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This Is Not a Novel
This Is Not a Novel

This Is Not a Novel
David Markson
Counterpoint Press, 2001
190 pp.

Available from Powell's Books.

Timor mortis conturbat me. The fear of death distresses me.

Early within the book, David Markson's character (named the Writer) remembers, "On an ancient sundial in Ibiza: Ultima multis. The last day for many." Here, just a spit from death, we readers are treated to a novel that could easily be written on Writer's last day. This character, if he is a character at all, reels out a series of quotations, epigrams, and modes of death for famous canonical authors, artists, musicians and philosophers. From this series of carefully culled jottings, we draw whatever conclusions we want or can.

The paradoxically-titled This Is Not a Novel is a further examination of Markson's previous Reader's Block. While the (usually violent) ends of famous "classical" creators is a theme of that novel as well, the descriptions of death have more purpose here, though they are, once again, all over the map. Some deaths are ignominious -- for instance, "Anacreon choked to death on a grapeseed. At eighty-five." Others are painfully commonplace: "Cy Young died of a heart attack" (31).

The thoughts that spread like tumors in Writer's head are easy to interpret in at least one way: the Writer is desperately ill, and perhaps dying, as in "Writer's cancer" and "Writer's right-lung lobectomy and resected ribs" (190, 188). His fear of death becomes clear from the several times he repeats Timor mortis conturbat me. From other carefully chosen quotations, you can deduce there's little chance for survival: "Before the Normans brought despair, the Anglo Saxons brought wanhope" (19). Wanhope is repeated throughout the novel, but most often in the last pages (181, 185, 187).

This book is constructed without many boundaries, so readers can take the perpetual references to fear of death to also encompass their own. A few seem to represent Writer's actual fear, his braveness and bared teeth in death's face, and an awareness on Writer's part that he may beat his cancer so that he can die in some other way -- perhaps by grapeseed, like Anacreon. After navigating the Scylla and Charybdis of cancer, death by fruit would be ludicrous, but it could happen -- something will always take you from the Earth, regardless of your accomplishments in life. This observation seems to be echoed in the quotations concerning multiple causes of death in one person: "Lessing died of a stroke, although already wasted by severe asthma and wasted lungs" (69).

Regardless of your level of talent, you can be a right shite, as witnessed by Pound, who calls Hitler a "saint and martyr". Equally awful was Lawrence Durrell, who sexually abused his own daughter. She later killed herself. Neither genius nor art will save you, but it will perhaps keep you from anonymity of the death you fear: "And even in the ages to come, men will make of us a song for telling. Says Helen to Hector of their destiny" (64).

Writer's comments are interspersed with the text, making this novel the ultimate in postmodern style; he writes about writing about writing. This postmodern touch is a dizzying but fun prospect for the reader, who can go through the novel looking for bits of frame from Writer to construct around the pictured remainder of text. Writer -- that little bugger -- tries to direct your attention or critical analysis in a particular way: "This is even a disquisition on the maladies of the life of art, if Writer says so" (86). Writer can make this novel whatever he wants simply by saying so, as Robert Rauschenberg did when he telegraphed an art museum to say that the telegram was a portrait of Iris Clert.

Markson has been a life-long acolyte of Joyce, a writer. This Irishman, as we know, was accused of making a hash of a novel with the appearance of both Ulysses and the even more tortuous, self-referential Finnegan's Wake. In the text of This Is Not a Novel, Markson mentions a criticism or two of Joyce, as well as other references to and from him. Joyce was an early practitioner of the interior monologue and of cobbled bits of foreign (to English) language jokes; here, Markson wittily explores both stylistic exercises by means of Writer's grumps or didacticisms, and with Hebrew, Latin, Spanish, German and French quotations interlarded in the text.

Markson, in fact, has continuously been writing the interior monologue, with Wittgenstein's Mistress his most lengthy example. This Is Not a Novel, however, is the best of the lot. Its tone, despite the constant preoccupation with death, anti-Semitism and other depression-inducing topics, is humorous -- Woody Allen or Richard Wright after a few years up at Cambridge. Joyce similarly makes jokes for his own amusement, but he is more savage than Markson, with more bitterness beneath his tongue. From the overall tone, it is obvious that Joyce is not, by a long shot, Markson's only source of inspiration; neither does Joyce ventriloquize him. Even so, his influence is clear (as it is for almost any writer now worth a salt).

Cantankerous or unimaginative readers could dismiss This Is Not A Novel as a messy mélange of megrims, but they'd be people who also think their three-year old could recreate one of Chuck Close's self-portraits. The reader erudite enough to identify all the sources of Markson's quotations -- to have read about, seen, heard, or visited all the references mentioned here -- would have had to have dedicated his or her entire life to art. As Chaucer says, and Markson echoes: "The lyf so short, the craft so long to lerne"; it's doubtful that many readers will have read that much, but that's the beautiful part of the novel. As the sight of an Olympic class marathoner makes lapsed joggers tie up their running shoes, This Is Not a Novel pulls readers to all those novels they bought, meant to read, and never did. My copy of The Fifth Queen shall most certainly get an airing after this, although maybe I'll pull out my copy of the Wake or Ulysses instead.

When I read Joyce in graduate school, I kept two books next to my head as I slept: Ulysses and Giffords' Ulysses Annotated. Reading Markson may make you wish for a Markson Annotated. Markson himself wrote his master's thesis on Malcolm Lowry's Under the Volcano, and observed in an interview that he was nervy to do such a thing, as no other criticism of Lowry's extremely new novel had been written at the time. To read This Is Not a Novel may take just one part of an afternoon, but You the Reader can -- indeed, must -- dive back into this nervy, blood-boiling headrush again and again. Inside these pages, you even look for references to your own death; you find it when you put the book down.

-- Jenn Sikes

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About the Publisher:

Counterpoint Press publishes serious literary work, with an emphasis on natural history, science, philosophy and contemporary thought, history, art, poetry, and fiction. In the short time Counterpoint Press has been publishing, its authors have received many awards, including the PEN/Faulkner Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award, the Bollingen Poetry Prize, the T.S. Eliot Award, the PEN Translation Prize, the Bay Area Book Reviewers Award, the Robert Kirsch Lifetime Achievement Award from the Los Angeles Times, the Lannan Lifetime Achievement Award, and the Harold Morton Landon Prize from the Academy of American Poets. This is Not a Novel marks the first time they have published David Markson, one of the most unique voices in contemporary literature.



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