Book Review: This Is Not a Novel

Writer sets out to write a novel without characters, action, setting, conflict, social themes, plot or any of the other trappings of fiction.

His goal: to keep the reader turning pages.

Does Writer succeed? Yes and no, but that’s kind of the point.

“This is a novel if Writer or Robert Rauschenberg says so,” announces David Markson’s stand-in, “Writer,” early in This Is Not a Novel.

On paper, TINAN is a series of short epigrammatic statements that, overall, as I read it, meditate sardonically the absurd struggle of the artists’ life.

In short, Twitterlike bursts, Markson catalogs the quarrels and untimely demises, but especially the demises, that characterize the lives of humanity’s best-known artists. TINAN‘s litany of artistic suffering begins with the first line, “Writer is pretty much tempted to quit writing,” and goes on to show, overall, how in contrast to their achievements, most great artists didn’t fare so well in real life. (Note: Markson died this past June at the age of 82.)

Here’s an excerpt (p. 125)

Vaslav Nijinsky died of kidney failure after decades of insanity.

O. Henry died penniless.

The North Sea, Karl Marx’s ashes were scattered in.

Djuna Barnes Drive. Anne Sexton Street.

Calcutta, Thackeray was born in.
Bombay, Kipling was.

Gaspara Stampa died of what may have been cancer of the womb.

Ovid left twice as much work as any other Roman poet.
And said he had destroyed endless pages more, as unsatisfactory.

At times, I felt like this was a book for clever postmodern types who fancy themselves as people who “get it,” meaning, they pretend to like anything that’s arch and experimental and inaccessible to the hoi polloi.

“Tantum religio potuit suadere malorum, Lucretius said. Such are the evils that religion prompts.”


As with many works of art that are more about the exercise of creation and the experience of consumption than about the content, I got out of TINAN pretty much what I put into it. And sometimes, that resulted fun moments, the setting of small blazes in areas of my cerebral cortex hitherto unsinged. Other times, it was just frustrating.

But hey, at least I learned things like: “Bertrand Russell, at seventy-six, survived an ocean plane crash in which a number of other passengers were killed.”

Tweet that.


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