Denver Bar Association
November 2001
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No Plot, Characters, Setting... It's Exciting!

by Greg Rawlings


This Is Not A Novel' is the best non-novel of the year.

Every so often a book comes along that is so singular, so sui generis, that everything else on the shelves seems an utter waste of ink and paper: "This Is Not A Novel" is such a book. This short, bizarre, experimental fiction by David Markson is the classic exception to the rule that proves the rule.

Nothing is more boring or pretentious than experimental fiction and yet this book is an exciting, straightforward work of art that is without a doubt completely experimental.

First off, no characters, except, Writer. Second, no plot. Third, no setting. In fact, the entire book is a series of statements about historical and/or mythical and/or cultural incidents, mainly the deaths of other artists. I can see you now: okay, Rawlings, that notorious literary snob, wants us to believe that a book without characters, plot or setting, comprised of brief bursts of data, mainly about dead people, is the most exciting book of the year.

Yes. Because it is. Actually, it’s the most exciting book since, well, since when books still mattered. Markson has written a number of previous novels, none of which is worth reading. They are boring and pretentious experimental novels. Avoid "Reader’s Block" and "Wittgenstein’s Mistress" like the plague. But as bad as they are is how good this is.

I wish so much that I had written this book, in the way I wish I’d written Dylan’s bitter, elegaic "Tangled Up in Blue," or painted Edward Hopper’s perfect "A Woman in the Sun," or directed Godard’s dazzling "Contempt."

Whether he’s quoting Voltaire on Hamlet, or relating tales of F. S. Fitzgerald haunting bookstores unrecognized in the months before he died, or citing the number of deaths in the "Iliad," Markson never falls back on clichés; you feel that everything he is saying means something, something more than the mere words on the page, that there is this vast thing called civilization, which is being honored statement after statement, page after page. And by the end, you begin to wonder if the death of Writer is the death of civilization; if anyone else can bear witness like Markson to the wonders that have preceded us. And you begin to be ashamed at all we are throwing away when we heave western civ into the dustbin of time.

I have read this book about 10 times in the last three months. I now know that Stephen Foster died without knowing who won the Civil War, that Edward Teller lost a foot in a streetcar accident, that "Gibbon died of infectious complications from hydocele," that "Rilke was devoted to polishing furniture." And a thousand more odd tidbits of the cultural past. By the end of the book, you know something more, too; you know why Writer is focused on what he is focused on, and it is nothing short of heartbreaking.

Reading this book is an eye opener. There is so little out there worth making an effort to read or see or hear. I have seen three new movies this year worthy of the price of admission, heard maybe four new albums worth buying, read maybe one other book worth mentioning. Times are dire. Our culture has become a chaotic miasma of idiocy and mediocrity. When the historian Jacques Barzun labeled his majestic swan song, his history of western man from 1500 to the present, "From Dawn to Decadence" a couple years ago, he was being less cruel than polite. Barzun’s book is 877 pages long; Markson makes the same point in 190.

Being a Cassandra in this society is not very rewarding. We want game shows and freakishly loud sporting events, and politicians who are either swine or morons. Anything with dignity or decency is to be shunned.

David Markson instead has shunned the grotesque present and embraced the awesome past. Mozart rather than Eminem, Racine rather than Mamet, Michelangelo rather than Schnabel. Greatness is something in the air, in the water, something that beckons from just beyond the next ridge; it is something ineffable. Modern America hates it. It is a rebuke to our vulgarity.

"This Is Not A Novel" is great. It is art. It is a singular thing. Anyway, where else are you going to discover that: Arthur Conan Doyle was evidently the first person in England to receive a speeding ticket, 11 of Rutherford’s students eventually received Nobel Prizes, Charlemagne could read but not write. I could go on and on. I won’t. But I sure do wish Markson had.

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