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This is Not a NovelCounterpoint, 2001

Experimental. You have to be in the mood, I told myself. It didn't help, and I often felt myself growing impatient with this not a novel in which each page of the book contains roughly twelve lines—total—some lines consisting of no more than a single sentence, or word, or proper name. Like running down lists, rather than reading, and starting off on a negative, this is not... and promising me a lot of work.

On the cover is a stamp-sized reproduction of a painting by Magritte, a nude seen from behind with abundant brown hair flowing to the small of her back. She stands in a blue evening landscape with a crescent moon resting fractions above her head. The title of the painting is, The Evening Gown. Ha, ha. It's Magritte; absurd, surreal, fun.

A Duchamp on the cover might have been more to the point. Duchamp quarreled with the old formalities of making art; painting in particular was finished. He put out his ready-mades, his glass brides and chocolate-machine bachelors, his urinal, and so on; art could no longer speak as it had spoken before. Duchamp made his revolution and stuck to it. Or did he? Anyone who has seen his final work, installed at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the one he spent twenty years making in secret (while everyone believed he was merely playing chess), knows that that is not quite the case. Duchamp's ultimate revolution may well be the installation. The piece is brilliant and potent, big, enigmatic. Go see it. You will experience a shock, but you will also experience all the formal values of art making. The work taut, without so much as a hair out of Duchamp's creative control. Original, narrative, absurd, beautiful, funny... Go see it.

Magritte never quarreled with painting as medium, as voice. He used the genre in a way that was new and ironic, but also visually interesting and even pleasing. His quirky take is to tease the viewer into going to an unexpected place. David Markson wants his book to go to an unexpected place too, and it does, finally, and the way it gets their is unique. But if you look at the Magritte on the cover, and don't know the title, you will still see a completed painting. A narrator is not required on that level. Once you know the title, you will likely be piqued enough to move on to another level, the one Magritte hopes you will visit. Yet, you will still have a painting, pure and simple. What do you have with THIS IS NOT A NOVEL?

Is it a novel or not? The author says he is weary of plots, of making up stories, tired too of all the other tools of the novel-making trade. Is it too obvious to ask, why go there, then? Oh, yes, I forgot, it's experimental. The purpose of the experiment—I am guessing—is, in a sense, to connect the dots between lists of informative items and the function of literature without anything happening at all in terms of story. The danger is that the book reads more like a cultural Guinness Book of World Records. Or, say, the Anthology of Nonsense (there is such a book, I have it) and expecting it to be more than what it is, a compilation.

However, there is, after all, a character in THIS IS NOT A NOVEL. The character is called Writer (capitol W), and
Writer is none other than the author himself. Writer speaks periodically throughout what ends up as a kind of non-chronological, non-subject oriented list of quotations made by or about famous people by other famous people, for example: "The greatest lesbian poet since Sappho, Auden called Rilke." Or, "What artists do cannot be called work. Says Flaubert's Dictionary of Accepted Ideas." There are also quotations from literary works, like Joyce's The Dead. The book also contains commentary on artistic works; musical, visual, and also philosophical works. These last come out mostly in the form of factoids, such as, "Piero Della Francesco's father was a shoemaker." Or, "Frida Kahlo's affair with Leon Trotsky." Or, "Debussy's first wife shot herself. As had a mistress, earlier." As well, the book contains historical tidbits about the celebrated: "Plato talked too much, Diogenes said. While dismissing Socrates as a lunatic altogether." And historical anecdote: "Philip of Macedon: If I reach Lacedaemon, not one stone will I leave upon another. The Spartans: If."

At times the book is downright gossipy, a kind of Robin Leach special on dirt of the culturally elite and famous.

Writer positions the quotes, and facts and literary passages in ways suggestive of neither intent or purpose. In fact, very little is clear in terms of purpose. The overwhelming list, the list-of-lists, running alongside the others, in THIS IS NOT A NOVEL, is the one that states the means by which many of these famous folk died. Why? We'll get to that—I hope.

The glue that holds the book together is Writer. Writer, and the lists of deaths. (Are you following me, reader? I'm confused myself, so I thought I'd ask.) Okay, I will make it easier by quoting and paraphrasing, starting with the premise as stated by Writer himself: "Writer is pretty much tempted to quit writing. Writer is weary unto death of making up stories. Writer is equally tired of inventing characters. A novel with no intimation of story whatsoever, writer would like to contrive. And with no characters. None. Plotless. Characterless. Yet seducing the reader into turning pages nonetheless."

Okay: Mission stated. And your mission, dear reader, should you choose to accept, is to pick up the gambit. Will you turn the pages or not?

Writer goes on: "Actionless, Writer wants it. Which is to say, with no sequence of events. Which is to say, with no indicated passage of time. Then again, getting somewhere in spite of this. Indeed, with a beginning, a middle, and an end. Even with a note of sadness at the end. A novel with no setting. With no so-called furniture. Ergo meaning finally without descriptions." (A touch Beckettian there, no?)

I'll speed things up, paraphrasing again: no central motivation, conflict, social theme; no depiction of manners or morals, without symbols, or subject. Can Writer do it? Writer asks. Will Writer have readers? he queries. He even asks, does Writer exist in a book without characters?
Right around here—amidst these questions—is tossed in a quote from Flaubert: "Hatred of the bourgeois is the beginning of all virtue." (I found that telling, but I admit, I'm guessing at what.) Writer concludes that he does exit because he is writing, not as a character, but as author.

Spinning a circle or two, logically speaking, and running the risk of becoming cute here and there. (That was me 'talking,' by the way. And while we're at it, this has turned into an experimental non-review, officially. By which I mean, I am free to interject my voice as non-reviewer as I see fit. As I have already done—as Writer does. This could get to be fun.)

Are we becoming Cartesian yet? Writer has headaches he states. He also has a word processor out of which written things emerge as he works, therefore this is a novel, no? But wait, it gets clearer, I promise, on page seventeen. Here, I think, is the ultimate rational for THIS IS NOT A NOVEL: "'This is a portrait of Iris Clert if I say so.' Said Robert Rauschenberg in a telegram to a Paris art gallery."

From that quote on, Writer becomes a touch contentious. He uses Rauschenberg's argument to assert what he had before doubted: "This is a novel if Writer or Robert Rauschenberg says so." And later, "This is even an epic poem, if Writer says so. Requiring no one's corroboration."

There it is, defiance! This is also (not) a novel of artistic defiance! I'll speed things up again with paraphrase: the book is also, if Writer says so: a series of cantos, a mural, a continued heap of riddles, a kind of polyphonic opera, a writer talking to himself in a book sans characters. And, also, an "ersatz prose alternative" to The Wasteland if Writer says. (Let's try this: Simon says: I'm novel. I'm a novel! That was me again, voice of non-reviewer.) Finally, the book is a treatise on the nature of man, or an anthology of suicide notes, if Writer...

You get the idea. Something in all this reminds me of the Lenny Bruce bit where the old candy store owner opens a bottle one day, releasing a genie who grants his wish to go to Atlantic City, while the genie will stay behind to mind the store. An old customer comes in and wants to know what a genie knows about running a candy store. The genie answers, I'm a genie, I can do anything. Okay, says the old customer, make me a malted. Poof, you're a malted, declares the genie.

We now have to mention the list of famous deaths. Here are a few, I paraphrase again: Racine died of an abscessed liver. Chaim Soutine of stomach ulcers. Tennessee William's choked on the cap of a nasal sprayer—to death. Dorothy Parker died of heart attack. (There are lots of those, and pulmonary deaths seem high among creative types, alcoholism too.) Gary Cooper died of lung cancer. Verdi died of stroke, Simone de Beauvoir of pneumonia. Etc. The list of deaths builds and begins to effect the reader. By the last twenty pages the deaths and the facts and the quotes and gossipy bits do begin to come together, though I can't entirely say how.

My favorite quote of the book, coming near the end, is from William Butler Yeats, "Why should we honor those that die upon the field of battle, a man may show as reckless a courage in entering into the abyss of himself."

My other favorite came earlier on, and is from Emerson, "Life consists in what a man is thinking of all day." I'd already asked myself how David Markson came to gather all these lists of deaths and quotes and information. Did he set out to research them, or has he been a life long marker of passages, and had this compilation of—what shall we call it—been in his head all the while?

There is, finally, the desired impact, even the wisp of sadness Writer sought. I'll close with Writer himself, "This is even a disquisition on the maladies of the life of art, if Writer says so."

Indeed, this is not a novel.

©August, 2001 J Stefan Cole


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