Notable American Women, Ben Marcus has produced
a novel the likes of which most readers have never
Marcus (whose previous book is The Age of Wire
and String) certainly has his illustrious forebears.
Robert Coover, Donald Antrim, Samuel Beckett and
Franz Kafka come to mind--plus maybe Borges on a
bad acid trip. But none of them has produced an
ecstatic but nightmarish fantasy quite of this sort.
And none of them has imbued their fictional worlds
with quite this level of obsessive details, I think.
Imagine a Mandelbrot pattern with its endlessly
magnifying geometric complexities and you get some
of Notable American Women's frenetic, hyperreal
obsessiveness. And like a Mandelbrot pattern--and
opposed to, say, an Antrim novel--the real focus
here (both yours and Marcus's) seems to rest on
the hallucinatory kaleidoscope of images, rather
than the storyline itself.
Somewhere in there, though, there's a dark plot
or at least a dark scenario, and at the risk of
reducing it too far, I'll summarize it thus: the
protagonist--Ben Marcus (strange coincidence, that)--is
being raised in Ohio by a cult-driven group of women
called the Silentists. (Their leader is an ominous
woman called Jane Dark.) As their name suggests,
they oppose motion and sound, and the strict regimen
they force on young Ben is designed to suppress
feelings of all sorts. Among other things, they
insist that he follow the strikingly restrictive
Thompson Food Scheme and faint periodically to flush
out emotions, as well as mating with Silentists
in strictly controlled ways. While his father is
briefly present, he is exiled to the backyard (he
may even be buried there), and Ben is left to cope
with Jane Dark's cult of Silentists as best he can
on his own.
Sound strange enough for you?
Or are you truly as jaded as you claim?
For all its oddities, Notable American Women is
resoundingly contemporary in its genre-bending shenanigans.
Indeed, hip readers will immediately know something
doggedly postmodern is about to hit them when they
flip the book over and read the following quotes
on its back cover:
"Ben Marcus is a genius,
one of the most daring, funny, morally engaged
and brilliant writers, someone whose work truly
makes a difference in the world."--George
"How can one word from
Ben Marcus's rotten, filthy heart be trusted?"--Michael
Marcus, Ben's father
George Saunders is a literary god as far as WAG
is concerned (click here
to read our interview with him), and we should all
take him at his word. But Marcus's own dad...
Then you open the book and discover
that the novel's protagonist is also named Ben Marcus
and your best hopes (or worst fears) are confirmed:
this, ladies and gentlemen, is a prime example of
the postmodern novel, full of ripe ironies and factual
distortions that tease that unnervingly tenuous
line between the real world and fiction. But my
God: how could Marcus's family put up happily (dare
I say silently?) with such a scandalous pseudo-memoir?
Will the real Ben Marcus
please stand up?
The real Ben Marcus is an Assistant Professor of Creative
Writing at Columbia University, and as the publicity
material that accompanied my review copy helpfully
points out, he grew up in a happy family and has
never been to Ohio. Further details: his father
is a mathematician, and his mother is a feminist
critic and author (among her books, Art and Anger:
Reading Like a Woman). We are further told that
his real sister is still alive and living in Seattle
(in the novel, she suffers a worse fate), that the
real Marcus has only fainted once (during football
practice), and that while the fictional Ben Marcus
learned to stuff cloth into his mouth to absorb
his feelings, "The real Ben was told by his
orthodontist that he had the highest palate he'd
Ah, those wacky postmodernists.
The only thing more amusing
than reading Notable American Women might
be reading an annotated edition that marks its divergences
from the real Ben Marcus's life.
As funny and peculiar as Notable American Women
is, though, it also has moments of stunningly well-done,
visionary writing. Here, for example, Marcus describes
seeing his father allowing himself to be pinned
to the ground by a circle of girls:
If I held my breath, I could
zoom my sight in right up close to his simple
face, to a proximity no son should be allowed,
and I quickly saw much too much of my father,
an amount of his person I didn't think possible,
which made me scared and disappointed by him at
the same time. He should not be viewable so close-up,
I thought. He should not be that dismissible.
The more I held my breath, the more I felt I could
leave my room through the window and swoop down
through the circle of girls right up against my
father's red, struggling face, not stopping there,
but entering my father at his hard red mouth and
plunging directly into the underside of his face,
where I could look back out from his head at a
ring of girls' faces encircling a cakelike round
of sky, and, far beyond that, see the tiny face
of a boy framed in glass, watching me as if it
were my turn to be alive. I did not much want
to be inside my father's face this way, restrained
by children, while my son watched me from his
window. No matter how hard I tried, I only noticed
what was wrong: the clear flag we had raised alongside
the spire on the roof, the unfinished shed where
my learning was supposed to happen when Mother
wasn't home, and then the learning pond itself,
which from my father's point of view looked like
an unpromising little puddle and nothing more.
The water was muddy and slow and dead. A person
might float on that water and never change. He
might drink it and still remain himself for the
rest of his life.
I breathed. I blinked. I turned
my head and exhaled in hard, short bursts until
I had shaken my father's perspective.
I don't think Oprah's shutting down her edifying
Book Club robbed Ben Marcus of a bestseller. Can
you imagine her covering such a deliciously strange
book? Particularly one which the author openly states
that "Readers looking to indulge in the having
of emotions (HOE) should do so on their own time,
in small bursts, preferably in a closed room, coughing
often into an absorbent rag and wringing the rag
down a drain."
Nonetheless, its appearance in print (and with a
weighty imprint like Vintage, no less) does say
something about a publishing industry that's been
attacked for monomaniacally hunting down the next
Stephen King or Tom Clancy and rolling over a lot
of great literary novelists in the process. We can
only hope the publishing world backs more experimental
works like this, once it sees Notable American
Women sell surprisingly well for its genre.