From the Publisher
"Ben Marcus has been accused of redesigning the ordinary sentence, of emptying words of their meaning and injecting them with new, of treating grave matters (such as family and humankind in general) with farcical disrespect, and of blowing away traditional narrative structures with a diabolical wind. And all this may be true. But for those who would describe this work as fantastic, surreal, or anti-real, I can only say that this is Ohio exactly as I remember it. Jane Dark was my fourth grade teacher." —Robert Coover
"Notable American Women is a weird nougat of a book that suggests Coetzee, Kafka, Beckett, Barthelme, O'Brien, Orwell, Paley, Borges—and none of them exactly. Finally you just have to chew it for its own private juice." —Padgett Powell
"Ben Marcus's Notable American Women is a radical performance in American fiction. It is too literary for the novel as it is now practiced and consumed, and too perverse for other plausible designations. In order to pioneer the Marcus life-project the writer provides a ferocious handbook which, followed to the letter, launches a permanent revolution of nothingness. A family of unprecedented personae—the Marcuses, aided on the distaff side by Jane Dark, her listeners and Silentists—are brought forth to insure the evolution of "a new category." The writer "fathers" an extensive formal vocabulary to advance the Behavior Bible's annihilating goals, including uncomely devices and strategies like the fainting tank, the thought rag, the shushing posture, along with an array of essential life-project products such as the Ben Marcus Locater Bell, Chew Stand, Apology Center, Thompson Waterô, etc. It is killingly funny, and creepily sad. This book represents an unmediated thrusting toward love with an arsenal of intellectual alienation, and just as forcefully, a thrusting toward alienation with an arsenal of brotherly lovedepending upon where you are poised to withstand the cataclysm. It is a profound and profane description of our basest drive: fear. Notable American Women is the work of a retiring albeit twisted virtuoso. Not for the pusillanimous reader." —C. D. Wright
"Ben Marcus has created an innovative and unflinching portrait of the turmoil of the human condition, providing the reader a most rare gift: something truly new. Notable American Women contains strains of Donald Antrim and Samuel Beckett but is beholden to neither; it is a brave, original book." —Myla Goldberg
"Notable American Women gives us, with great panache and in eerie detail, a world that is cruelly reasonable within the near-religious limitations of its weird laws and customs. It is a book as unique as it is wonderfully strange." —Gilbert Sorrentino
"Notable American Women is an enchanting and moving novel. Like Italo Calvino and Lewis Carrol, Ben Marcus reconfigures the world that we might see ourselves in a cultural and moral landscape that is disturbingly familiar, yet entirely new. As though granted a new beginning, Marcus renames the creatures of our world, questions who we are and who, as men and women, we might be. Notable American Women is a wonder book, pleasurable and provocative." —Maureen Howard
"Auden, who asked two things of an imagined world—that it be somehow like ours and somehow unlike—would be Ben Marcus's ideal reader, yet even without the poet's dire program, I am altogether taken by this hilarious and sexy alternative universe. Just imagine! it is all done with words instead of mirrors, so much more reliable and so much more heartbreaking. Thus Prospero enthralls his crew." —Richard Howard
"Ben Marcus's novel is funny and touching and full of movement and sound, all of which is even more remarkable since the book itself is about stillnesses and The Silentists and Behavior Water and things you put in your mouth to keep you from speaking. Marcus investigates—with equal passion—the intricacies of a new mythology alongside the intimacies of a broken family. This is the kind of strange and beautiful book you just want to have around, to dip into again and again." —Aimee Bender
"I don't use the word lightly, in fact, I don't use it at all, but 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. His prose is, for me, awareness objectified—he makes the word new and thus the world." —George Saunders
"Marcus (The Age of Wire and String) has crafted a dystopian novel in the tradition of Brave New World and 1984, with an overlay of 21st-century irony and faux naïveté. Writing in off-kilter documentary-style prose laden with acronyms and neologisms, he often wanders into ponderous whimsicality, but stretches of the novel are inspired riffs on contemporary totems and anxieties. Ambitious and polished, if sometimes willfully opaque, this is an intriguing debut." —Publisher's Weekly
"For another disturbing book about breeding, try Notable American Women by Ben Marcus, an allegory about a misdirected child-rearing experiment (a boy is raised to have no feelings) that makes for a stunning, strange and beautiful novel." —Esquire
"[Ben Marcus] constructs his narratives as an astronomer would a space telescope, so as to better observe and laugh at the earthly conventions of realism. . . . Imagine The World According to Garp as rewritten by Edward Gorey. . . . Marcus's prose can spiral up and away into sublime nonsense." —Village Voice Literary Supplement
"Ben Marcus's first novel Notable American Women is a beautifully strange and compelling family allegory—Midwest mum and dad raise their son to shun all emotions—rendered in language that seems imported from a universe of deepest feeling, of intellect, of poetry, and, in the end, of majestic heart."—Elle
"[A] darkly funny caricature of modern life."—Time Out New York
Conceptual daring, deadpan humor and dizzying forays into allegory mark Marcus's first novel, the semi-science-fictional tale of a boy raised in a futuristic Ohio by his experimentalist parents and a sect of radical women Silentists. Ben Marcus, as the young protagonist is called, is made to swim in a "learning pond," drink "behavior water," follow the "Thompson Food Scheme" and take "language enemas." This regimen, designed by Silentist matriarch Jane Dark, is intended to purge Ben of all emotion, to "zero out [his] heart." Ben's father, who introduces the book with a bitter message to the reader, has been banished by the Silentists to a hole in the ground behind the house; Ben's mother, who bids the reader farewell at book's end, is a remorseless Silentist disciplinarian. Ben himself, taught to eschew all personal expression, tries to present a strictly utilitarian narrative of his upbringing weaving in a history of the Silentist movement, a disquisition on female names, and a manual of Silentist behavior and yet cannot help expressing the distress he feels in the smothering grasp of Jane Dark and her minions. Marcus (The Age of Wire and String) has crafted a dystopian novel in the tradition of Brave New World and 1984, with an overlay of 21st-century irony and faux na vet . Writing in off-kilter documentary-style prose laden with acronyms and neologisms, he often wanders into ponderous whimsicality, but stretches of the novel are inspired riffs on contemporary totems and anxieties. Ambitious and polished, if sometimes willfully opaque, this is an intriguing debut. (Mar. 12) Forecast: Anointed by the junior literary establishment as one of its brightest stars (sections of Notable American Women have already appeared in McSweeney's, Harper's and Tin House), Marcus will get major review coverage. A strong ad/promo campaign, a 10-city author tour and a clever, minimalist cover will help push this comfortably priced paperback original. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Those of us who were captivated by Marcus's debut, The Age of Wire and String, will welcome this latest addition to what is destined to become a very significant body of work. Marcus negotiates an esoteric though uniquely American literary terrain, mining such seemingly diverse sources as Gertrude Stein and Donald Barthelme. One of the virtues of this novel is that although it deals with issues of great significance such as gender, childhood, and coming of age, it is not easy to describe or paraphrase. Marcus reinvents the family drama in the story of a boy who grows up without feelings amidst a conspiracy of women obsessed with weather and silence. The book evokes an alternate reality revealing the dark side of our common history, an uncanny version of America that exists nowhere else but in Marcus's lyrical, abstract prose. This will be a difficult read for many, but it will surely stand the test of time as a genuinely important book. Recommended for all collections. Philip Santo, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
This deadpan dystopian novel documents the upbringing of a man who has been conditioned to have no emotions. In an alternate reality dominated by radical, powerful women known as the Silentists, the hero is subjected to laborious behavioral regimens including a regular "language fast," the elaborate "Thompson Food Scheme," and frequent swims in the "learning pond." But, with the heightened sensitivity of the dispossessed, he can't stop identifying the ways that life could be richer, and the result is like an anthropologist on hallucinogens. "I should be able to breathe without the sky suffering from lack of birds," he ruefully tells us. Although the novel's philosophical aims are at times frustratingly obscure, this "collision between satire and sadness," as the author has called it, is a dizzying reimagination of our relationship to language. If we're not at the epicenter of that collision, we're close enough so that the aftershock rattles our teeth.
Marcus follows up his extraordinary The Age of Wire and String (1995) with something of a disappointment. The verbal wizardry is still there, but the content has grown coquettish and slightened, no longer an engine sufficient to drive the whole. Things open with a hilarious monologue by the father of "Ben Marcus, the improbable author of this book": a father who is buried deep in the backyard of the family house somewhere in Ohio and who, after alluding to "the Silent Mothers," urges readers to "forget Ben Marcus and his world of lies." The Silent Mothers seem to be the women, led by Jane Dark, who have taken over the culture in Marcus's futuristic America, devoting themselves to language purification-maybe elimination-and to the de-emotionalizing of people, not least poor young and strange Ben Marcus, who suffers under and through many of their techniques. These include straitjackets, "witness water," rags that are chewed to absorb sounds and languages, spartan diets, wooden posts to be gnawed on, deliberate fainting, sundry brutalities, even a "language diaper." The book's narrative languor comes about in part because these group-women remain only anonymous ciphers; their motives are left unexamined while their doings are endlessly, albeit brilliantly, "described" in dazzling cascades of Marcus-language. The author's wit can still capture perfect tens, as in "Blueprint," about writing a novel such as this one ("The book should be closed so hard that a wind blows from it, gusting however feebly into whatever little world there is left"), or in the closing piece of anti-male virulence (by the "author's" mother): "The four-point stance is my favorite posture for men. It indicatesreadiness, disguises fear, and raises their bottoms above their heads, which more authentically prioritizes a man's body." But ennui can set in, not because subject, theme, or story are lacking, but because, amid these fountains of linguistic brilliance, the reader never really meets, gets inside of, or cares about the people. Dazzling, genius-driven-and, alas, often tedious.
Read an Excerpt
Bury Your Head
I offer this message under duress, hungry, winded, and dizzy, braving a sound storm of words meant to prevent me, I'm sure, from being a Father of Distinction. For the sake of those persons in the world who expect leadership, clarity, and a levelheaded account of the matterful times that my "family"to hell with all of themhas witnessed, I will not succumb to the easy distractions of language poison, even if it kills the body that I'm wearing, even if I become just another dead man who once felt things keenly and wished only for the world to see inside his heart and mind. There is light enough for one hour of transcription each day, and it is within this time that I have assembled these remarks, having carefully considered the true nature of what I think and feel during my other twenty-three daily hours, allotted to me as darkness by my captors, a group also known as Everyone I Used to Love, Who Would Never Have Survived Without Me.
I am aware that Ben Marcus, the improbable author of this book, but better known as my former son, can pass off or structure my introduction in any way that he chooses: annotate, abridge, or excise my every comment. He will have the final cut of this so-called introduction to his family history, and I'll not know the outcome unless he decides to share with me how he has savaged and defathered me for his own glory. He can obviously revise my identity to his own designs, change my words altogether, or simply discard them in place of statements he wishes I would make. I would put none of these distortions past him and will only caution the careful and fair-minded reader to be ever vigilant against his manipulations, to remember that he is a creature, if that, of inordinate bias and resentment, for reasons soon to be disclosed, undoubtedly intimidated by the truth only a father can offer. Considering that I fathered him with the utmost precision, I am sorry that it should be this way. I fully expect even this statement to be omitted, given how it might contradict the heroic role he will no doubt claim for himself, in which case it is only you, Ben, my jailer, who will read this. Please let a father say his part. You have done enough harm already.
A father naturally has much to say on the topic of his son. If he chooses not to meddle it is out of respect, or at least politeness toward this young "man" and his grievous errors. To show too much knowledge of my son's undertaking is to crowd the space the boy must fill in his own time, however slow or errant he might be, however much he lurches into travesty or crushes the father's own deeds with his actions. In such cases, the father, by intruding, obstructs the opportunity for discoveries that mark the basic stages of the boyhood trajectory, in which the son mimes a personhood worthy of the father's own example. Because the son must learn to behave in a manner in keeping with the father, the father must be a shadow figure at best, a kind of detached bird who can circle and observe without interference, reserving assistance and withholding navigational strategy in order for the son to make a true gain toward the identity of his father, and not cheat into a role that is nearly impossible to attain, that took the father himself many decades to hone and perfect.
Indeed, a father is in no small way the first author of anything the son endeavors to writeis he not?given the father's cultivation of the little boy, his careful employment of language coaching during that time of youth when the so-called mind of his son was aching to be fed its daily words, and his generous delegation of major family writing taskswhen this country's government hired the Marcus family to study the names of womenassigning the daily written labors to the son instead of hoarding them (as the father might or should have done) to himself. Not to mention an innovative father who allowed an all-vowel language nutrition to be used on his son in order to groom a new and beautiful brain in the boy, a so-called women's brain.
When so viewed, a father can rightly see his own name, Michael Marcus, just above his son's writing, instead of the name of his son. For if his son gathered food and carried it home, that food would become the property of the residing father, to dispense or destroy as he decided, to boil, bake, or bury. So it is with writing that the son might have undertaken and brought to the father for purposes of examination, correction, or criticism. The son is in all effects an agent of gain for the father, an employee who happens to share a genetic strategy, a facial style, and posture, though little else, apparently. What the son produces through his labor as a man in this world becomes the property of the father, to consume or discard as he likes, and even the son's nameBenjamin, in this case (or Ben, as it has been diminished in the world at large, a baby sound more fitting to an animal, if that, a word indicating vast and irrevocable disappointments)can be seen as one of the many stage names adopted by the father, to be borrowed by a person he has set into motion on his own behalf.
It is with sorrow, then, that this father should find such serious fault to Benjamin's "work," if such a generous word might be applied to his writing. I refer, of course, to the book you are holding or that (if you happen to have on hand an orator or nanny who reads you the day's literature) is being recited to you. A father is here inclined to speak critically, and will do so, because of the countless errors and lapses of vision committed by his son, because of the quite un-Marcus-like writing and thinking the son has conducted. How a father wishes that such an intrusion were not necessary and only a quiet celebration were called for instead, an occasion for the Marcus family, such as it feebly remains, to believe once again in its power to exhibit frank statements about the world and its secret histories, a day for such remaining Marcus persons to gather in crew and sip good water together, to breathe in unison and perhaps sing the family ballad, a song I have not heard in some years, as pretty as Family Motivation Music ever was.
Yet such pleasure is not possible, given the travesty of fieldwork on the projects of women submitted here by my son, who is by no means a historian or even a reliable memoirist, entirely lacking in loyalty to the actual world. The very notion at this time of a family reunion is not only suspect but repulsive, and it will not be entertained by any sufficient father, let alone one such as myself, detained in a chamber by his supposed loved ones, surviving despite piped-in language and the occasional presentation of black bread, with strips of "fish" as thin as paper, and vials of highly suspicious behavior water, which I refuse to consume.
Not only are there inexactitudes of an appalling scale in this book, but events, comparisons, and analyses that threaten to fracture a reality that must in every way be preserved, or else forgotten with dignity. Let our lives at least disappear into nowhere, along with everything else that matters. Had my former son undertaken instead a book more in keeping with his abilitiesabout boats or cars or other craft that boys might need to care about during their period of fascination with motiona father could be amused by the lovely diversion his son had produced (the world needs more books about the enjoyable objects of our time) and feel no need to offer full-scale rectifications, even if they were required, even had the son scored error after error on the subject, which would have certainly been possible, given his consistent capacity to take what is true and bury it deeper even than his own once-loved fatherfor his love for me did run at full steamis buried alive and imprisoned in the field behind his house.
Yet, when the son's topic has so trespassed on the deeds and designs of his former father and the corps of persons once commanded beneath himto treat, for example, the moments of his demised sister, the implementation of a women's television device to produce new strains of behavior in his person, a secret history of women in the American townships, a supplementary women's chronology of lost events, the vital teachings of the figure known as the Female Jesus, the advent of a women's currency devised by my "wife" to allow an exclusive economy to occur between women, and the ultimate so-called capture of the father by the person Jane Dark, together with her listeners and Silentists (I can still hear them shushing me)the father feels deliberately antagonized and forced into a category of fatherhood heretofore vastly underutilized, that of the Refuser (a word which also means to process and eliminate garbage), who is meant at all costs first to enact a deep and lasting condemnation of the offender, in this case the figure posing as my ostensible son, and next to retract the manuscript, and all copies, to its likely destination, the incinerator, where the language upon it might be burned from the page and forever prevented from such a heinous arrangement again. Indeed, I herewith ask all readers, once they have absorbed and studied my remarks, and then transcribed them as an exemplary caution against the treason of children, to forgo whatever follows in this book, all of it certainly folly, I assure you, and burn the thing to cinders with the greatest haste. Bring a hard fire upon it, please, and see it all as an aberration prosecuted by a disease called "Ben Marcus."
Any other father would agree that corrections in this life must always be sought. A son's goal, if the son is operating at capacity, must be to extend the bodily range and mental power of his father, particularly, especially, if that father is interred in an underground compartment where languageI should not need to repeat itis funneling down in an ever-menacing stream by a man hired to burst the father's body with words. When that task is compromised, the father is expected to speak loudly and with force to ensure that a correction is registered. The task of being right is a task the father perfects over time. He rehearses various forms of error and attempts at every turn to incorporate them into his arsenal of actions, using the Behavior Bible if he must, seeking always to dilate the range of conduct available to a father and the persons he commands, remembering that morality (that is, what to do when another animal gets too close) is often regulated by figures unwilling to commit the necessary harms, the incidental bloodshed and trespasses that a mastery of daily life requires, never feeling sure that an act is wrong until it feels life-threatening to the father, which can only be signaled by the appearance of the father's blood, or by levels of pain in the father that are unbearable, at which point a powerful verbal gesturewritten, spoken, carved into the wallis required to bring the matter to its correction. Even a muffled voice of a father, as if uttered from underground, for fuck's sake, has more force than a clear and booming voice of the boy who is his son. The boy's voice is anyway sheer ventriloquism on the part of the father, is it not, since I cocreated the awful lad? Yet sometimes that ventriloquism, if too accurate, must be adjusted in pitch and brought to a falser modulation, lest an audience mistake the dummy for an actual person with its own heart and head and hands, a boy rather like the father in matters of hair and skin, certainly, but deeply different at the level of mind, only an apprenticeand here a poor one, a stick figure, convincing only if viewed at a distanceto the range of thought the father himself has cultivated.
It should never be forgotten that Benjamin Marcus is being commanded at this and all moments by the person whose words you are reading.
The corrections I mention are not only required to assert dominion of the father, which here hardly needs doingsince even in prison I can choreograph realistic situations in the living worldbut to protect my former son from the wake of disaster inevitably impending when such a degree of falsity and incompetence has been registered, as with the book at hand. He will not be forgiven his mistakes.
Given Ben's statement, however, that the father only possesses a reproduction of what the son has written, indicating the presence of other copies out of the father's range, in areas the father's body is restricted from, the father must here be content with producing a disclaimer that will sufficiently mute all that follows of the son's labor, a short introduction to the man acting as my son that might warn a careful readerbecause you had better be carefulsufficiently clear of his despicable person.
While Benjamin is not entirely retarded in the conventional sense, a slowness and singularity to his behavior have been unfortunately observed, and other fathers and mothers might grimly relate to the lowering of standards that becomes necessary during such situations when the boy in an American family proves to be just slightly craftier than an imbecile. Yes, he can eat and laugh, play simple outdoor games, dress himself in the appropriate gear, and carry on a sensible conversation. Yet one is so eager to witness a son whose mind can operate at the highest levels, who can synthesize the confusion of a world clogged indiscriminately with trees, persons, and repetitive shelters into a regulated drama with causation, revelation, and redemption; a boy who can cut through the mystery of daily life with confidence and thus come to control the people in his range of sight and beyond, simply by outsmarting and outfighting the motherfuckers; yet in the case with the Benjamin figure, the apparition so similar to my son, no such control has in any way been evident. His complicity with mediocrity has been impressively well realized.
Nor do I mean to suggest that a retarded or simple man such as Ben can have no use in a society. I am in favor of a caste system in which the dull, the boring, the slow and sugar-minded American animalsoften mistaken for "people" and likewise privilegedare given challenging tasks and rewarded with carefully controlled sexual intercourse, excellent bread and butter, and weekend meat. Ben is a strong lad and can reliably carry sacks of soil, sing a convincing love song, and show unmatched devotion to his "mother." These tasks certainly can find their expression in the world at large without offending or hindering the more necessary living persons. Indeed, the frontrunners of civilization need helpers such as Ben, and not just for sexual release, but also to fix roads, level trees, and dig position trenches for women's-frequency hijacking.