this is not a novel

The Year of Reading Dangerously – David Markson

This year seemed the perfect opportunity to become acquainted with the experimental American writer, David Markson – or at least with his writing, Markson having died in 2010 (something not entirely irrelevant to this book, deeply concerned as it is with mortality). Everything I had read about him made him sound worth tracking down, from his early parodies of pulp fiction to his later move towards experimentation (in his fifties), as well as the admiration that other American writers such as David Foster Wallace clearly had for him. It was particularly difficult to resist such a provocative title as this is not a novel, originally published in 2001 and reissued last year by CB Editions.

this is not a novel is certainly not a conventional novel. As the Writer (it’s only character) tells us almost immediately:

“Writer is weary unto death of making up stories.”

He goes on to reveal his ambition to write something that is plotless, characterless and actionless. These aims are scattered among other statements (the Writer’s thoughts?), many of which report the ways in which various writers, artists and composers have died. For example:

“Henry Miller died of cardiovascular failure.

B. Traven died of prostate cancer and sclerosis of the kidneys.”

While these make up the majority of the novel’s pensees, we are also offered non-fatal anecdotes (“Salvador Dali once gave a lecture on London while wearing a diving helmet. And nearly suffocated.”), unattributed quotations (“I gotta use words when I talk to you.”) and comments that one artist has made about another (“Plato talked too much, Diogenes said.”). While the information provided cannot be said to be random – it all connects to the creative life – neither could it be said to present a coherent view of that life, apart from, of course, making the point rather emphatically that all artists must die.

How does this work? Well, there is no doubt it works thematically, directing the reader towards the creative process (the Writer’s musings on what kind of work he is producing) and the creative life, particularly the relationships between artists. The apparently more than five hundred deaths mentioned cannot help but have an emotional resonance, referencing, as they do, both mortality and immortality (the way in which artists live on after death).

The text can also be read, however, as a conventional novel, with the Writer as the character, and the rest of the text his thoughts as he ponders on his own life as an artist. Markson seems to hint at this possible reading when he reveals towards the end:

“Or was it nothing more than a fundamentally recognisable genre all the while, no matter what Writer averred.

About an old man’s preoccupations.

Writer’s cancer.”

This has a distinct emotional punch, suggesting that Markson hasn’t quite abandoned the relationship between reader and character. Whatever the case, he has certainly succeeded in producing a novel that achieves his stated aim of:

“…seducing the reader into turning pages nonetheless.”

Danger rating: certainly not for fans of plot, and unlikely to be adapted into a film, I still found this a book I didn’t want to stop reading.

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One Response to “this is not a novel”

  1. Natural Novel | 1streading's Blog Says:

    […] or indeed, the sum of its parts. It lack the cumulative power of, for example, David Markson’s This is Not a Novel. Despite the recurrent divorce proceedings, the reader’s emotional investment is slim, and though […]

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