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For some reason unknown to me the image of a nude woman’s back, usually cut off just above the derriere, has become a staple of literary fiction book-jacket art. The cover of David Markson’s “This Is Not a Novel” obeys that trend, offering us the rear view of a female figure whose naked back is somewhat covered by her waist-length dark hair. But in Markson’s case, the image is no mere attempt at tasteful middlebrow titillation — it’s a Rene Magritte painting called “The Evening Gown,” and if you appreciate that joke you’ll thoroughly enjoy the book beneath the cover.
True to its title, the book doesn’t, at first glance, appear to be a novel at all. As in his 1996 book “Reader’s Block,” Markson assembles a series of notebook-like entries that relate historical facts, philosophical observations and nasty gossip about the lives of great writers and artists throughout history. A typical item: “Trollope, as remembered by a schoolmate at Harrow: Without exception the most slovenly and dirty boy I have ever met.” The book begins with an entry that declares, “Writer is pretty much tempted to quit writing,” which is followed by “Writer is weary unto death of making up stories.” “Writer,” whoever he is, pops up now and then after that, complaining more about his writerly ennui and various physical ailments and declaring his determination to create a book that lacks every standard feature of the traditional novel, from story to setting to social themes, but — through sheer force of Writer’s will, perhaps — will somehow still be a novel.
Several themes recur; we read of coincidences involving well-known artists, writers and other historical figures, and of their personal hygiene and causes of death. “Pound died of a blocked intestine,” we learn, and “Tennessee Williams choked to death on the plastic cap of a nasal spray,” and “The first English translation of ‘Madame Bovary’ was done by a daughter of Karl Marx. Who would later take her own life much the way Emma does.” With what seems a special delight, Writer also makes us privy to famous artists’ stingy estimations of other artists’ talents and achievements: “What a coarse, immoral, mean and senseless work ‘Hamlet’ is, Tolstoy said,” for example.
The mix includes a few aphorisms and odd facts that don’t quite fit any pattern but share the mischievous, curious, witty and unapologetically dark spirit of the whole enterprise. “A double play gives you two twenty-sevenths of a ballgame. Pointed out Casey Stengel”; “Was Plutarch the first writer ever to counsel kindness to animals?” There are a few running jokes. “Writer’s arse,” runs a line that recurs after entries that relate preposterous assertions, such as Harold Bloom’s claim that he can read 500 pages in an hour.
The challenge he’s taken on, Writer says early in the book, is to make readers keep turning pages even while denying them all the traditional pleasures they open novels expecting. “Is Writer thinking he can bring off what he has in mind?” he asks early in the game, but the reader is left with few doubts. Somehow, the momentum of the book is as forward-moving as any narrative. As you turn the pages, you realize that there is a story being told, the story of a character you come to care deeply about. When Writer reveals a devastating truth on the book’s very last page, one that puts in context all the preceding preoccupations, your heart wrenches.
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Maria Russo has been a writer and editor at The Los Angeles Times, The New York Observer and Salon, and is a regular contributor to the New York Times Book Review.More Maria Russo.