"THIS IS A portrait of Iris Clert if I say so," Robert Rauschenberg once wrote in a telegram to a Paris art gallery. In his latest fictional experiment, This Is Not a Novel, David Markson stakes a similarly bold claim to subjectivity, dubbing his montage of aphorisms and gossip alternately a novel, an epic poem, and finally "an unconventional, generally melancholy though sometimes even playful now-ending read."
As it turns out, melancholy is perhaps the most apt adjective. At the outset, Writer, the only character to appear throughout the montage, declares himself "weary to death of making up stories" and "equally tired of inventing characters." In the nearly 200 pages that follow, Writer strings together hundreds of odd factoids about authors, musicians, and scientists, from their sexual peccadilloes to the precise details of their deaths.
In spite of the book's lack of story, it's difficult not to keep flipping pages out of morbid curiosity. While Markson describes a preponderance of deaths from heart attacks--from Matthew Arnold (while running to catch a streetcar) to Anna Akhmatova (after a series of coronaries)--he also offers some truly bizarre anecdotes. Sherwood Anderson died from swallowing a toothpick, Tennessee Williams choked on a plastic nasal inhaler, and Bertolt Brecht, terrified of a live burial, requested that a stiletto heel be driven through his heart. "An attending physician did so," Markson deadpans.
What leavens this parade of moribund details is Markson's desire to tap the comic minutiae from the well of tragedy. Demonstrating an encyclopedic knowledge of scandals among the aesthete class, Markson discloses that Brahms wore highwater trousers, Baudelaire often sported pink gloves, and Auden attended the opera in a stained tuxedo and bedroom slippers. Perhaps most humorous are the barbs writers lobbed at one another, which Markson recounts with glee: "The greatest lesbian poet since Sappho, Auden called Rilke." Boswell maintained that Johnson had disgusting table manners, while one of Diego Rivera's wives informed people that the artist did not bathe. Henry James once hid behind a tree so as to avoid Ford Madox Ford, while upon meeting Camus, Faulkner did not utter three words to the existentialist.
This profusion of genius eventually dwarfs Writer and his personae, a calculated move on Markson's part. In one revealing moment, an intimate of Writer's interjects, "Your last novel was a flop. You've got two wonderful children depending on you. Don't you think it's time to consider something more financially responsible in your life?" Markson's dogged insistence on pursuing nonlinear storytelling is admirable, even heroic, in a literary culture enthralled more with proficiency than risk-taking. Ultimately, however, after finishing this engaging, quirky collage, the reader wants to ask Writer the same question Faulkner's cousin once posed to him: "Do you think that material up when you're drunk?"