Ben Marcus, a writing instructor at Columbia University and author of a collection of short stories (The Age of Wire and String, 1995) wanted his first novel to be “hugely emotional.” He told The Crimson, “I didn’t want it to simply be a clever manipulation of language. There’s something somewhat conventional about the story line—it’s about an American family about whom bad things happen—and I wanted to produce strong feelings through this story of a family trying to suppress all feelings.” This description seems to suggest that Marcus’ new novel, Notable American Women, addresses a not uncommon subject in American fiction.
The novel, however, is anything but commonplace. Established authors like George Saunders have sung its praises, and yet they are singing praises about a book that many readers will probably never finish. Notable American Women demands full attention in order to make any sense of the bizarre world it describes. But although this slim volume is not an easy read, it would be unfair to simply deny Marcus credit for his sincere attempt to “invent new uses of language.” If the premise of fiction is that an exploration of what was never real can inform our understanding of what is and might be real, then Notable American Women certainly has an intriguing contribution to offer. Unfortunately, Marcus’ inventiveness seems to be a double-edged sword, which means that his contribution is limited to an intellectual realm in which “hugely emotional” reactions have no place.
Ben Marcus is actually the protagonist of this novel, and he tells the story of his (entirely fictional) upbringing, for which the description “trying to suppress all feelings” should be taken quite literally. The novel opens with an angry letter ostensibly written by his father, urging us to ignore the lies that Ben will tell us, and it closes with a piece attributed to his mother, chastising his father for Ben’s shortcomings.
The rest of the novel is Ben’s account of his existence before adulthood as shaped by his mother and the cult of women she has taken into their Ohio home. The cult, called the Silentists, is led by a woman named Jane Dark, who directs them in their efforts to eliminate all motion, all speech and all feeling. This entails a number of rather complex processes and experiments involving cloth that holds words, water that absorbs experience and oral communication (what little there is of it) with an emphasis on vowels over consonants. Marcus describes elaborate devices designed to catch or stifle motion and psychological conditioning procedures designed to cure the women (and him) of the need for speech or emotion. Special diets are also involved, and at one point Marcus finds himself as the unwilling sire for the entire cult.
The strangeness of this premise is only part of what sets Notable American Women apart, as Marcus discusses this world not only in his own voice and the voices of his parents, but in a third-person documentary style as well. The text is scattered with brief historical accounts of important events in the history of the Silentists, which also provides descriptions of experiments concerning the essence of women’s names. (These are remnants of the book’s initial conceptualization: Marcus stumbled across Jane Dark while writing fake historical accounts satirizing the patriarchal and condescending ones he found in an old reference book, also entitled Notable American Women.)
Somehow the personal narrative sections adopt a similarly aloof, mostly emotionless posture; Marcus is fully immersed in an alternate universe that we can only pick up in bits and pieces. The weirdness of this world is only revealed to us through matter-of-fact, but completely internally contained, descriptions of smaller, bizarre episodes or rituals.
This means that there is not so much a plot as a gradual filling in of this eerie existence through accounts of these bizarre personal episodes and documentary evidence, accounts that sometimes convey only the vaguest impressions of the author’ s larger arguments.
There is no easy introduction to the world that Marcus (the author) has imagined. We only learn by struggling to make sense of the evidence he presents to us, so that we must become historians of a what Marcus described to The Crimson as “a slightly parallel world to ours that seems alien but might be closer than we thought.”
The promotional efforts for the novel give some indication of how its publisher hoped readers would react to the eccentricity of the story and the unconventional way in which it is told. Vintage’s press release declares the novel to be part of its “proud tradition of publishing cutting-edge fiction as trade originals,” trade originals meaning less expensive paperbacks that are more appealing to smaller budgets. And Publisher’s Weekly characterized the novel as part of an effort to “tap into the market that propelled Dave Eggers’ A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius up the bestseller list.”
Ben Marcus’ website, www.benmarcus.com, is also full of elaborate gimmicks, such as cutesy minimalist illustrations and a glossary of terms from the book, designed to appeal to those who loved Eggers’ self-conscious style. Certain stops on Marcus’ reading tour will feature demonstrations of Silentist rituals. Marcus has even penned an essay admitting, “I have written a bad book,” for McSweeney’s, the newly prominent platform (born out of Eggers’ success) for this sort of youthful and experimental genre.
Reactions to the actual substance of Marcus’ novel will generally fall into one of two categories. Some readers will laud it for its inventiveness, its willingness to take risks with the ways we normally think about words and emotions and its eagerness to push the boundaries of language. “I was interested in taking these modes of suppression against women, like silence and stillness, and turning them into elective powers,” said Marcus. “I wanted to take the affliction of silence and turn it into a power.” This sort of reimagination powers the entire novel, and the novel’s exploration of these extraordinary uses of silence, stillness and language suggests intriguing new ways to consider these concepts. And in some ways Marcus also succeeds in giving the novel emotional power, mostly through rare moments in which the protagonist’s seemingly careless observations betray a kind of sadness or nostalgia for the life the Silentists won’t allow.
But many readers will not have this sort of reaction. Some of the things that make the book so exciting are the same things that pose a very real obstacle to its accessibility, and therefore to its acceptance by readers who don’t share Marcus’ delight in unconventional narrative. “I might be a kind of writers’ writer,” Marcus admits. “My interest in how words go together, how sentences are shaped—most readers don’t want to read and think about how language works or how words go together. The majority of readers in this country would probably just throw my book down in disgust.” Marcus recognizes that for many people, Notable American Women will be, quite simply, hard to read. There is little reference to anything we are familiar with, and sometimes the descriptions of events or objects in this strange world seem to be additional items on an already lengthy and weird, but unremarkable and unconvincing list. Everything in the novel’s world fits together, but the effort required of most readers in order to see this world is by no means small.
Marcus is willing to consider the possibility that he doesn’t quite succeed in clearly conceptualizing or conveying his ambitious reimagination. Although it might seem to be just a publicity stunt, the self-inflicted bad review in McSweeney’s suggests an awareness that his work might, justifiably, be poorly received. And as he told The Crimson, “writers can indeed think that their work came out badly. But this is what makes you want to write more novels: a sense of insufficiency.”
The question of the success of Marcus’ effort aside, Marcus still hopes that the book will have a noticeable influence over those who do “get it.” When asked what he hopes the book will do for those readers, he responds, “you know, set them on fire. Burn their faces off.” There is something brave and earnest in Marcus’ insistence on these (not entirely original) ideas about how we use language and in his attempt to portray the resilience of emotions through their negation. Marcus deserves credit for his sophistication and ambition. But the presentation of these concepts is such that most readers will be inclined to take the novel as an object of study—as an example of inventive things you can do with language, or of interesting ways in which you can present an argument against traditional histories concerning women—and not as a deeply moving work of fiction.
Notable American Women
By Ben Marcus
224 pp., $12.50