Ben Marcus is a genius, one of the most daring, funny, morally engaged and brilliant writers, someone whose work truly makes a difference in the world

Ben Marcus, Notable American Women (Vintage Books, 2002)

«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.»

“Ben Marcus has been accused of redesigning the ordinary sentence, of emptying words of their meaning and injecting them with new, of treating grave matters (such as family and humankind in general) with farcical disrespect, and of blowing away traditional narrative structures with a diabolical wind. And all this may be true. But 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. Jane Dark was my fourth grade teacher.” —Robert Coover

“Notable American Women is a weird nougat of a book that suggests Coetzee, Kafka, Beckett, Barthelme, O’Brien, Orwell, Paley, Borges—and none of them exactly. Finally you just have to chew it for its own private juice.” —Padgett Powell

“Ben Marcus’s Notable American Women is a radical performance in American fiction. It is too literary for the novel as it is now practiced and consumed, and too perverse for other plausible designations. In order to pioneer the Marcus life-project the writer provides a ferocious handbook which, followed to the letter, launches a permanent revolution of nothingness. A family of unprecedented personae—the Marcuses, aided on the distaff side by Jane Dark, her listeners and Silentists—are brought forth to insure the evolution of “a new category.” The writer “fathers” an extensive formal vocabulary to advance the Behavior Bible’s annihilating goals, including uncomely devices and strategies like the fainting tank, the thought rag, the shushing posture, along with an array of essential life-project products such as the Ben Marcus Locater Bell, Chew Stand, Apology Center, Thompson Waterô, etc. It is killingly funny, and creepily sad. This book represents an unmediated thrusting toward love with an arsenal of intellectual alienation, and just as forcefully, a thrusting toward alienation with an arsenal of brotherly love–depending upon where you are poised to withstand the cataclysm. It is a profound and profane description of our basest drive: fear. Notable American Women is the work of a retiring albeit twisted virtuoso. Not for the pusillanimous reader.” — C. D. Wright

Notable American Women gives us, with great panache and in eerie detail, a world that is cruelly reasonable within the near-religious limitations of its weird laws and customs. It is a book as unique as it is wonderfully strange.” —Gilbert Sorrentino

“Notable American Women is an enchanting and moving novel. Like Italo Calvino and Lewis Carrol, Ben Marcus reconfigures the world that we might see ourselves in a cultural and moral landscape that is disturbingly familiar, yet entirely new. As though granted a new beginning, Marcus renames the creatures of our world, questions who we are and who, as men and women, we might be. Notable American Women is a wonder book, pleasurable and provocative.” —Maureen Howard

“Auden, who asked two things of an imagined world—that it be somehow like ours and somehow unlike—would be Ben Marcus’s ideal reader, yet even without the poet’s dire program, I am altogether taken by this hilarious and sexy alternative universe. Just imagine! it is all done with words instead of mirrors, so much more reliable and so much more heartbreaking. Thus Prospero enthralls his crew.” —Richard Howard

“Ben Marcus’s novel is funny and touching and full of movement and sound, all of which is even more remarkable since the book itself is about stillnesses and The Silentists and Behavior Water and things you put in your mouth to keep you from speaking. Marcus investigates—with equal passion—the intricacies of a new mythology alongside the intimacies of a broken family. This is the kind of strange and beautiful book you just want to have around, to dip into again and again.” —Aimee Bender

“I don’t use the word lightly, in fact, I don’t use it at all, but Ben Marcus is a genius, one of the most daring, funny, morally engaged and brilliant writers, someone whose work truly makes a difference in the world. His prose is, for me, awareness objectified—he makes the word new and thus the world.” —George Saunders

“[Ben Marcus] constructs his narratives as an astronomer would a space telescope, so as to better observe and laugh at the earthly conventions of realism... Imagine The World According to Garp as rewritten by Edward Gorey... Marcus’s prose can spiral up and away into sublime nonsense.” —Village Voice Literary Supplement

«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 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.» - Publishers Weekly

«Marcus negotiates an esoteric though uniquely American literary terrain, mining such seemingly diverse sources as Gertrude Stein and Donald Barthelme. One of the virtues of this novel is that although it deals with issues of great significance such as gender, childhood, and coming of age, it is not easy to describe or paraphrase. Marcus reinvents the family drama in the story of a boy who grows up without feelings amidst a conspiracy of women obsessed with weather and silence. The book evokes an alternate reality revealing the dark side of our common history, an uncanny version of America that exists nowhere else but in Marcus's lyrical, abstract prose. This will be a difficult read for many, but it will surely stand the test of time as a genuinely important book.» - Philip Santo

«This deadpan dystopian novel documents the upbringing of a man who has been conditioned to have no emotions. In an alternate reality dominated by radical, powerful women known as the Silentists, the hero is subjected to laborious behavioral regimens including a regular "language fast," the elaborate "Thompson Food Scheme," and frequent swims in the "learning pond." But, with the heightened sensitivity of the dispossessed, he can't stop identifying the ways that life could be richer, and the result is like an anthropologist on hallucinogens. "I should be able to breathe without the sky suffering from lack of birds," he ruefully tells us. Although the novel's philosophical aims are at times frustratingly obscure, this "collision between satire and sadness," as the author has called it, is a dizzying reimagination of our relationship to language. If we're not at the epicenter of that collision, we're close enough so that the aftershock rattles our teeth.» - New Yorker

«Things open with a hilarious monologue by the father of "Ben Marcus, the improbable author of this book": a father who is buried deep in the backyard of the family house somewhere in Ohio and who, after alluding to "the Silent Mothers," urges readers to "forget Ben Marcus and his world of lies." The Silent Mothers seem to be the women, led by Jane Dark, who have taken over the culture in Marcus's futuristic America, devoting themselves to language purification-maybe elimination-and to the de-emotionalizing of people, not least poor young and strange Ben Marcus, who suffers under and through many of their techniques. These include straitjackets, "witness water," rags that are chewed to absorb sounds and languages, spartan diets, wooden posts to be gnawed on, deliberate fainting, sundry brutalities, even a "language diaper." The book's narrative languor comes about in part because these group-women remain only anonymous ciphers; their motives are left unexamined while their doings are endlessly, albeit brilliantly, "described" in dazzling cascades of Marcus-language. The author's wit can still capture perfect tens, as in "Blueprint," about writing a novel such as this one ("The book should be closed so hard that a wind blows from it, gusting however feebly into whatever little world there is left"), or in the closing piece of anti-male virulence (by the "author's" mother): "The four-point stance is my favorite posture for men. It indicatesreadiness, disguises fear, and raises their bottoms above their heads, which more authentically prioritizes a man's body." But ennui can set in, not because subject, theme, or story are lacking, but because, amid these fountains of linguistic brilliance, the reader never really meets, gets inside of, or cares about the people. Dazzling, genius-driven-and, alas, often tedious.» - Kirkus Reviews

«In Notable American Women, Ben Marcus has produced a novel the likes of which most readers have never seen.
Marcus certainly has his illustrious forebears. Robert Coover, Donald Antrim, Samuel Beckett and Franz Kafka come to mind - plus maybe Borges on a bad acid trip. But none of them has produced an ecstatic but nightmarish fantasy quite of this sort. And none of them has imbued their fictional worlds with quite this level of obsessive details, I think.
Imagine a Mandelbrot pattern with its endlessly magnifying geometric complexities and you get some of Notable American Women's frenetic, hyperreal obsessiveness. And like a Mandelbrot pattern - and opposed to, say, an Antrim novel - the real focus here (both yours and Marcus's) seems to rest on the hallucinatory kaleidoscope of images, rather than the storyline itself.
Somewhere in there, though, there's a dark plot or at least a dark scenario, and at the risk of reducing it too far, I'll summarize it thus: the protagonist - Ben Marcus (strange coincidence, that) - is being raised in Ohio by a cult-driven group of women called the Silentists. (Their leader is an ominous woman called Jane Dark.) As their name suggests, they oppose motion and sound, and the strict regimen they force on young Ben is designed to suppress feelings of all sorts. Among other things, they insist that he follow the strikingly restrictive Thompson Food Scheme and faint periodically to flush out emotions, as well as mating with Silentists in strictly controlled ways. While his father is briefly present, he is exiled to the backyard (he may even be buried there), and Ben is left to cope with Jane Dark's cult of Silentists as best he can on his own.
Sound strange enough for you? Or are you truly as jaded as you claim?
For all its oddities, Notable American Women is resoundingly contemporary in its genre-bending shenanigans. Indeed, hip readers will immediately know something doggedly postmodern is about to hit them when they flip the book over and read the following quotes on its back cover:
'Ben Marcus is a genius, one of the most daring, funny, morally engaged and brilliant writers, someone whose work truly makes a difference in the world.' - George Saunders
'How can one word from Ben Marcus's rotten, filthy heart be trusted?' - Michael Marcus, Ben's father
George Saunders is a literary god, and we should all take him at his word. But Marcus's own dad...
Then you open the book and discover that the novel's protagonist is also named Ben Marcus and your best hopes (or worst fears) are confirmed: this, ladies and gentlemen, is a prime example of the postmodern novel, full of ripe ironies and factual distortions that tease that unnervingly tenuous line between the real world and fiction. But my God: how could Marcus's family put up happily (dare I say silently?) with such a scandalous pseudo-memoir?
Will the real Ben Marcus please stand up?
The real Ben Marcus is an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Columbia University, and as the publicity material that accompanied my review copy helpfully points out, he grew up in a happy family and has never been to Ohio. Further details: his father is a mathematician, and his mother is a feminist critic and author (among her books, Art and Anger: Reading Like a Woman). We are further told that his real sister is still alive and living in Seattle (in the novel, she suffers a worse fate), that the real Marcus has only fainted once (during football practice), and that while the fictional Ben Marcus learned to stuff cloth into his mouth to absorb his feelings, "The real Ben was told by his orthodontist that he had the highest palate he'd ever seen."
Ah, those wacky postmodernists.
The only thing more amusing than reading Notable American Women might be reading an annotated edition that marks its divergences from the real Ben Marcus's life.
As funny and peculiar as Notable American Women is, though, it also has moments of stunningly well-done, visionary writing. Here, for example, Marcus describes seeing his father allowing himself to be pinned to the ground by a circle of girls:
If I held my breath, I could zoom my sight in right up close to his simple face, to a proximity no son should be allowed, and I quickly saw much too much of my father, an amount of his person I didn't think possible, which made me scared and disappointed by him at the same time. He should not be viewable so close-up, I thought. He should not be that dismissible. The more I held my breath, the more I felt I could leave my room through the window and swoop down through the circle of girls right up against my father's red, struggling face, not stopping there, but entering my father at his hard red mouth and plunging directly into the underside of his face, where I could look back out from his head at a ring of girls' faces encircling a cakelike round of sky, and, far beyond that, see the tiny face of a boy framed in glass, watching me as if it were my turn to be alive. I did not much want to be inside my father's face this way, restrained by children, while my son watched me from his window. No matter how hard I tried, I only noticed what was wrong: the clear flag we had raised alongside the spire on the roof, the unfinished shed where my learning was supposed to happen when Mother wasn't home, and then the learning pond itself, which from my father's point of view looked like an unpromising little puddle and nothing more. The water was muddy and slow and dead. A person might float on that water and never change. He might drink it and still remain himself for the rest of his life. I breathed. I blinked. I turned my head and exhaled in hard, short bursts until I had shaken my father's perspective.
I don't think Oprah's shutting down her edifying Book Club robbed Ben Marcus of a bestseller. Can you imagine her covering such a deliciously strange book? Particularly one which the author openly states that "Readers looking to indulge in the having of emotions (HOE) should do so on their own time, in small bursts, preferably in a closed room, coughing often into an absorbent rag and wringing the rag down a drain."
Nonetheless, its appearance in print (and with a weighty imprint like Vintage, no less) does say something about a publishing industry that's been attacked for monomaniacally hunting down the next Stephen King or Tom Clancy and rolling over a lot of great literary novelists in the process. We can only hope the publishing world backs more experimental works like this, once it sees Notable American Women sell surprisingly well for its genre.» - Charlie Onion

«About Ben Marcus there is so much to be discussed but nothing, really, to be explained. Through the 243 pages of Notable American Women and the 56 pages of The Father Costume, themes erupt with little warning only to slink away slowly into the murky gray of the page.
These are books about fathers, you think, connecting the dots between the first several pages of Notable and the entirety of Costume. But no. Later you decide these are books about mothers and their deep, dark hearts only to watch them washed over with words of love and understanding, even sorrow.
Well then, it's about sexuality, right? It's something to do with the dog-like Pal in Notable and the puddled mess Pal leaves little Ben Marcus in his bed. It's about breeding - the silent horror of sexuality. The forceful and animalistic nature of intercourse and the post coital nightmares that come as a result.
But none of it will do in this world created by Marcus, this allegorical stand-in for the real thing.
This is a world in which bodies and objects and hearts and minds have no boundaries. The walls between love and hate and human and machine are porous at best. These are big books with small pages about life, the daily and even hourly contradictions that are family, sex and, hell, even breathing. Each gulp threatens to kill you but somehow you know, in the end, it will redeem everything you thought you knew about yourself and your place in this equally cruel and beautiful world.
That's the promise, anyway, of all the surface-level weirdness that is the fiction of Ben Marcus -- below the cryptic McSweeney's crowd hipness and intellectual posturing and buried underneath the flashes of contempt someone as brilliant as Marcus clearly is appears to have for the average reader and even his own be-speckled, grad school writing program peers.
Get past all that and you are left with two heart-wrenching, intelligent and frequently funny books about family life, sexuality, feminism, identity, death, language and simple humanity. And who can really ask for more than that from any writer?
The constructs by which Marcus tackles these themes are as follows:
In Notable, we have the Marcus farmhouse in Ohio. A cult of American women, led by the duplicitous Jane Dark, takes over the household, relegating Ben's father, Michael Marcus, to a hole in the backyard and convinces his mother, Jane Marcus, that it is a good idea to use her son for breeding experiments. The end goal for this cult, by way of various means of behavior modification, is to create world of complete stillness and silence.
The Silentists, as the cult is called, protest sound, motion and, oh yeah, emotion, by subjecting members to such behavior modification tactics as controlled fainting, measured eating, motorized pantomining and very un erotic sex.
The actual text is a bit gimmicky, posing as letters to the reader, guidebooks, chronologies and answers to frequently asked questions. It drags at times but Marcus's penchant for the poetic and his credentials (he has a B.A. in philosophy) to tackle a variety of human themes in a fresh, funny manner hold this book together.
One of the themes, or obsessions depending on how you want to look at things, that ties both Notable and Father together is the ineptitude of the father figure.
When the Silentists take over, Michael Marcus (who is quoted on the jacket of the book wondering how anyone could trust a 'one word from Ben Marcus's rotten, filthy heart') slinks away to the hole in the backyard, surfacing occasionally to yell at the women and Ben only to be hissed back down to his prison.
In Father, two boys and their father take to the sea under the fear of attack at home. Language problems persist. The narrator admits to a language problem -- he cannot read cloth. His brother speaks something called Forecast. The father wears a costume of himself and mostly ignores the narrator's attempts to communicate.
When they get to sea, they begin to notice the futility of their trip, the evidence of families gone before them and their abandoned platforms. Once in the water, they begin to worry about concealment. But the narrator has his doubts about his father's adequacy for the task at hand:
'If it were up to me, I would not come from a place where fathers leave their houses by boat. Where fathers kill a costume and leave heaps of cloth like grave sites in their wake. I would choose a world of straight grass roads, with only famous years, with only days of actual light, where a metronome might be silenced by the right kind of sunlight. I would choose a house free of kill holes where a mother still stood upright and walked the rooms, using a soothing medical voice entirely free of cloth.' In Marcus's first book of stories, The Age of Wire and String, the creations of language and meaning built through the text don't add up to much. They're brilliant and sometimes funny, but only serve to show off Marcus's ability as a writer and thinker. Marcus takes a giant step forward with these two offerings, proving it is possible to mix dazzling intellect with heartfelt, honest emotions. These books are getting at something, though it's not always clear exactly what. They also prove that Marcus is indeed one of our most gifted writers and suggest even better books come.» - Mitch Pugh

Ben Marcus & Matthew Ritchie,The Father Costume (Artspace Books, 2002)

«Behold a stunning world, made mostly of water, where clothing changes people's behavior and time itself can be worn and discarded like cloth. Witness a father who takes his two boys out to sea, in flight from some menace at home, thus launching their adventures in a strange and dangerous territory. Artist Matthew Ritchie's striking images blend scientific diagramming with vivid, colorful renderings of the apocalypse, while writer Ben Marcus's cold prose plumbs the inner workings of two boys caught out at sea with a father whose costumes grow increasingly menacing. In this collaborative work, Ritchie's and Marcus's shared obsessions of mythology, physics, and ancient texts have produced a conjunction of text and image in which people themselves are merely costumes for the darker needs that drive them. Looking at Ritchie's paintings is like being in Dorothy's cyclone — one minute a one-celled organism wheels by, the next minute a sequence of skulls streams along from a school chart on evolution.»

«In The Father Costume, a collaboration between artist Matthew Ritchie and writer Ben Marcus, a stunning world is evoked, made mostly of water, where clothing changes people's behavior and time itself can be worn and discarded like cloth. Here a father takes his two boys out to sea, in flight from some menace at home, and thus launches their adventure in a strange and dangerous world. In The Father Costume, Marcus' and Ritchie's shared obsessions produce a work where people themselves are merely costumes for the darker needs that drive them.»

«The Father Costume is set in a surreal water world in which clothes alter - at times seemingly dominate - people's behavior and time itself can be worn and discarded like cloth.»

"Upon deciding that you were in the beginning stages of a new project that in turn became The Father Costume, what inspiration or source did you draw from to arrive at the premise and motif of this work?
- Since it was a collaboration from the beginning, Matthew Ritchie and I sat down and threw around some ideas that we’d each been wanting to pursue. We settled on time as something that fascinated us—even though Matthew’s understanding of it, from the perspective of physics anyway, is far greater than mine. And I remember wanting to write something that used conditional tenses, a story that used the space of the conditional to try to create a menacing mood, the threat of what might happen. And then of course there was our mutual interest in cloth, some kind of garment that would serve as a structural design of god. And I think I wanted it to be an adventure story. All pretty obvious stuff.
So a brainstorming creation followed by organic development. What then about the character choices. Father is present throughout, as are son one and his brother. But mother is mentioned only obliquely in the opening two paragraphs. Was this also part of the “threatening” motif, the idea that “bad things happen when mom’s not about?”
- I didn’t have a specific plan for this. I had the image of the father preparing the boys to leave the house, and in writing this I think I pretty much killed off the mom in order to make the whole thing more lonely. It just seemed to be more charged with her absent.
Okay, Mom’s out of the way, Dad is with the boys, and he next jettisons off to sea with them, a lonely place indeed. Did perhaps a reference to Ahab in Moby Dick come to mind when creating the scenes at sea? Or was the father to be understood as undeniably and objectively dangerous, a loose cannon? - Ahab didn’t come to mind. And I wasn’t really thinking about how the father was going to be understood. I was interested in the mystery of his project, the way the son was baffled by what he was doing, even as his brother is quickly killed. Someone’s in charge in the story, but the narrator has no idea what is really happening. That kind of innocence appealed to me, the trust you put in someone whose designs are beyond your comprehension.
A mysterious project with mysterious intent surrounded by mysterious lands and sea where words spring to life as seeds from the earth. The boy makes much about avoiding his father’s attention with the words he spins, but they keep threatening to do him in. As the boy goes on to fantasize about a fitting end for his father, even employing land animals if necessary, why doesn’t he just use the lethal power of words to tie his father into knots?
- I guess that all of his power seems conditional and imaginary to me. He can’t tie anyone into anything. Did you wish he would do something different?
I was maybe looking at a sense of empowerment, of not being the proverbial dumb terrified blonde running straight into a dark lonely place. Heck, if I could see trees on the shore stringing out sentences and watch my father attach sentences to his belt with glue, I would quickly gather in my fear a courage that realized the power of these “words and sentences” and use them to advantage.
- Ah, if only you had been in the story in his place
In a parallel universe I most likely am. On a different track, the tale spins out as somewhat Freudian, a psychological catharsis of sorts, a lashing out at not so vague insistent spirits. Is there perhaps an element of autobiography about the dominating and fearsome father image? Or is that just a happenstance of fictional conception?
- Autobiography to me is what I’m capable of thinking and feeling, not just what has literally happened to me. So there is more than a small element of autobiography, but there’s so much that’s mythical and fantastical in the story that I can’t quite call it a true story.
A story does not need to be termed “a true story” for the history of one’s life to inform it. For instance, you were at one time a boy, then a teenager, then a young adult. I’m making a broad reach when I assume that at some point a father figure most likely interacted. If this “reach” is on target, was this interaction in your recollection one tinged primarily by awe and fear or one of loving closeness? I suppose I’m just looking at the story behind the story, apropos of nothing.
- Loving closeness, far and away. It still is." - Interview with C. B. Smith
Ben Marcus, The Age of Wire and String (Knopf, 1995)

«In The Age of Wire and String, hailed by Robert Coover as “the most audacious literary debut in decades,” Ben Marcus welds together a new reality from the scrapheap of the past. Dogs, birds, horses, automobiles, and the weather are some of the recycled elements in Marcus’s first collection — part fiction, part handbook– as familiar objects take on markedly unfamiliar meanings.
Gradually, this makeshift world, in its defiance of the laws of physics and language, finds a foundation in its own implausibility, as Marcus produces new feelings and sensations — both comic and disturbing — in the definitive guide to an unpredictable yet exhilarating plane of existence.»

“The most audacious literary debut in decades — witty, startlingly inventive, funny but fundamentally disturbing, language itself held together here by whimsical bits of wire and string. Ben Marcus is a one-of-a-kind stand-up phenom, a comic writer of power and originality. The Age of Wire and String marks the arrival of a unique new talent in American letters.” — Robert Coover

“Utterly wonderful, wonderful and beautiful. A world appears made of birds, dogs, odd bits of the Self, and ancient impressions of the very first things — Father and Mother, strange foods, a storm in the sky outside — all the elements of ordinary life systematically recombined to give substance to feeling and sensation, our deepest and most hidden knowledge of home.” — Donald Antrim

“Marcus proves himself a renegade philosopher/writer who twists language until it bleeds new meaning, and in the process creates a truly audacious and wholly original view of life and the linguistic structures which give it substance... In a book industry increasingly dominated by convention and the next sure thing, we can only hope that writers who dare to explore this inner vision will continue to find an audience.” — Tucson Weekly

“His stories, a series of interlocking definitions of strange new objects and principles, are a mix of gothic gargoyles and glassy ultra-modern surfaces, whether he’s describing an automobile from the ground up, or a nap in front of the TV with the family dog.” — St. Louis Post-Dispatch

«In these 41 fictions (most are only a page or two), Marcus guides us through the postmodern wreckage of our homes and social customs. Deformed structures call for deformed expressions; using a form pioneered by Gertrude Stein, the book's eight sections pull the everyday ('Food''; 'The House''; 'Persons') through the looking-glass of language, coining new terms as necessary. The result is the combination of gorgeous, sensuous realism and disjointed action that has been coming together in the leading avant-garde journal Conjunctions, where Marcus is an editor. In these pages, which by turns read like a technical manual and like lyric poetry, one's wife and toaster can be connected on the same circuit, and "only the lawns feeding upward afford the angels an exit.'' Marcus's clear eye for the suburban sublime allows his definitions-of the structures and categories we impose on ourselves, of the people in his life and of hidden "natural'' phenomena-to resonate in a way that is much richer than, say, Douglas Coupland's inventories of pop culture. The shockingly abstract terms Marcus uses to describe our intimate selves ("the condition of corpse is achieved with a lotion, usually'') mock our attempts to understand and explain away our bodies and the things that happen to them. This debut collection may just succeed in sneaking prose-poetry to a wider, younger audience.» - Library Journal

«It's surreal, but not dada; fantastic, but not fantasy or sf; mysterious, but not a mystery; fiction, but almost totally lacking in characters, plot, or drama. It might be called "flash fiction" since most of the pieces are only a page or two, but unlike Barry Yourgrau's or Mark Amerika's "flashes," these are not complete unto themselves. The Age of Wire and String is a sort of metafictional parallel universe reconnecting elements of mass culture, personal experience, philosophy, law, and culture in obscure and mysterious ways. Over 40 snippets are categorized into sections on sleep, God, food, the house, animals, weather, persons, and society. Each section has its own glossary of terms, such as "CARL Name applied to food built from textiles, sticks, and rags. Implements used to aid ingestion are termed... the lens, the dial, the knob." This highly original work will appeal to ambitious readers who enjoy Joyce, Beckett, or other writers who confound our assumptions about language and perception. A potential cult classic; recommended for all medium to large academic and public libraries.» - Jim Dwyer

«Pierre Klossowski, in Sade, My Neighbor, offers two statements that might serve to introduce the startling, and often transgressive, vignettes of Ben Marcus's The Age of Wire and String. The first is the assertion that "it is not by arguments that [he] can obtain the assent of his
interlocutor but by complicity". The second is the realization that "reason itself... is but a form of
passion".
The Age of Wire and String thrusts into the forms of reasonable thought a great deal of passion, revivifying dead ways of speaking by short-circuiting them. The formal genres of both the hard and social sciences are manipulated by eccentric but nearly invisible narrators who, having emptied objective forms of their original content, fill them with highly original visions of the world. By applying extreme subjective pressure to the objective world, Marcus warps and splays the forms of capture we have come to expect. Where Marcus differs from less successful experimenters is that rather than merely allowing science to turn inward, revealing the subjectivity innate to any apparently objective process, he forces the subjective
pressure to deflect again outward - thus revealing an objectivity that can only be reached through the subjective. In pursuing a line of flight that cleaves through a progression of selves and then flees outward, Marcus offers an array of voices to lay bare the whole of contemporary culture.
The Age of Wire and String is a non-system masquerading as a system. It is referred to, in the mock-argument at the book's beginning, as a device for "cataloging a culture." The book consists of eight divisions of stories which parse the culture into eight broad interrelated topics - Sleep, God, Food, The House, Animal, Weather, Persons, The Society. Each section is supplemented by a list of terms which sets out to define words that may or may not be relevant to the fictions of a particular section. These include objects as promising as:
FUDGE GIRDLE, THE Crumpets of cooked or flattened chocolage, bound or fastened by wire. This garment is spreadable. . . . MATH GUN, THE 1. Mouth of the Father, equipped with a red freckle, glistening. It is shined by foods, dulled with water, left alone by all else. 2. His pencil. . . . ARKANSAS 9 SERIES Organization of musical patterns or tropes that disrupt the flesh of the listener. The arrangement of the book and the definition of terms seem formal and orderly enough, and on the surface The Age of Wire and String seems to offer a fictional world holding the same sort of relation to the real world as does Borges' Uqbar. However, the orderliness of the surface is
quickly disrupted, and it becomes clear that what Marcus offers is not a single world but elements of several similar, but not completely compatible, worlds. Though the pieces all have some relation, they cannot be thought of as generating a single alternate reality; instead, the space they create is heterotopic, bringing together disparate elements whose connection cannot be adequately mapped, but which are joined nonetheless. How is one to bring together, for instance, the introduction (in Montana) of clothing made from food products, the song's capacity for mutilating the body of a man on horseback, sleep's ability to forestall the destruction of the house, a string's tendency to fall in the shape of the next animal to be slain, and the more passionate and worldly spectacle of the mad invader who ties up everyone in the house and forces them to watch as he commits suicide? The impact of the book can be found less in the individual pieces than in the connections which spread from text to text, which make a
rhizome of the different pieces and which allow one to travel from one disparate locale to another. Within the text, the author's name, as an administrative function by which to gather the book into a whole, falls under suspicion, for one discovers multiple definitions for
"BEN MARCUS, THE," including:
1. False map, scroll caul, or parchment... a fitful chart of darkness. When properly decoded, it indicates only that we should destroy it and look elsewhere for instruction... 2. The garment that is too heavy to allow movement... 3. Figure from which the antiperson is derived; or, simply, the antiperson. It must refer uselessly and endlessly and always to weather, food,birds,or cloth...
The Ben Marcus becomes three functions, all of which mock the way in which we think through significance and proprietorship in fiction, the different functions far from compatible.
Throughout the stories, Marcus performs the theft and adaptation of a variety of speech genres. He is able to treat certain styles and manners of speaking - certain forms of expression that give in their rightful or common context the seductions of convincingness (scientific discourse, prayer, technical writing, historical lecture, encyclopedia entries) - in ways that expose the strategies
and seductions of the forms, opening them to new types of content. By bringing together accepted forms of discourse with unexpected content (in the attempt, for instance, to scientifically define a dog as a mode of heat transference, or in the offering of a prayer meant to preserve the wires of the house) the devices that allow for a form's power of seduction are revealed and neutralized. But, by passing into new contexts, these forms are given a new power. They persist as walking frames over which a transient mythology begins to spread, vying to establish itself as the new truth.
The whole world rewires itself, connections being established where none were believed to exist before. What might have once begun as the simple act of branching a plug into a wall socket becomes a transgressive and sublime ritual, as an almost imperceptible character tries to piece
together a collapsed life, perhaps believing that what has gone wrong on a human level must be corrected or else natural laws will collapse. What results is a technical explanation of the oddest kind:

Intercourse with resuscitated wife for particular number of days, superstitious act designed to insure safe operation of household machinery. Electricity mourns the absence of the energy form (wife) within the household's walls by stalling its flow to the outlets. As such, an improvised friction needs to take the place of electricity, to goad the natural currents back to their proper levels. This is achieved with the dead wife. She must be found, revived, and then penetrated until heat fills the room, until the toaster is shooting bread onto the floor, until she is smiling beneath you with black teeth and grabbing your bottom. Then the vacuum rides by and no one is pushing it, it is on full steam. Days flip past in chunks of fake light, and the intercourse is placed in the back of the mind. But it is always there, that moving into a static-ridden corpse that once spoke familiar messages in the morning when the sun was new.
Here the narrator reveals himself only in the definition of intercourse as a superstitious act, in the formal, technical framing of necrophilia, and in his attempt to thrust the experience on the reader by using the second person. The result is a transgressive act framed in measured terms and careful language, at once more beautiful and more disturbing than the usual approach to such actscan be.
The nature of transgression itself as an artistic project is defined in another piece, "The Golden Monica," which takes for its utterance the mode of academic discourse. Here it becomes clear that for Marcus, as for Klossowski's Sade, the aesthetic purpose is not so much to convince the
reader as to establish complicity. As Marcus suggests elsewhere, "members alternate performing and watching, until there is no difference". "The Golden Monica" serves to extrapolate this statement, speaking of "the phenomenon of the intruder or mad invader, who enters the
American house in order to extinguish himself" in the presence of the inhabitants of the house. He binds the inhabitants in such a way that they must watch him, and then settles in the middle of them as he conducts a self-made ritual which will culminate in his demise. After
the suicide, the narrator postulates, one of the members of the family will somehow manage to get free of the restraints and flee the house. Once outside, startled and moved by what he has just experienced, he will falsely confess to having murdered the suicided intruder, taking the blame upon himself. "The act of doing and watching are interchangeable here," the narrator suggests. "[The] spectacle is arranged to emanate from whoever watches it, where seeing is the first form of doing," the viewer thus taking the actor's actions as his own. Such purpose seems to be behind several of Marcus's stories, in that he often attempts to place the reader in a position from which it is difficult to gain a safe distance from the transgressions depicted. Though the forms of the language at times allow a narrow respite, the movement through the language and the rearrangement of the world of each story by the necessarily active reader give him or her a much more consciously role than is usually the case. Such a sense of one's own participation in and creation of a text potentially ends in the recognition that there is more affinity than we would care to admit between seeing and doing.
Wordplay has often been a mainstay of experimental writers, but Marcus's linguistic extravangances here work in a way they seldom can in the merely experimental. Marcus's
verbal manipulation is successful because it is not overused and does not exist for its own sake. Indeed, there are no idle experiments here, no manipulations for the sake of trying to prove the author's cleverness. There is, however, a proliferation of new definitions and redefinitions, and in this we have what seems to be a movement to increased distinction. On the other hand, these definitions often sabotage themselves, and we can find a word so purposefully burdened with meanings that it becomes meaningless. In some of the fictional pieces, this burdening shifts into a destruction of distinction between signifiers. Thus, in "Arm, In Biology," we find the term
arm used in a number of ways - as a physical part of the body, as a percussion instrument, as an element of a machine, and as a medical device - with the definition sliding imperceptibly from one area to another, at once all of them yet none. What is under threat, then, are the
rational distinctions made at the base of language - our ability to separate things off from one another through our words. What is gained is a revelatory short-circuiting of language that, in making the connections that rational thought would find invalid, understands the shaping of
language to be a passionate affair, vibrant and alive. Moving from satires of scientific classification to the simultaneous lampooning of the fashion industry and historical truth, The Age of Wire and String is an alarming and exacting book which reveals American culture
in ways that will always remain hidden to the more conventional "professional disclosers" of the culture.» - Brian Evenson

«An experiment in linked vignettes, the book received praise from Robert Coover, Harry Mathews, and others. Mathews described this first book publication as "delicately sustained linguistic displacements [that] rigorously reinvent [our] society."
I interviewed Marcus; he spoke of a wish to create a fictional landscape for readers who see language "as more than just an occasion for diversion or entertainment - a chance to hide and forget - but instead as a possibly biological event, as crucial as eating and maybe more so." It's a romantic notion, but one that is necessary for fueling fiction as deeply imagined, committed, and unromantic as Marcus's. And while his prose works to elide standard notions of story, motivation, lush description, and plot, it also possesses an edgy, pristine hue of its own, and a spooky, otherworldly tension.
Using short, unsentimental orbs of prose, Marcus describes an odd North America in which plain people live as normally as they know how. Marcus's setting is perhaps one to which writing students should turn for a first-rate illustration of the tension and balance between description and restraint. Indeed, the Ohio-like locale of this book takes much of its shape from numerous nearby strange engines, machines, and activities - and in this place, too, "electricity mourns the absence of an energy form," and nouns like "frusc" and "willis" abound (Marcus often uses proper names - even his own - to denote events or actions). By turns, AWS's scenarios and small accretions of action are comic and bizarre; story titles, rich in themselves, include "Half Life of Walter in the American Areas," "Food Storms of the Original Brother," and "Dog, Mode of Heat Transfer in Barking."
AWS has the syntactical ring of car repair manuals or religious tracts. Sentences like "Warning - it often clogs the port. It is often sugared" are employed to describe the intricate workings of machines or customs; they seem at once serious and mock-serious. And as the writer/narrator finds it his utter duty to inform readers of this world, he calls to us across a chasm, abstracted or disassociated by the stark weirdness of the place and by his own observations.
There is a small wan quality in the prose as well, with its locales recalling towns in the grassy Midwest: "Mind the hill. Throw the water. Pull the wood. Crack up the fires. Fix their feet. Don't talk. My father says do this when we have the good air. But it is empty here, and so I will mark instead, in case the messenger comes. No one is climbing up. My Jason hasn't climbed up, nor ever has Grandover since they hauled my father up the mountain. Am I supposed to put food out for them? We have the wood that holds our meals. I brought it in from the birdless side of our hill. Can I ask a question now?"
With that instructional-manual sense of both roteness and dire purpose, Marcus's syntax has a quality that sounds translated - as if from English to some diametrically opposing language, such as Japanese: "Rules invariable apply to food hidden within houses, churches, and other recognizable structures; in certain townships, they obtain also when potatoes and bread are camouflaged within a manufactured landscape. Artificial food (Carl) is often used to disguise the presence of real food in these settings. The law respecting the transfer of dough and sugar suspended from the hips of a citizen differs somewhat."
It certainly seems that Marcus has toyed with inserting unexpected nouns into the rhetoric of technical manuals or sociological tracts, mixing and mis-matching words on purpose, yet this book leaps far beyond formalist experiment-driven narrative, one of the banes of college writing workshops. Marcus's mysterious pastiches employ both heavy restraint and connotative vocabulary, so while the narrative is often deliberately wooden, a sensation of absence and pathos also lurks, the sort of haunting tenderness that is linked with memory and which much current American sentimental memoir and fiction seeks and fails to convey.
Marcus's meticulous and remote language works tirelessly to create small disruptive images, and these, along with the text's self referential glossaries, create a sense of controlled obsession. However, the pages of AWS are neither easy nor difficult to read. Like a painting by Hopper, landscapes and scenes are dissembled then defamiliarized; both language and experience are taken out of time, turned on their collective ears. And like much good art, Marcus's prose is difficult to describe, and contains cruelty: "The man powers in, arranges a prison of wire or rope onto the member of the shelter - the soft membrane of the floor, to attain a posture of attention to his own body that will render its demise he queries the animal likeness carved into his garment."
I asked what he had to say about the "autobiography question," since after the Knopf release of AWS, more than one reviewer remarked that the text was, at bottom, a highly stylized version of a Midwestern boyhood. Marcus responded that this was explicitly not his intention, pointing to reviewers' notorious tendency to read rotely. But if a writer declares that his work is devoid of the typical first-book impulses to write from life, should we believe him? Is the act of fictionalizing one's childhood actually less rigorous than creating fiction that proceeds from a theory?
"Autobiographical impulses are complicated," he said. "While it might be autobiographical to write about where you vacationed last summer, it certainly, at least usually, won't put the writer into a tense enough position to create interesting work. A younger writer can make the mistake of believing that an audience is inherently interested in everything that has 'happened' to them. A writer makes another mistake, I think, in believing that the things that happen are the things that make up a life. Maybe your real life is everything you don't know about, ideas and feelings you haven't confirmed or even imagined yet. The writing is instantly more powerful if there is an act of discovery on the writer's part as well, as Stein points out. If you look at the memoirs interested in Michel Leiris or the novels of Thomas Bernhard, you can see a menacing form of self-discovery at work, in which the author does not congratulate himself for his insights, as does the common memoirist, who shows off psychological platitudes at every turn, but rather is continually punished by the truths that his language seems intent on revealing. The task, for me, is to build a body beyond what my daily life has evidenced, to discover the outer possibilities of my heart and mind and possibly, as a result, produce a new kind of animal."
I also asked Marcus about the health of innovative fiction at this cultural moment, and about the importance of distinguishing the novel from shorter forms, since AWS exclusively employs vignettes or indistinctly defined "stories." "My theory is really pretty simple: to light literal fires in the heads and homes of my readers," he responded. "Genre distinctions have always been boring to me. Let the marketplace call it whatever they want to, but a novel is whatever engaged artists say it is, or want it to be. I try not to trouble myself with the category name for what I write, although it's sometimes interesting to play with people's expectations, as with certain poets calling their poems novels. Pressure from the market for writers to write 'novels' will always be there, and there are plenty of other pressures that conspire against innovative literary art: the pressure to makes sense, conform, to be easy. But a writer who writes for the market has a different set of values and often sacrifices a more lasting, substantive effect. You can't have it all. You choose your purpose in these matters, and pressure from the marketplace is the least interesting pressure, or obstacle, a writer can face."
It appears that, like his work, Marcus moves rather insistently according to a very conscious set of principles. He also appears to be tough on himself. But this practical attitude is indispensable. For future projects, he plans to continue molding language to "create a system that might read like an 'essay' or a religious text."
"My struggle is formal," he said. "When it comes down to it, my model for fiction is more of a religious than narrative one, although I recognize that religious systems employ narratives to great effect."» - Stacey Levine

Ben Marcus, Editor, The Anchor Book of New American Short Stories (Anchor Books, 2004)

«In The Anchor Book of New American Short Stories, Ben Marcus brings together 29 stories published over the last sixteen years covering a whole spectrum of different styles. Marcus's own fiction forays into the experimental, see his books, Notable American Women and The Age of Wire and String, so it comes as no surprise that this collection leans heavily to the experimental. By experimental, I mean that most of these stories play with language, style and structure, or blend genre, both genre in the sense of fiction subgenres such as science fiction and horror and the larger genres dividing creative writing such as prose and poetry. Experimental writing is often characterized as challenging for the reader. Familiarity with a type of writing does makes reading it easier. Certainly some of these pieces require more effort from the reader and maybe even require a larger initial suspension of belief. What isn't required, though, is the sacrifice of story as, for the most part, these stories do resonate and stay with the reader long after the initial reading. While the majority of works are experimental in some way, there is plenty of straightforward narrative, both realistic and nonrealistic. The first two stories of the anthology are among the strongest and both have easy to follow, linear plots.
In "Sea Oak," George Saunders presents us with an extended family shaken by the death of their aunt and even more shaken when she returns from the dead. The family is right off the set of a Jerry Springer show complete with an apartment in the projects, young, single mother sisters, and a brother who works at a kind of Hooters for the female set. The story is tender look at the family, whose members are caring and who retain a kind of innocence, despite their circumstances.
Newcomer Wells Tower pairs a Viking saga with contemporary language in "Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned." This is a raiding tale with the twist of the cast of characters being made up of the guys who hang out down at your neighborhood bar. Modern slang fits well with the story, which shouldn't be a surprise as the pillaging involved isn't any more violent than that seen on an average episode of The Shield or The Sopranos.
Many of the stories focus on the relationship between parents and children. "The Old Dictionary," by Lydia Davis, reads like a short essay comparing the narrator's treatment of a fragile, old dictionary she uses for her writing and her treatment of her son, but really is poignant meditation on parenting and the difficulty of knowing and acknowledging needs of a child. Four of the stories focus on the complicated relationship between fathers and daughters. Aimee Bender's "Girl in the Flammable Skirt," carries her own quirky brand of fabulism with the father slowly goes to pieces while the daughter is required to shoulder more and more responsibility. Christine Schutt's edgy and tough "You Drive" about a developing incestuous relationship is written in hard emotional slivers. Gary Lutz's "People Shouldn't Have to be the Ones to Tell You," tells of a man who brings his adult daughters together and begins to fade away. The highlight of the story is his beautiful play with language.
"At the Laundromat, he had chosen the dryer with a spent fabric-softener sheet teased behind inside it. He brought the sheet home afterward to wonder whether it was more a mysticism of a tissue than a denigration of one. It was sparser in its weave yet harder to tear apart, ready in his hand when unthrobbing things of his life could stand to be swabbed and cleaned."
This language use is also what could make reading difficult for some people. In an interview with Gadfly Online, Marcus said about Gary Lutz.
"It's dismaying to me that a writer like Gary Lutz, for instance, has too few readers. Sure, his sentences are sort of strenuous, but there are so many insights and disturbances in them that what amounts to labor for some people is for me a form of pleasure. Here he is an artist of the sentence, yet readers can't stay with his work because it demands too much of them."
A number of the stories contain modern gothic elements. Mary Caponegro's "The Father's Blessing," is a fabulist tale of an eager priest with very bad boundaries. The 2001 O. Henry award winner, "The Paperhanger," by William Gay follows the disintegration of a family after the abduction of their child by a serial killer. There are also the 1998 O. Henry award winner, "The Two Brothers," a horror story about the two sons of an evangelical minister, by Brian Evenson, and "Gentlemen's Agreement," a gentler but no less chilling story about a disobedient young son of a firefighter by Mark Richard.
Writers Anthony Doerr with "The Caretaker," and Jhumpa Lahiri with "When Mr. Pirzada Came to Dine" both bring stories of visitors to the United States dealing with the effects of war in their home countries. While neither story appears to stray from realism, the Doerr story borders on surreal as it follows a refugee from Africa and the disastrous results of his decision to move to the United States and work as a winter caretaker on an estate.
Some of the authors play with form, like Aleksandar Hemon's "The Life and Work of Alphonse Kauders" a fragmented biography of an imaginary pornographer and contemporary of Hitler written in single, disparate sentences, or Joe Wenderoth's "Letters to Wendy's," from his book of the same name, which is a series of short and strange notes from comment cards at the fast food restaurant. "Brief Interviews with Hideous Men" by David Foster Wallace takes the form of short interviews with men on the subject of women.
The authors may be building on the traditions of the past and dealing with the same subjects as always but all of them are bringing a contemporary sensibility, both realistic or nonrealistic, to the stories. For lovers of short fiction, this anthology will assume a treasured spot on the bookshelf to be revisited periodically. It may even prove to be one of those works that inspires the next generation of writers.» - Kristin Livdahl


Interview by Colin Winnette

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