One of the most common motifs associated with post-modernism is “the death of the author,” made famous by Roland Barthes with an essay written in 1968 titled, The Death of the Author. Barthes said, “the text is henceforth made and read in such a way that at all its levels the author is absent.” He claimed that these styled “authorless” texts were “a multi-dimensional space in which a variety of writings, none of them original, blend and clash…a tissue of quotations drawn from the innumerable centres of culture.”
The concepts explicated by Barthes sound like an apt description of Markson’s This is Not a Novel. I knew I’d read something authoritative that better described Markson’s peculiar technique than the author himself, or the “Writer,” who frequently interrupts the flotsam of quotations—aphorisms of historical fact, philosophical observation, and quotidian gossip—to lay bare what his mode of discourse is, problem being he cannot settle on a single classification.
We’re variously told the book may be an epic, a mural, an autobiography, or even an polyphonic opera (my favourite). Most truthfully though, as “Writer” says himself on page seventy-five, the book is “a disquisition on the maladies of the life of art.” These are all surreptitious parlour tricks—bottomless, topless boxes—that foreground the ever growing difficulty of defining the mutating traits of the novel, which I suppose how it should be with “nature’s noblest gift.”
A novel need not be a mere isomorphous acquisition to be comfortably read and stored on a bookshelf along other stuffed ducks. It can a living, challenging thing, with moods and personality and all sorts of built-in idiosyncrasies and disorders (like crippling dipsomania). Markson’s “Writer” may be unreliable and chimerical when it comes to self-disclosure, he’s anything but when assaying his subject, which in my estimation is one of the most direct and extended surveys undertaken on the subject of death and art.
Markson’s novel is utterly engrossing, a veritable page-turner, not grim but true to life. We’ve all heard the mythos about the lofty prize of immortality awaiting lionized authors at the end of the road; here’s the companion tale, what’s truly waiting at the threshold of the great beyond: “Men have died from time to time, and worms have eaten them, but not for love.” What the master spirits of the age must endure, Markson reminds us.