For Our Time of Disquiet


Looking for a feel-good read? Something with strong characters you’ll want to identify with? A story that has you rapidly turning the pages to find out what comes next? I’m sure there are many titles out there that will easily smooth-out your anxieties in this time of corona virus and the triumph of science over voodoo politics, but don’t look to Fernando Pessoa for it.

The Book of Disquiet by the Portuguese writer Fernando Pessoa is aptly named: it is a book and it is chock-a-block with anxiousness, discomposure, and agita. It also gives the reader something to think about on almost every pages. However, even though it might be considered a novel, it certainly is an example of a novel which, with only a few instances, has no plot, no characters, no background, and no dialogue.

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Epitaph For a Novel

MarksonOne of my favorite authors is David Markson. I was introduced to Markson’s work while taking a creative writing coursetaught by Peter Marcus. Marcus gave me the image of Markson hoarding shoe-box after file cabinet stuffed with little slips of paper and the odd gum wrapper or two with carefully collected factoids written neatly on the available white space. Look at these titles for Markson’s later fiction:

  • Reader’s Block, 1996.
  • This Is Not a Novel, 2001.
  • Vanishing Point, 2004.
  • The Last Novel, 2007.

Here is where all those factoids ended up, carefully arranged and, although seemingly random, telling a story about the life of the writer in four novels. If you are of the stodgy old school that thinks a novel must have a plot and characters, dialogue and at least one theme, then Markson might be problematic. Still I highly recommend that you at least try one of the novels: start with Reader’s Block (they’re all fascinating but function best when read in order).

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It is common knowledge that the blurbs on the back covers of a newly published novels are problematic at best. Some authors seem to have a minor careers in writing blurbs and, like in Bull Durham, you’ve got to know your clichés. That’s not to say that personal and well-thought-out blurbs do not exist … just that you might never know for sure which blurb is done to keep the publisher happy and which blurb in an honest response to the book in question.

William Gaddis wrote in a letter to David Markson his views on just this subject and it is enlightening to read his words:

William Gaddis

My feeling essentially is that a book really goes out on its own, for the human remains that wrote it to run along after it is suicidal since there’s clearly no separating them until the mortal partner drops. I don’t think ‘one decent blurb or two’ is going to alter Asher’s promotion at all, I don’t think lack of them is going to deter it; and the whole God damned area is to me like trying to make magic that will shape a course already implicit and then, if the course takes the feared-for direction, blaming the ex post facto magic, or the lack of it. I’ve never had my name on anybody else’s book jack or ad that I know of, I honestly do not think it would help sell a copy, it reeks a bit of self-advertisement though perhaps out  of a deep mistrust for human motives or rather of them and the abyss between them and their expression this is merely an extreme inverted vanity on my part. Because on the other hand I do admire the generosity of people of stature like, say, Robert Graves, Norman Mailer, TS Eliot writing jacket blurbs for Faber, all of these people quite open-handed. I don’t know. I think of a boy I had at Univ of Connecticut working on a novel which I greatly encouraged, think publishable & have tried to help him place, he’s someone who’s never published and I hope to see have a chance, when/if his boo is published, what. I don’t know.

I have heard of authors that use a blurb on another author’s work for self-advertizement; I’ve even heard of authors anonymously posting self-congratulations and praise for their own works on the internet. Makes you wonder when you’re reading some of those unsolicited reviews:  maybe they’re just a part of the fiction?