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Notable American Women
Ben Marcus
243 pp.

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On Fainting, Silence & the Dangers of Consonants

Ben Marcus's Notable American Women

In Notable American Women, Ben Marcus has produced a novel the likes of which most readers have never seen.

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 Saunders

"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 ever seen."

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.

—Reviewed by Charlie Onion

Posted June 1, 2002



In Notable American Women, Ben Marcus offers a quirky postmodern novel that reads like Borges bracing himself for a bad acid trip.



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