The novel, as a literary form, relies on a number of strategies to tell its story. Plot, characters, and settings are just a few of the formal qualities that we expect when we pick one up. But consider, for a moment, the word “novel” itself. It is ironic that what we call a “novel” is bound up in a relatively stable set of conventions which belie the novelty or newness its namesake suggests. It is this tension that makes David Markson’s This Is Not a Novel an ambitious and compelling postmodern work that makes one think about the process of reading itself.
Markson’s text begins, “Writer is pretty much tempted to quit writing,” and from there the reader is presented with 190 pages of anecdotes, quotes, and the “Writer’s” comments on his own writing. As a whole, the book presents an interesting collage of the history of art and literature, peppered with artistic and literary obituaries like “Tennessee Williams choked to death on the plastic cap of a nasal spray.” This litany of figures is both humorous and depressing, considering that many of the writers and artists eulogized died miserable or unheroic deaths. When one considers the juxtaposition of the “Writer” who chimes in from time to time, it becomes clear that he acknowledges that he too will someday be added the catalog of the dead.
Beyond the trivia of the humanities that Markson presents, the self-conscious comments of the “Writer” draw attention to the fact that in this “novel” there isn’t actually any plot, there is no sense of time, no order, no characters. The design of the book, with the title printed in a large font across the bottom of every page, reminds the reader again and again that “This Is Not a Novel.” The serial repetition of the title, interestingly, mirrors the style that Markson sustains throughout the text, never deviating from the schizophrenic pattern of brief, disconnected statements that delight as they subvert.
And yet Markson’s work is a novel in more ways than one. Not only is its novelty interesting and refreshing, but it manages to satisfy many of the processes that readers associate with novel-reading. The style and subject matter of the particular bits of information is so interesting and readable that Markson’s text is truly a “page-turner.” Like more conventional novels, Markson’s is fun (and even easy) to read. As with many popular forms or genres, which promise a certain amount of predictability, This Is Not a Novel is extremely predictable in that there is no building of tension or hope of climax since there are no sections that are more significant than any other.
Like other novelists before him, Markson ultimately tells a very human and touching story, although in a different way. For all of his frankness, the “Writer” becomes a familiar voice and Markson’s style becomes like an old friend. The stories become “personal” as the historical figures become more like regular people. In its totality, This Is Not a Novel presents an overarching tale of the sadness and absurdity of our own mortality.
This Is Not a Novel might not be for everyone, but for people who write or those who enjoy reading experimental works, Markson’s novel is truly a pleasure. At times, it may seem like the “Writer” is playing a joke on the reader, and this may be so, but after all, what is a novel but an elaborately crafted deception? As D.H. Lawrence once commented, the artist is a “damned liar”—which makes me smile at Markson’s biggest lie of all: “This Is Not a Novel.”