On David Markson

This week I called at least five local bookstores in a rare last minute search of David Markson’s This Is Not a Novel. I’m defining the search as rare because I consider myself to be a responsible and committed student. In other words, it isn’t like me to misread a syllabus and realize my mistake during the eleventh hour. Anyhow, my story plays out like this:

I call a local bookstore. I say, “Hello. Can you search a title for me, please?”

“Sure! What’s the title?” the employee asks.

This Is Not a Novel,” I say.

“Okay, what’s the title?” the employee asks again.

This Is Not a Novel,” I repeat.

This exchange went around one last time before I realized the employee thought I was making a statement about the type or genre of book I was inquiring about and she was waiting for me to announce the title of the book that I declared “wasn’t a novel”. She was waiting while I was wondering if my cell phone had lost its signal or if it was her first day of work at the bookstore. I even thought: She can’t be a lover of books. We figured it out and laughed at our confusion and assumptions. And this is the power of Markson! I never found a copy of the book so for this week’s blog I am relying on Markson’s Reader’s Block and a PDF version of the first nine pages of This Is Not a Novel.

That brief phone encounter with the bookstore employee stayed on my mind. It forced me to think more deeply about confusion, misperceptions and mistakes. And guess what happens when I sit down with Reader’s Block and the nine pages of This Is Not a Novel? Confusion, misperception, complication and conflict present themselves as encore. I am now fixated on these concepts. My mind blasts back to being a young girl in love with English. I’ve always wanted to be a good student. A good student meant following rules and following rules seemed particularly critical in English. Never start a sentence with a conjunction. Show, don’t tell. Capitalize proper nouns. Plagiarizing is a crime. I immediately recognized that being a writer would be filled with pressure and complication.

Reader’s Block opens with complication: “Someone nodded hello to me on the street yesterday,” announces an unknown speaker. I expected the next sentence to identify the me or the someone, but no version of explanation came along. To complicate things even further, Markson’s second line of the text introduces a question: “To me, or to him?” And then, a character named Reader is finally revealed in the third line of the novel.

I love how Markson plays a game with his readers. The Reader plays a dual role throughout the read. Reader is narrator, character and the actual reader (which means reader is me, meaning Ali?). I need a perplexed face emoji for my previous sentence. The reader is now in for Markson’ kaleidoscopic treat and it is filled with allusions, choppy sentences, short paragraphs and quotations from artists. But why does Markson approach form in this way — scattered, loose, obscure and abstract text? Reader’s Block forces us to participate in Markson’s rebellion. If you read anything like me you’re likely to have the following sequence of thoughts when reading Markson: Okay, the words on the page do not appear as prose. How is this a novel? The words on the page do not tell a linear story. The first sentence has a typical beginning. But the fourth sentence reads like a newspaper headline and it is completely disconnected from the opening sentence. Markson must want me to know this is something new. Markson ends the first page of his read with a statement: “Reader has come to this place because he had no life back there at all.” Should we take this last sentence as Markson’s testimony that the “life back there” refers to a literary life restricted by rules and he is no longer interested in such a life?

The Reader/Markson announces his own confusion by saturating the read with questions. At page 140, Markson somewhat defines the read. He writes, “Nonlinear. Discontinuous. Collage-like. An assemblage.” Markson continues with slight assertion: “A seminonfictional semifiction? Cubist?” By now, my own thinking arrives at a revelation. Labels, assumptions and titles are dangerous! Even the titles of caller, student and employee are dangerous. Too often we rely on labels, rules and titles to instruct us on what to do and how to think and these labels don’t always steer us in the right direction. Markson tells us to forego rules and just read! He ends Reader’s Block with a final word: “ Wastebasket.” This ending brings us back to complication. Some may label and associate the final word with trash or garbage. These folks are likely naysayers who perceive Markson’s work as valueless. Others will associate the final word with storage or vessel. These folks are likely believers and Markson enthusiasts. I fall in the latter club. Markson’s wastebasket is a rare find and a treasure.  Labels are a game and we should throw them away because they add more complication to the already complicated writer’s life.


2 thoughts on “On David Markson

  1. I have to laugh at your exchange with the bookstore employee, because I worked in a bookstore a few years ago and I cannot tell you how many times there was confusion about the book a customer was looking for! They would have the title slightly wrong but the author correct, and when I would figure out what they were looking for they assumed I was wrong because they were confused about the title. Anyway…

    ” Labels, assumptions and titles are dangerous! Even the titles of caller, student and employee are dangerous. Too often we rely on labels, rules and titles to instruct us on what to do and how to think and these labels don’t always steer us in the right direction. Markson tells us to forego rules and just read!” I love that you said this, because I was having the same trouble with this book as I had with “Reality Hunger.” I am a nonfiction writer and historian, so every fact and quote I write is backed up with a citation. It’s so difficult for me to let that go and just read! The title, “This is Not a Novel,” prepared me a bit, and when I flipped through the book before reading I figured it would be pretty easy. But dammit, it was a struggle for me, as much as I enjoyed the trivia and his obsession with death. I’m not sure I’m close to throwing away the labels I have become so attached to in my 42 years on this earth, but I absolutely see the value in doing so.


    1. Dana, thanks for commenting. Markson seems to be concerned with death and isolation throughout Reader’s Block. I wonder why he seems so concerned with such topics. Is he trying to make a statement about his own personal life or about the writer’s life?

      If only I had found Markson earlier (back in 96′ as I mentioned)! My brain is super programmed to attach form with genre and I enjoy writers who remind us that good writing is good writing. Do you think you struggled with the book because it didn’t follow the traditional novel form/rules?



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