In the acknowledgments at the end of Ibid: A Life (A Novel in Footnotes), Mark Dunn thanks his publisher “for allowing this most recent, brazen attempt at redefining the American novel,” and his readers for “giving [him] the chance to convince [them] that history can be more than dry facts and dates. And that naughty can be mighty fun.” Well. I found this book pretty fun, but alas, I liked it less than I liked either of the other two books by Dunn I’ve read (Ella Minnow Pea and Under the Harrow). Dunn’s style, tends toward quirky/over-the-top premises and humor, and this book is no exception, but in this one, I felt like the jokes couldn’t quite carry the book.

The premise of Ibid, introduced by a series of letters at the start of the book, is this: fictional author “Mark Dunn” has written a biography of fictional three-legged circus performer/deodorant magnate Jonathan Blashette. The only copy of the manuscript, unfortunately, is destroyed in an accident involving his editor’s bathtub (and his editor’s three-year-old son). Dunn has a separate manuscript of the notes (they’re really endnotes, not footnotes, but whatever), and his editor decides to publish them anyway, without the main text. Ibid, then, is the result.

So what does a novel told in endnotes look like? The structure, I think, works, in part because these are some voluminous notes, often reproducing entire fictional letters or diary entries in full, so that the book ends up containing things like: a note from Jonathan’s mother to his father about letting the young Jonathan do their weekly shopping, a letter from the historian of the town next to the town where Jonathan grew up, letters from Jonathan to Buffalo Bill Cody (chiding him for killing buffalos) and L. Frank Baum (chiding him for being such a horrible racist/terrible person who wanted to exterminate Native Americans), and so on. The letters and diary entries, combined with shorter notes, give you a sense of the outline of Jonathan’s life: he’s born in 1888 in a small town in Arkansas, spends some time in a circus sideshow, comes back home and goes to high school then college, fights in WWI, gets engaged, moves to New York after his bride-to-be dies, eventually marries another woman, starts a deodorant company, and later in life, hands over the deodorant company to his son/devotes himself to philanthropy. The notes also give a sense of the difficulties of writing history or biography: there are numerous moments where the imagined primary sources disagree wildly about something, like when Jonathan’s grandfather dies and there are nine entirely different reports of what his last words were, or when the roof of the Blashette barn blows off in a tornado, and everyone in the family, plus various neighbors, has a different story about who was actually in the barn/who was just nearby, and what everyone involved was actually doing at the moment the roof lifted.

Dunn’s style and humor is simultaneously great and somewhat distancing, because it’s so absurd. I was amused by the various fictional books he quotes from, along with their hilariously-named fictional publishers: a book by little people (including one of Jonathan’s circus friends) is called “Tiny Writings by Tiny People” and is published by “Really Little, Brown and Company” (30). A book of Helen Keller’s reminiscences is published by “Three Senses Press” (67). And passages like this made me laugh, but there are only so many similarly ridiculous passages I really want to read in one book:

Oronwaggee was originally a shipbuilding center. It flourished for approximately six months in 1877. Situated nearly 150 miles from the nearest navigable waterway, the town’s location quickly became problematic for its numerous ship construction outfits, lured to the area by cheap labor and a surfeit of whores. Upon the completion of each new ship, attempts would be made to transport the vessel overland, each craft ultimately left to die a slow, weather-assaulted death in one of the area’s corn and wheat fields, except for those few upon which salvage rights by local farmers were successfully exercised. (45)

So, yeah: will I read other things by Mark Dunn? Maybe, or maybe I’ll just re-read Ella Minnow Pea. Will I be re-reading this book? Probably not. I did, however, enjoy the mention of the Boston Molasses Disaster.

3 Responses to “Ibid: A Life by Mark Dunn
Methuen, 2005 (Originally MacAdam/Cage, 2004)”

  1. Jenny @ Reading the End Says:

    I’m with you, Ella Minnow Pea is my favorite of Mark Dunn’s books. That said, and recognizing that he doesn’t always succeed, I really respect that each of his books is trying something new and distinctively bonkers. That’s a good look for a writer, I think — he never seems to have settled down inside a comfort zone, he’s just always after the next (also extremely weird) thing.

    (I wonder what his next book will be. A respectable amount of time has passed since Under the Harrow.)

  2. Heather Says:

    Yes, good point about how Dunn keeps doing new weird things, it is nice when a writer is interested in experimenting.

  3. letters and sodas: booknotes » Blog Archive » TBR Double Dog Dare: Success Says:

    […] a decade or more ago but somehow hadn’t read yet; others were more recent acquisitions (like Ibid, which I bought at Books for Amnesty in Cambridge last […]

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