Reading From Old Notebooks by Evan Lavender-Smith is like reading passages from a stranger’s journal. That is precisely because From Old Notebooks is nothing more than, ostensibly, entries and passages transcribed from the author’s own notebooks.
The book is arranged as a list, in the form of short segments, of the following: ideas for stories/novels/essays, quotes from self/family/friends, puns, riffs on unrealized concepts for literature, philosophy, societal criticism, and clever musings and range from clever and silly to morbid or grotesque:
Short story about someone living inside of a piano.
Baby in story chokes on errant outlet cover, dies.
Soon, however, the segments began to diverge. Before long, the passages began divulging the neurotic and obsessed jottings-down of its author.
Are the dreams of people of greater intelligence easier or harder to interpret than those of lesser intelligence? Are the dreams of the artist any more or less beautiful than the dreams of the idiot?
The opposite of desiring something more of life is either desiring nothing more of life or desiring something less of life.
From Old Notebooks is what you would get if David Markson were less fixated on quips and quotes from history and wrote only of his personal thoughts. In fact, Lavender-Smith even acknowledges Markson’s influence in one of the entries of From Old Notebooks:
If David Markson hadn’t written his literary-anecdote novels, would I have ever thought to consider F.O.N a novel? Would I have ever thought to write such a novel?
About eighty percent of the book could be categorized as falling into or pertaining to the following common themes or topics: pornography, prostitution, fear of death, alcohol, cigarettes, fatherhood, family, children, childhood, drinking, smoking, literature, philosophy, James Joyce/Ulysses, David Foster Wallace/Infinite Jest. However, as the pages progress, one topic begins to manifest itself as the focal point of the book, bringing all of its entries under one reigning preoccupation: the topic of the book itself:
Something entitled, “From Old Notebooks,” simply a transcription of entries from these notebooks.
This is followed throughout as similarly self-reflexive entries become more and more frequent, each one growing increasingly more self-aware. In fact, the book even begins to acknowledge its own self-reflexivity:
I imagine that a unique feature of F.O.N. is that were one to read it backwards it would be no better or worse than reading it forwards, but only different. (Perhaps Sadder?)
The entries even begin to reveal an anxiety over the possible ways the text could conclude:
One way to end the book would be to start repeating myself, to forget the book.
Is From Old Notebooks a novel? Is it a memoir? These were questions I could not help but ask and it was not long before I learned I was not alone in my wondering. I soon discovered that the book itself was acknowledging this contemplation in earnest:
From Old Notebooks: A Memoir.
From Old Notebooks: A Novel.
From Old Notebooks: A Memoivel.
These proposals continue throughout, until, toward the end of the book, when, after many proposals, we come to a sort of decision:
From Old Notebooks: A Documentary. From Old Notebooks: A Documentary Book. From Old Notebooks: A Thought Documentary.
From Old Notebooks was a book I read with equal parts exhilaration and envy. I couldn’t help but read with a tinge of begrudging regret; I wished I had thought to write it. But in order to write this book, one would actually have to be Evan Lavender-Smith. It was fresh, funny, and infectious, and secures Evan Lavender-Smith’s place as the David Markson of the Twitter age.