This Is Not a Novel by David Markson

This Is Not a Novel by David Markson. 2001, Counterpoint, Washington, D.C., ISBN 1-58243-133-7, 190 pp., trade paper, $15. For nearly forty years Markson has been writing brilliant novels. His new “novel” (if that’s what it is) is disquietingly similar to his 1996 Reader’s Block, which itself followed the 1988 publication of Wittgenstein’s Mistress, Markson’s best known work. I say “disquietingly” similar, because, as Markson informs us in This Is Not a Novel, Reader’s Block was “a flop.” Indeed, where Mistress won the hearts of many a reviewer and critic, and found it’s way onto many of that year’s “best books” lists, Reader was almost universally ignored: “Wittgenstein, it is you who are creating all the confusion!” Markson writes (141). For that reason, I suspect, Markson produced another novel written in the same—but here vocabulary is going to fail me, because what Markson has done in these two books is the impossible: he’s written novels with no characters and no stories. In This Is Not a Novel, Markson warns us straight up and first thing what he’s doing: “I am now trying an Experiment very frequent among modern Authors; which is, to write upon Nothing” as the epigram from Swift informs us. In case you’re unclear on the concept of “Nothing,” Markson spells it out for us in the first couple of “stanzas” (which term I might as well use since, after all, this is not a novel):
Writer is pretty much tempted to quit writing. Writer is weary unto death of making up stories. … Writer is equally tired of inventing characters. (1)
And, honestly, that’s pretty much it. The occasional declaration from Writer, and they’re aren’t many of those, is intercut with facts about other artists—writers, yes, but the kind who work with visual images as well. So, duh, this isn’t a novel—in fact, from this description, it isn’t much of anything. Why should I bother? You should bother because if you don’t, you’ll miss one of the greatest meditations on what it means to be creative ever composed. There’s an old saw about the person who “knows everything, has experienced nothing,” and is therefore pretty much useless. Markson has read everything, and, as far as I can tell from old interviews with him, had experienced darn near everything before he finally (in his mid-thirties) wrote his first novel, The Ballad of Dingus McGee.
We are and we are not. Said Heraclitus. … Knowledge is not intelligence. Heraclitus additionally said. (82)
Wittgenstein’s Mistress was a masterpiece of melancholy, and Reader’s Block was brilliantly depressing. In contrast, Novel is funny and defiant. Yes, Reader was “a flop,” so Markson tells us what Novel could be, “if Writer says so.” Markson gives us a catalog of possibilities, but consider this one. This Is Not a Novel is a spare (some would say “minimalist,” but they’d be fooled by mere appearances) and delightfully complex myth of The Creative in any time:
Fray Luis de Léon, returning to his Salamanca classroom after five years of imprisonment by the Inquisition: As I was saying… (83)
As a myth, The Creative is a drunkard, a womanizer, a lunatic, a jumper off cliffs both metaphorical and not. As a myth, Novel provides its own variant tellings and cross-cultural comparisons, as so Novel becomes all the things that Markson says it is: epic poem, catalog, learned treatise, “polyphonic opera” (73)…
Nonlinear. Discontinuous. Collage-like. An assemblage. Self-evident enough to scarcely need Writer’s say-so.
The key to understanding This Is Not a Novel is the same one we use to read the Surrealists, or Burroughs, or Acker: the only real “character” for any of these writers is the relationship. There are no characters in Novel because we are the cast, and thus Novel is a kind of day book, a record of witnessing, be it on the streets of New York (where Markson lives) or the musty pages of some old book: it’s all a passion play. Although Markson never moralizes, there is a cogent moral to his latest novel. And that is a respect for the relationship, between things, between people, between people and things, that makes The Creative create:
The friendship of Paula Becker and Clara Westhoff. (113)
This isn’t name-dropping; what’s important here is the subject of this verbless fragment: friendship. Markson is especially keen on the relationship between student and teacher:
Eleven of Ernest Rutherford’s students became winners of the Nobel Prize. (140)
The preceding two quotes are just single examples of themes that bloom again and again, like mythic variations, like etudes followed by fugues, throughout the book. But creative relationships have their, if not dark, then annoying, side: the critics, who take a beating here:
Half-cracked. Thomas Wentworth Higginson’s earliest evaluation of Emily Dickinson. (70)
The reception of the creative production, be it novel, poem, musical or visual composition, is a source of much of the book’s humor. The following example illustrates not only Markson’s funny bone, but the inner workings of his method as well:
The poetical fame of Ausonius condemns the taste of his age, Gibbon said. (113) … Ausonius once composed a poem to his writing paper. The literary fame of The Bonfire of the Vanities condemns the taste of its age. (115)
Fractured and fragmented, Markson fills Novel, as he did Reader, with a catalog of deaths. One of the reasons Reader’s Block was so depressing is that the deaths were mostly suicides. Not so in This Is Not a Novel: disease is the man in the black coat here. In the phenomenological reduction of all life to the relationship between Reader and Writer, death gives us all the characters we could ever want. From all those musty pages, from the reflections in the familiar windows that catch and remind us of some long-ago parting, death is the source, the turning point, the verse (“a turning”) of the creative’s life and work:
But go, and if you listen she will call.

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