True War Story,” or the repetition of a symbol, such as photographs in Marguerite Duras’s The Lover, but the repetition of a single word, so that, as the story continuously circles back to a particular referent in a sentence, the story itself starts to become about that referent, changing the way we experience the meaning of the story by changing the way we experience the meaning of a certain word—form and function operating here in a kind of a recursive loop of referentiality.
With his new book, Peter Markus has given us another word to add to the vocabulary list: “Bob.” In Bob, or Man on Boat, his first novel, Markus takes us back to familiar territory: a “dirty river town” somewhere in the middle of America with a steel mill that is “shipwrecked and rusting in the riverbank’s mud.” Above this steel mill, there is a moon and stars. Underneath, a river with fish. On that river is a boat, and in that boat lives a man named Bob. Bob is the greatest fisherman on the river, catching miraculous numbers of fish each day, and yet Bob fishes the river faithfully everyday in the hope of catching only one specific fish—not one kind of fish, but one particular fish. Allusions to Melville here are not only invoked, they are encouraged and celebrated, including the use of a narrator who is on a personal quest of his own. The narrator of Bob’s story is not Bob, but rather it is Bob’s son, who is also named Bob (this narrator Bob, it should be mentioned, also has a son named Bob, as well as a grandfather and great-grandfather named Bob—repetition being a major stylistic device and narrative strategy of Markus’s). Bob-the-son narrates Bob-the-father’s story with a limited vocabulary repeated to startling effect: “That fish that Bob is fishing for, Bob can’t say for certain what kind of a fish this fish is. . . . In the end, it doesn’t really matter what kind of a fish this fish is that Bob is fishing for. A fish is a fish. Is a fish.” (Allusions to Stein: ditto.)
As Harlan Howard writes about country music, it could also be said that Markus’s work is made up of little more than “three chords and the truth.” The integrity inherent in Markus’s simple structure, in such works as Good, Brother and The Singing Fish (both by Calamari Press), is deceptively powerful, often leaving the reader in a hypnotic swoon. It is through the accumulation of so few words, their repetition and syntactic arrangement and re-arrangement that a kind of linguistic alchemy takes place. Inside the blast furnace of Markus’s prose, language gets smelted down and reconstituted. Words we assumed to have fixed meaning slowly begin to lose meaning, begin to take on new sound and new sense, and, finally, return to a meaning that has been enriched with new alloying elements, both uncanny and astounding.
One of literature’s gifts is that it can refresh language for us. In Peter Markus’s Bob, or Man on Boat, language is not only refreshed, it is utterly remade.
Joseph Salvatore is the author of the story collection To Assume A Pleasing Shape (BOA Editions, 2011). He is the Books Editor at The Brooklyn Rail and a frequent contributor to The New York Times Book Review. He is an associate professor of writing and literature at The New School, in New York City, where he founded the literary journal LIT. He lives in Queens. @jasalvatore