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It’s easy to see why Ben Marcus has developed a fan base among conceptual artists. As a committed anti-realist, fond of bending the meanings of words to his own ends, he shows a deeper kinship with Duchamp and Johns than with the Great Tradition of the novel. He constructs his narratives as an astronomer would a space telescope, so as to better observe and laugh at the earthly conventions of realism. The blood in his literary veins flows from French modernist jokers like Roussel and Queneau, via their American comperes Barthelme, Mathews, and Ashbery.
Marcus’s collection of stories, The Age of Wire and String, was a series of poetic riffs, most no more than a page. Together they describe a world that never was but might have been, if we played the game of language under semantic rules different but just as arbitrary as those now enforced.
Marcus has a B.A. in philosophy from NYU (along with an M.F.A. from Brown, where he studied with John Hawkes), and the pedantic wigginess of his texts can make them read like A.J. Ayer after a nervous breakdown. However precise and gracefully turned each sentence appears to be, the ultimate rationality outlined in these guides for the perplexed is questionable at best. Wittgenstein regarded it as the task of the philosopher to clean up the linguistic messes left over from metaphysics—to lead the fly out of the bottle, in his phrase. But as a fiction writer, Marcus feels no such duty. He keeps his hand firmly over the lip and shakes the bottle vigorously. Reading him can be a dizzying and not always easy experience.
Notable American Women, his first novel, picks up some of the same whimsical phraseology found in the stories. Rather than invent a new technical vocabulary, as would a typical sci-fi writer, he tweaks familiar words. The qualities of certain nouns—wind, milk, animal, Ohio, weather—are subtly altered so that they go in and out of phase with their traditional meanings. The book abounds in pointers, hints, and warnings that should (but don’t really) help strangers cope with the foreign terrain. For example, “The word ‘heart’ means wind, unless it follows the word ‘my,’ in which case it can mean ‘mistake,’ in a world where weather functions as the combustible error produced by people, although sometimes the word ‘heart’ indicates the social intermission people use to feel sorry for themselves, because self-pity is medically treated by vocal noises of certain volume (a type of song some bodies produce called sympathy).”
An elegant and original stylist, Marcus has devised here a structure to match. He has book-ended the principal first-person narrative, written by an anguished young man who calls himself Ben Marcus, with brief confessions by a man identified as his father, Michael Marcus, and mother, Jane Marcus. The father opens the book by objecting strenuously to the version of events we are about to read from his son, and his enraged mother brings things to a rousing finish with a vicious attack on her weak, ineffectual husband.
It is her mania that propels the narrative. Having joined a cult of women called the Silentists led by one Jane Dark, she has devoted her life to radical reform. The Silentists, who have renounced speech, have their own written Herstory, a canon of Notable Women and Dates worthy of veneration. As her son, Ben has been subjected to a strict upbringing that includes “gymnastics against emotion” and “cleaning duty at the fainting tank.” Caught in the middle between parents who loathe each other, and none too keen about the chaste regime of the Silentists, he has struggled to move forward. But the suspicion lingers that he’s been damaged beyond repair. Imagine The World According to Garp as rewritten by Edward Gorey.
In his fictional frame-up Marcus has a fine time sawing away at the two-by-fours supporting our most popular nonfiction narrative, the memoir. The foundations of truth-telling via heartfelt confession are undermined on every page. Utopian reformations of language and thought are mocked as well. In the zealotry of the Silentists, Marcus isn’t so much laughing at feminists like Kristeva as doubting any system of thought—Lacanian or Marxist or Oxbridgean—that promises any kind of escape from the prison house of language. The ills of the world are too numerous, and the terms used to describe them too slippery, for a theoretical revolution to fix things at this stage.
And yet beneath the deconstructive satire he clears a tunnel that connects to real, unfunny emotions. An undercurrent of hurt runs through the boy’s text, a comic recital of disappointments with women and with life in general. Parents scar their children, the book implies, and not much can be done about that. Therapy to cure the crime of being born is a joke. “I find language plainly embarrassing,” says the character Ben Marcus as he describes a miserable childhood worse than Oliver Twist’s. “It is poor form, bad manners, that so much hope is pinned to such wrong sounds out of the mouth, to what is really only a sophisticated form of shouting and pain.”
One of the curiosities of his writing is how the horizons of the odd world it outlines alter the mind. As one adjusts to the freedom from having to worry about gravity, the weather inside and outside the book begins to swirl in new and unpredictable patterns. When riding a thermal, Marcus’s prose can spiral up and away into sublime nonsense. His most inspired conceit may be the discovery, made by the Silentists, that certain proper names—Nancy, Erin, Patricia, Tina—influence behavior. Your name can determine your destiny. For those who have wondered if life might have turned out differently if they were given another name or parents, this book offers statistical proof your suspicions were correct.
The challenge of the nonlinear, anti-realist literature Marcus yearns for is finding a way to circle back and address the daily crises of life. Determined to thwart our Pavlovian responses to characters and situations, he doesn’t always have anything—except clinical drollery—to take their place. His writing expresses a desire to move readers that it can’t yet fulfill. “In a perfect world, books would give more sexual pleasure,” the character Ben Marcus opines. “People would give more sexual pleasure. Sex would give more sexual pleasure. A storm would come and we could drop our trousers and finally really fuck the wind.”
I wish. In two books now, Marcus has proven himself to be the epitome of the writer’s writer. But he has the talent—and apparently the wish—to be more. Despite its many virtues, his novel is only a cerebral turn-on. Here’s hoping his next one is as visceral and sexy as it is wickedly smart.
Also in This Issue’s Books Section:
Will Friedwald on Lester Leaps In: The Life and Times of Lester “Pres” Young by Douglas Henry Daniels
Shana Liebman on Valentine by Lucius Shepard