"Notable American Women contains strains of Donald Antrim and Samuel Beckett," author Myla Goldberg marveled, "but is beholden to neither; it is a brave, original book."
Meanwhile, from his cramped cell under the back yard, Michael Marcus (Ben's father) asks: "How can one word from Ben Marcus's rotten, filthy heart be trusted?"
"As soon as Ben was conceived, he was apologized for," Ben's mother admits. "A detail conveniently omitted from the prelaunch forecast we made when we cataloged our vision for the person he might become."
It's not as seedy as it sounds, actually, but there's no denying that it is extremely odd. "It felt really liberating to use my own father's real name and to adopt the most furious voice I could toward a character with my name," the author explained. But if Marcus's second novel is twisted, sad, and sometimes challenging - and certainly it is all of these things - then it must also be said that the book is wildly playful, visionary, and often times just plain funny.
The book's publisher, Vintage, summarizes the action as follows: "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."
Among other things, yes.
Publishers Weekly called Notable American Women "a dystopian novel in the tradition of Brave New World and 1984." Author Ben Marcus, however, swears every word is true. "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," he swears. "Jane Dark was my fourth grade teacher."
Dave: Notable American Women is hilarious in places and, compared to your first novel, The Age of Wire and String, there's a surplus of narrative, but it doesn't offer a traditional narrative structure or flow. It works according to unconventional principles.
Ben Marcus: I think it does, though I don't know what those principles are. I cut a lot out that didn't fit in. If this had been a purely conceptual project I could have just kept going; it would have been an open-ended description of some fake past. The challenge was to try to jam a story into this world of crazy ideas of Silentists and Vowelists and the listening group.
Story seemed to be what would make this cohere. What's interesting to me about story is the way it comes with a natural shape, and how it can suggest closure - with a beginning, a middle, and an end. That was a cool thing for me to try to explore. I did want more of that. The regrets I had about The Age of Wire and String had to do with its absence of story.
The story is about the family. I tried to intersperse that narrative throughout the book so the reader would have those moments that are considered more traditional, or at least more anchored. But I'm interested too in what can be done in a book - not just for its own sake, not just to do something different, but really because language is amazing to me and books offer these amazing possibilities.
Dave: The story revolves around three characters. Structurally, it starts with the father: he warns us about Ben before we've even met Ben, ourselves. What came first for you? Did you see Ben through the father?
Marcus: What I wrote first was the chronology, the dates. I started to sketch out the history of the Silentists and this character, Jane Dark, and the concepts such as language is a pollutant and consonants hurt the face; vowels are the new language and silence will follow. I was purely in a conceptual world.
The characters came later. Once I began focusing on the family, I wrote the father's piece first. It felt really liberating to enter this voice, to use my own father's real name and to adopt the most furious voice I could toward a character with my name. It was a way of attacking myself, but fictionally. That made me think, Well, the mother's got to get to do this, too. And that started to look like bookends for the book. Ben's story had to go in between to create a kind of stretcher. That's basically how it originated.
Dave: You read with Aimee Bender recently in New York, and one of the common points I see in your writing, particularly held up against An Invisible Sign of My Own, is that you each have a way of creating fantastical environments, systems that operate according to principles that are somehow off kilter. Then you each impose very real people and situations within them.
Marcus: That's what was great about her novel. I totally agree with you. She brings a great conceptual interiority to her main character, the superstition about numbers, yet the world itself is ninety-eight percent realistic.
I like that tension between the real or mundane against lofty, crazy inventions. If you simply make it your task to be inventive, it's likely to lack ballast and emotional weight, but Aimee is really good at making her inventions matter. That's something I aspire to: making something that seems clever also fraught, heavy.
Dave: Did naming the character Ben Marcus help ground the novel in that respect? Did it help foster a story?
Marcus: I think it did a little bit.
In a generic sense, if you look at American fiction, the foremost subject matter is family and the family gone wrong. That's a super generalization, but in searching for ways to bring emotion to the book, placing a family at the center of it was like taking a shortcut toward emotionality. Thinking, I need emotion here. Where can I find it? Put a family in there. Make it fall to pieces.
Dave: Language is central to the novel, the lack of it or the forms it can take. And there's such a blur between food and language, so much confusion between those two.
Marcus: It's one of those deep concepts that drives me as a writer. It's constantly coming out of me. I'm always stuffing cloth in a character's mouth. I'm always trying to mythologize the mouth, to make language animated so you can see it coming out of people's heads, destroying objects. It's provocative to me to look at the body and what the body does as a force of nature. Take the attributes and turn the volume up on them just a tiny bit, or maybe spray them with some revealing jelly so you see a little more than what might be there. In the lie you're telling there might be some little parable, some revelation of what is real.
I feel so drawn to those notions and metaphors that I feel I can't write about them any more. It takes three sentences for me before I start writing about cloth. It's like a fingerprint. So I've set a rule for myself that the next book can have no wind, no references to weather, no cloth.
Dave: What's left to write about?
Marcus: Good point. It's going to be a really short book.
Dave: There's some amazing description in the novel. I was trying to explain the book to a friend, and I found myself saying, "Nothing happens exactly, not in the traditional sense." Things happen, but you don't see them happening; they're described.
Marcus: Right. They're not scenes. They're summarized. And many people would say that it's a weakness of a writer who can't create vivid action to pull a reader in. It's almost taken on faith that that's the premium fictional experience a writer can create, but I'm interested in questioning that assumption because I think it's possibly a rigid and limiting standard. There's more to do with language, with words.
At the same time I recognize that so many readers don't have the interest, the appetite, or even the grammatical muscle to try to ingest this odd, difficult language. Yet I'm more and more interested in this idea: if you can read it, and the words actually signify, then what makes it difficult? We say, "If it's not a character moving through time amid descriptions of objects (which in a sense is very cinematic), then it's difficult."
Part of me wants to explore other alternatives. Not just to be alternative but because I think it's cool as a fiction writer to get at those other places. But I also want to be read. I don't want to be one of these ultra-difficult writer's writers who only appeals to people who decode texts all day. So it's a particular problem of a writer now who wants to be innovative. You can be innovative within narrative tradition - or what?
Dave: What writers come to mind when you think of innovators that have a wide readership?
Marcus: I've recently come around on the prose of Rick Moody, in particular the recent short fiction. It's gotten extremely complex grammatically, much more so than, say, The Ice Storm or Purple America. He's really pursuing this congested prose that can be really rewarding, yet he has a huge audience. I think that's a really laudable, interesting direction. In the last two years he's publishing some short fiction that's extremely odd. It's not like wink, wink, pomo self-conscious short fiction; it's very subjective, character-driven stuff.
There are plenty of writers I know who write stuff that I admire, but I don't regard them as read by enough people. There's a writer named Gary Lutz, who wrote a book called Stories in the Worst Way; he's someone I really look up to and admire, but I don't think enough people read him. But there are plenty of others. I think of Thomas Bernhard, who wrote very complicated stuff, and he had an international readership.
It seems when one has been dead for a little while, that can help. Borges's stuff can be tough going, and I really admire that.
Dave: He's an interesting reference point in relation to Notable American Women. The malleability of language is so central to many of his stories.
Marcus:Borges to me was liberating in that he showed you could use documentary forms: the essay, the book review, these kinds of everyday modes of speech that aren't often put into service for fiction. Borges occupied those forms - this for me is more of a formal issue than one of language - he occupied those forms and subverted them and perpetrated information that wasn't correct. That became a way of making fiction. I think a lot of writers now do that; it's almost popularized as a method.
I like doing it, too. I like going to the reference room in a library and just browsing, picking up weird books of facts, deliberately misreading them, using them just enough or getting a few ideas, then closing the book and trying to write into that empty space.
Dave: There's such an analytical side to what you're doing. Your father is a mathematician, right?
Marcus: It's funny because his field is so abstract and singular. So much so that it can't really be described at the dinner table. What's kind of beautiful about what he does is there's only one language for it. We can sit here and armchair-talk about writing, but with what he does, there's no description of it other than the thing itself. There isn't a dumbed-down version, and I love that about it. You can't talk about it, even if you wanted to, which is just to say that I had him as a person and not as a mathematician in my life. I saw him doing math. I sucked at math. He did my homework for me, essentially.
The analytical side to my writing I think first arose because when I started writing, in college, the biggest mistake to make according to my unformed mind was to be sentimental, to claim emotion before it had been earned. The way to avoid that, of course, was to write cold, technical, science prose - the last place you expect to find emotion. Then I fatally read Robbe-Grillet, who spends three hundred pages describing a bug crawling across a wall, which I saw as an incredible triumph. I don't know what it was a triumph of, but it seemed a real victory in fiction that he had done that. I somehow found it incredibly emotional in concept to not have any emotion in the text.
It was definitely an infatuation for a while, but I also found that that's got a lot of limitations. You write that way and no one cares. So you say, "Well, how do I make people care? Because I want them to care."
Dave: Why do you write? What are you hoping to get out of it for yourself? What do you find most rewarding?
Marcus: I guess, in blunt terms, it's the world-making aspect - that something can come into existence that wasn't there. The fact that I can just put sentences down and bring something to life lets me feel a lot more constructive and useful than anything else I do.
There's something miraculous about sentences to me. That's just a basic pleasure, but also a challenge and a pain and a kind of nightmare because I have a certain standard that is often out of accord with my capabilities. But sentence making itself is something I'm fascinated by.
Dave: Tell me about The Father Costume.
Marcus: It's a collaboration I did with a painter named Matthew Ritchie. It's part of a series of books that Artspace Press has done. I was asked to do one and to choose a visual artist. I had just looked at his paintings and written a little piece about them for Parkett. I got to meet him and we talked, and we got along very well, so I thought I would ask him if he'd like to collaborate.
We got together and talked a little bit about stuff that interested us. He's really into physics and creation stories and origin theories of the universe, yet his relationship to all that heavy stuff is really light and playful and subversive. When you look at his paintings, there's certainly nothing didactic or overbearing about them. He wants painting, essentially, to visualize the first moments of time.
We threw some ideas around and decided to make a book. I wrote something and I showed it to him. He made some images and we got together again to mess around some more. There's the book.
Dave: When I interviewed Norton Juster he talked about collaborating with Jules Feiffer on The Phantom Tollbooth. They were living in a duplex in Brooklyn Heights at the time; neither one of them had an artistic career to speak of at that point. It was clear from what he was saying that they really fed off each other. He gave Feiffer some text about horses, but Feiffer for some reason didn't like to draw horses, so he wouldn't; he drew a picture that completely left the horses out of the frame. Juster then started writing pieces he knew Feiffer wouldn't be able to draw. For instance, he created The Triple Demons of Compromise: one is tall and thin, one is short and fat, and the third is exactly like the other two.
Writing is generally such an isolated endeavor. Does collaboration necessarily change that?
Marcus: What you're describing sounds like a really true collaboration, and I've probably yet to have one of those. It's hard. Matthew and I had really provocative discussions. We talked about cloth and clothing a lot, and time (as much as that was possible because I don't really know how to talk about time and it made me nervous to try to do so). We had a set of conversations that were an inspiration. It was enough for me. It fueled me in a way - I wouldn't have written what I did without that relationship - and yet it wasn't like two people in a room making something together.
I can't quite write that way. I'm now doing a couple more collaborations with painters, and they're less collaborative. I think that goes on more often than not when two people work on the same book. They get together in the first place because of shared interests. Hopefully there might be some synchronicity and tension.
Dave: What do you read for pleasure?
Marcus: I read a lot of nonfiction. For vague research purposes that I don't yet understand, I've been reading a lot of psychoanalysis. I've been looking at some of Freud's early disciples that broke from him and were trying to come up with rogue ideas. There's a British psychoanalyst and critic, Adam Phillips; I like reading him a lot, too.
In fiction, I love George Saunders's stuff and Padgett Powell's short fiction. I like Barry Hannah. I like the new Lydia Davis book [Samuel Johnson Is Indignant] a lot. I'm a teacher, so I read a ton of student writing. That sometimes makes me read less of the published fiction than I'd like to. I read a lot of unpublished fiction, which is interesting to read in large doses.
Dave: Some of that would be through your editorial role at Fence, which must be rewarding, finding writers you're unlikely to discover otherwise.
Marcus: I love it. I try really hard to publish people that either haven't been published before or are just starting out. I think plenty of magazines are covering the other end. What I always hear from people is that magazines are closed; they're locked into commitments to other writers. I try hard to read through slush and find someone who's a total wild card. It's rare, but it's exciting when that happens.
I like the idea of providing a space for people trying new things or doing old things in a great new way. And it's also fun to take different kinds of work and put them together. To take something that's really radical and almost unreadable and put it next to a well written, traditional short story. To mix things up like that and pull readers into a space they might not normally get pulled into.
Dave: I heard that you've never been to Ohio, the setting of Notable American Women. Is that true?
Dave: Are you going to go now?
Marcus: No plans to go.
Dave: Why did you set the book there?
Marcus: Because I didn't know anything about it. It was a blank slate for me. I focus on things I don't know anything about because then I feel I can invent more. I wasn't beholden to any idea I had about it. And it just seemed funny in the same way that some names can be funny and you can't really explain why; there's just no accounting for it. It seemed just innocuous enough to claim great things about.
Dave: Before I'd read the book, I looked at the web site for Notable American Women. It was a rather odd experience, not knowing anything about the story.
Marcus: I had a lot of fun making the web site, trying to extend the fictional space of the book. I very much did not want it to be a promotional site for the book as much as I wanted it to be a place to continue the fiction. I had people draw some of the headgear from the book, for example.
Dave: Do you work on the site yourself?
Marcus: I do.
Dave: What's up with the Home Depot box ad?
Marcus: I got into having really literal stuff. It seemed like it would have been a cute joke to have fake links, but you can have real links so why not do that? There's equipment needed in the book to do this emotion removal work, and Home Depot's a great store, so it seemed funny to have a link because that's what web sites do. It's exactly what it is. It's an actual link to Home Depot.
Dave: I particularly got a kick out of the link to the mouth exercises book.
Marcus: Mouth Madness.
Dave: How did you find that? Browsing?
Marcus: A little too much time on my hands. It's just amazing, the books that have been published.
Ben Marcus visited Powell's City of Books on April 16, 2002. This interview would have been posted sooner (as early as May, some speculate) were it not for the repeated attempts of Ben's father to disrupt our web production systems.
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Books mentioned in this post
Dave is the author of Out of the Book, Volume 3: State by State