Notable American Women

Notable American Women

by Ben Marcus


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Notable American Women by Ben Marcus

Ben Marcus achieved cult status and gained the admiration of his peers with his first book, The Age of Wire and String. With Notable American Women he goes well beyond that first achievement to create something radically wonderful, a novel set in a world so fully imagined that it creates its own reality.

On a farm in Ohio, American women led by Jane Dark practice all means of behavior modification in an attempt to attain complete stillness and silence. Witnessing (and subjected to) their cultish actions is one Ben Marcus, whose father, Michael Marcus, may be buried in the back yard, and whose mother, Jane Marcus, enthusiastically condones the use of her son for (generally unsuccessful) breeding purposes, among other things. Inventing his own uses for language, the author Ben Marcus has written a harrowing, hilarious, strangely moving, altogether engrossing work of fiction that will be read and argued over for years to come.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780375713781
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 03/12/2002
Series: Vintage Contemporaries Series
Edition description: VINTAGE
Pages: 256
Sales rank: 1,243,316
Product dimensions: 5.20(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Ben Marcus is author of a novel, Notable American Women, to be published by Vintage in March, and a book of stories, The Age of Wire and String. Artspace Books will publish his collaboration with the painter Matthew Ritchie, The Father Costume.  He has published fiction in Harper's, McSweeney's, Grand Street, BOMB, Conjunctions, Fence and Tin House.

Before joining the faculty at Columbia University, where he is an assistant professor in the graduate writing program, he taught for three years at Brown. He is the recipient of a Whiting Writers Award, an NEA in fiction, and two Pushcart prizes. He is the fiction editor of Fence magazine, and he has reviewed books and written essays for Time magazine, Feed, The Village Voice, and Salon.

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 them--has 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 write--is 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 tasks--when this country's government hired the Marcus family to study the names of women--assigning 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 name--Benjamin, 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 abilities--about boats or cars or other craft that boys might need to care about during their period of fascination with motion--a 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 father--for his love for me did run at full steam--is 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 him--to 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 language--I should not need to repeat it--is 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 gesture--written, spoken, carved into the wall--is 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 apprentice--and here a poor one, a stick figure, convincing only if viewed at a distance--to 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 doing--since even in prison I can choreograph realistic situations in the living world--but 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 reader--because you had better be careful--sufficiently 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 animals--often mistaken for "people" and likewise privileged--are 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.

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Notable American Women 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 4 reviews.
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Guest More than 1 year ago
I have not read Ben's collection of short stories and was introduced to this book by a friend who heard an interesting review of it on NPR and gave it to me as a gift. Knowing nothing of the novel or its author, I found myself intrigued and confused through the first few chapters. And a traditional novel this is not.....but a collection of lists interspersed with fragments of a deranged childhood does not a good novel make. I found myself kind of bored with it. The concept for the novel and the women-empowered universe Marcus creates is astounding, but he doesn't DO anything with it, really. It either needed to be a short story (maybe novella) or stretched into something larger and grandiose so that the lists served a better purpose. Framing the novel with letters from the father and mother once again started out intriguing but ended up waxing Marcus-philosophical and created more stagnancy. I will, however, check out his collection of short stories. The way he looks at the world is utterly stupefying and entertaining, and whets my postmodern palette quite nicely!
Guest More than 1 year ago
Notable American Women is a brilliant work that is both disturbing and hilarious. I couldn't put this down and will be a story that I read over and over and over