All photos by Zeke Middleton
A Vivid Place
An interview with Notable American Women author Ben Marcus
By Eric Maxson

Ben Marcus’s latest book Notable American Women (Vintage) is often described as "strange." And certainly, in a world where "strange" is becoming increasingly difficult to apply with any conviction, Mr. Marcus's book is full of genuine strangeness.

Notable American Women is the story of the fictional Marcus family and their Ohio home. It is also a fictional history pamphlet of a women's cult called the Silentists, who shun language and attempt to void all emotion. The Silentists and their leader, Jane Dark, occupy the Marcuses' home, and the fictional Ben Marcus (also called the "Ben Marcus life project") is subject to their emotion-removal experiments.

The style of Notable American Women is similar to that in Marcus's first book, The Age of Wire and String, in that the tension between detachment and emotion creates a haunting effect. The narration is coldly rational, but the rationality is full of repressed memories and trauma. The result is a fully formed and disorienting world in which cloth, wind, water, and words all play a major role. The reader is advised to wear a helmet, and it is a justifiable request.

Notable American Women, however, is not a dour book. Its dark humor is comparable to the absurdity of George Saunders’s work. In prose at turns frustrating and exhilarating, Mr. Marcus attempts a unique vision, and part of his success is simply in the attempt. This makes it a difficult book to sum up. Notable American Women is a strange novel that is full of unknowns and at the same time entirely familiar.

I recently spoke with Ben via e-mail and asked him some questions about Notable American Women.

Gadfly: Notable American Women was some years in the making. After the critical success of your first book [The Age of Wire and String] did you ever tire of the "What are you working on now?" question? What kinds of pressure did this create for you?

Ben Marcus: Summarizing Notable American Women always seemed dishonest to me, because I didn’t know what structure the book was going to take until just before I finished it. Sometimes it was a fictional history of women in America, focusing on the Silentists who protested all sound. Other times it was the story of a boy being raised to have no feelings. It seemed better to have a quick, vivid answer, because no one really wants to hear what someone’s book is about, just as no one expects a detailed answer to the question: How are you? I often made up stuff if people asked me, hoping that what I said might come true and I’d be able to write it better. There’s nothing equal to the urgency one feels after lying–better cover your tracks to make something come true. The pressure I felt over the years was always due to the discrepancy between what I dreamed the book might be and what it was actually becoming, horribly falling short every day. For me there’s always a terrible gap between my capabilities and my aspirations.

Some of this book seems to have grown out of The Age of Wire and String, taking it further, so to speak. Was this a conscious decision? Did you feel the need to expand on this world you've created?

I went back and forth on this, but in the end I probably wrote just what I was capable of writing. I’m not sure that my will played much of a role in the end. The Age of Wire and String seemed to me, for a while after I wrote it, to be a book that featured technique. I didn’t have a specific world I was trying to render, but the sentence techniques I used often seemed to indicate a kind of unity to the book. Notable American Women is more story driven, for better or worse, and I tried to avoid technique for its own sake. Age of Wire has far more lyrical flights that now seem like demonstrations of a way of seeing, a mode of language. In NAW I avoided language for its own sake, as much as I could, and tried to build a vivid place.

Your parents are both academics. How did this fuel your growth and work? While this book is obviously not all that autobiographical, I ask because the "Ben Marcus life project" doesn't seem that far off from what some highly educated parents subject their children to.

Having academic parents might have exposed me to attitudes of knowingness: people who spoke with authority on a range of subjects. When you’re a kid and have no idea what these people at the dinner table are talking about, what is memorable is the way they say things, not what they say. Expertise revealed itself to me as a posture (which isn’t to criticize it), and postures can be faked. So authoritative speech came down to me as a style, and it’s almost dismaying to discover how easy it is to have people believe you know what you’re talking about. But emotionally my parents were both very warm and engaged, and I was a weepy little fool, hypersensitive, and cared for more than I probably deserved.

This book is much more narrative-based than The Age of Wire and String. Is this an attempt to reach an audience that may have been lost in your previous work? Does your love of language collide with readers’ love of story?

I wasn’t satisfied with the new book when it lacked story, and since I can’t naturally write stories very well, it made me all the more eager to try it. Clarity is an ambition and a struggle for me–I want the fictional world to be inviting, but I’m also interested in different kinds of rhetoric that many readers are not accustomed to. Writers are very limited by their grammatical and rhetorical choices–once you leave basic sentence structure and content behind, many readers will abandon the text because they can’t comprehend it. It’s got to be figurative and pretty plain and clear. It’s interesting that painters don’t have such a limitation–abstraction is much more acceptable. 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. But the sentence is supposedly the medium of the literary artist, even though we know it is not. Yet, for me, as a writer, to not recognize that readers will have trouble reading me is self-deceiving, so I frequently wonder how to best serve my fictional world and deliver it with precision, clarity, and feeling to a reader. I imagine it can somehow be done without compromise, though I don’t yet know how.

What do you think drives this preference for story and clarity over the sentence? Is it simply the amount of effort that must be invested?

Maybe that’s like asking why people eat or drink water. Story must be a deep and pretty permanent need, something the body wants. Story can directly address the basic emotions and dramatize fear and joy. And story does not strictly require language. On the other hand, language as a medium to be honed and subverted, pushed and pulled into odd service, probably is not as important to as many people. A good story, it seems to me, often helps you forget that it’s a story, though of course there’s a tradition that believes otherwise. It is a total experience, and can be a complete escape from daily concerns. Language itself, to me, is a technology, and obviously has the simplest to the most complex of uses. What I’ve noticed, though, is that many forms of literary English are like a foreign language to a lot of people who are not routinely exposed to language in this form. It’s a level of language that seems to require practice and frequent immersion in order to be appreciated. Does this make it elite? I don’t know. Language is a really amazing tool–to me it is very much a direct divining mechanism for what we think and feel.

You and a few other writers (for example, George Saunders) seem to be working a territory that is darkly hilarious, but more than anything, deeply compassionate. Some of the cynicism of the past years has been shed. Is there a moral aspect to this book?

I never really know what the word "moral" means in reference to fiction. With Saunders, you see a writer of true innovation who can still write a classically structured story, almost in the model of Chekhov. Yet of course what he’s doing is brilliant and new, precisely because it marries classical form with a more apocalyptic vision.  The deep emotional currents in his work suggest that he doesn’t want a reader just to appreciate his inventions and his otherwordliness. His stories can be crushingly sad, and they prove that writing with arch, ironic components need not be capricious. Some of the metafiction of the sixties was formally impressive, but often so amused with itself that there was no room for deep feeling to occur. It’s an interesting time in fiction now, because the techniques pioneered by Barthes, Coover, Barthelme, et al., are reappearing with distinctly personal spins, with plunging attempts at feeling. I think it’s an exciting direction for what was once considered cerebral writing. It also shows that even hardcore formalism can have a sentimental side.

Like many writers working today, you also teach at a creative writing program [at Columbia]. What are the benefits/costs of teaching? Do you have any thoughts on what seems to be the increasing institutionalization of art?

Teaching at a creative writing program exposes me to plenty of new energy toward fiction–every kind of approach, much ambition, and a healthy skepticism for the reigning order. There can also be the usual innocence and arrogance that can accompany a younger writer’s pursuit, which to me is healthy to be around. I think it’s like any cross-section of literary practitioners: some are serious and committed artists who can’t become institutionalized, others are trying to see if it’s what they want to do. I don’t find any inherent flaws to CW programs–writers must make of them what they want or need. Those who don’t are finding their way to fail. Some come to these programs and grumble the entire time about their teachers or the curriculum–legitimate criticisms, probably–but it can be a misdirected form of complaint, kind of beside the point. The programs themselves are occasions to write and be read, to read others, and to discover and overcome obstacles. I see enough writing students who approach programs in this way to feel that there’s nothing terribly wrong with the whole thing.

With the release of Notable American Women you have incorporated a web site and demonstrations of the book's concepts at your readings. Do you think literature needs to adapt to the culture we now live in? I guess what I'm getting at is this–does the bearded author, wearing the wool blazer with leather elbow patches, need to get up to speed?

I don’t allow bearded men on, except under special circumstances, and on holidays. To be honest, though, those supplements I offer at readings or online probably reflect my sense of insufficiency: the book is no good or incomplete, the readings would otherwise be dull. It comes out of limitations in my work, not related to some general cultural movement, I don’t think. Coetzee doesn’t need to do all that extra crap, you know? He just writes amazing books.

You have a collaborative book with the artist Matthew Ritchie, called The Father Costume, coming out in May. Can you tell me how this came about?

Artspace Books publishes collaborations between writers and artists and they asked me to do one, and to choose an artist. I had just seen and admired some of Matthew Ritchie’s paintings, so we got together and decided to try a piece involving cloth and time, mutual sort of ridiculous interests. I went off and wrote The Father Costume, sent it to him, and he made images to go with it.  

Finally, I forgot to wear my helmet during the reading of this book and have been experiencing brief memory loss. Should I be concerned?