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Notable American Women

Ben Marcus

Notable American Women

Author:Ben Marcus

By Frank Diller | Posted 4/3/2002

Ben Marcus is a postmodern writer educated in philosophy and apprenticed in the creative-writing factories of the contemporary college campus. He creates funny, odd fiction that defies description but nonetheless warrants attention. Marcus' first book, the sort-of short-story collection The Age of Wire and String (1995), garnered praise from the likes of George Saunders (Pastoralia) and comparisons to literary luminaries ranging from James Joyce to Donald Barthelme. His debut novel, Notable American Women, will probably cement his reputation as an author who's easier to enjoy than to understand.

A character named Ben Marcus is the main narrator of the new book. He lives in an Ohio suburb with his mother, a member of an anti-motion, anti-speech women's movement known as the Silentists. His father is buried alive in a hole outside their house, where a guard assaults him with a barrage of words 23 hours each day.

When Ben isn't trying to sire a new generation of Silentists with the young ladies taking over his house, he describes their history and rituals. Topics include the impact of language and emotions on the body and the weather, voluntary fainting as preparation for long-term paralysis, and the influence of different names on the behavior of young girls as chronicled in an ongoing book titled Notable American Women. (Ben-the-character's sister dies during the Marcus family's contribution to the book while being called different first names such as "Lisa," "Deborah," and "Jesus.")

Marcus-the-author divides his own book into sections incorporating all sorts of formats--personal letters, memoirs, legal contracts, instruction manuals, cultural histories. It's not surprising that a story about women opposed to movement feels a little inert, but there's an undeniable energy in the author's prose. Many sections in Notable American Women--some of which originally appeared in magazines such as McSweeney's and Harper's--crackle with Marcus' playful wit and command of language. He rejects almost every convention of the novel and invents a few of his own with style and grace. Even when it isn't clear what Ben Marcus is talking about, it's almost always fun to see what he has to say.

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