Notable American Women
by Ben Marcus
A review by Kevin Sampsell
I must admit that I felt a sense of secret discovery when I came across Ben Marcus's first fiction collection, The Age of Wire and String, back in 1995. It was one of those books that went fiercely against the trends of the time and harked back to the playful era of dadaism. It was a book that was half-heartedly marketed, as if the publisher, Knopf, knew that few would understand or appreciate its bold intent. You could argue that they were right. With the exception of some adventurous readers and writers who saw the brilliantly difficult world Marcus was creating, the book sank. Knopf subsequently passed on releasing the paperback. Luckily, Dalkey Archive Press, a publisher that has always been more concerned with innovation than sales, did publish a paperback of the book just a couple of years ago. Still, I felt that Marcus would fall into an unwarranted obscurity without his twisted genius being rightly hailed.
But somebody at Vintage must have been keeping tabs on Marcus all this time. With the emerging popularity of literary journals that encourage humor and experimentation (like McSweeney's), it seemed that the willingness of readers to venture into unknown territories is possibly at an all-time high. Which sets the stage perfectly for Marcus's newest creation, a sort of futuristic fake history book called Notable American Women.
After "Bury Your Head," a long exasperated letter of paranoid caution from "Your father, Michael Marcus," the novel reveals itself to be a family history. The line of fact and fiction is hilariously warped and tweaked as Ben Marcus introduces himself (waiting until page 45 before announcing, "I am probably Ben Marcus"), as well as his mother, father, and sister (whose name changes continually as part of a behavior experiement), in this brutally irreverent drama. Nothing is sacred for Marcus's experimentation.
Like in his first book, where he created new definitions for ordinary words and bizarre new histories for our country, Marcus again seems to be birthing a world like none other; a world that is both hilarious and ominous. In a section called "Statistical Data and Codes," Marcus tells us: "A misspelled word is probably an alias for some desperate call for aid, which is bound to fail. If 'wind'is misspelled, for instance, as h-e-l-p, or i-t-h-u-r-t-s, then a storm can be expected, a hard sky, a short paralysis of rain." In fact, many of the sections read like demented instruction manuals.
The central plot of the book concerns the actions of a woman named Jane Dark, whose cult-like female following seeks to attain perfect stillness and silence. She confines Ben's father to a hole guarded by Larry the Punisher and orders Ben to be a mating "sire" for the Silentists and "various women's militia that came through town." Marcus includes historical timelines and definitions of terms throughout to help make this somewhat difficult book easier to follow, and the straight-faced weaving of his tale makes it all the more funny. For all the work a reader must put into grasping Marcus's weird world, the payoff is one that the reader will keep for a long time.