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.
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, Inc.
-- PUBLISHERS WEEKLY.
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March 18, 2002
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Excerpt from Notable American Women by Ben Marcus
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.