Ben Marcuss 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
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 Saunderss
work. In prose at turns frustrating and exhilarating,
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
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 didnt 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 someones 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
Id be able to write it better. Theres nothing
equal to the urgency one feels after lyingbetter
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 theres 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. Im 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 didnt
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 youre 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
isnt to criticize it), and postures can be faked.
So authoritative speech came down to me as a style, and
its almost dismaying to discover how easy it is
to have people believe you know what youre 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 wasnt satisfied with the new book when it lacked
story, and since I cant naturally write stories
very well, it made me all the more eager to try it. Clarity
is an ambition and a struggle for meI want the fictional
world to be inviting, but Im also interested in
different kinds of rhetoric that many readers are not
accustomed to. Writers are very limited by their grammatical
and rhetorical choicesonce you leave basic sentence
structure and content behind, many readers will abandon
the text because they cant comprehend it. Its
got to be figurative and pretty plain and clear. Its
interesting that painters dont have such a limitationabstraction
is much more acceptable. Its 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 cant
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 dont yet know
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 thats 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 its a story,
though of course theres 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 Ive 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. Its a level of language that seems
to require practice and frequent immersion in order to
be appreciated. Does this make it elite? I dont
know. Language is a really amazing toolto me it
is very much a direct divining mechanism for what we think
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
hes 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 doesnt 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. Its 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
its 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
Teaching at a creative writing program exposes me
to plenty of new energy toward fictionevery 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 writers
pursuit, which to me is healthy to be around. I think
its like any cross-section of literary practitioners:
some are serious and committed artists who cant
become institutionalized, others are trying to see if
its what they want to do. I dont find any
inherent flaws to CW programswriters must make of
them what they want or need. Those who dont are
finding their way to fail. Some come to these programs
and grumble the entire time about their teachers or the
curriculumlegitimate criticisms, probablybut
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 theres 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 thisdoes
the bearded author, wearing the wool blazer with leather
elbow patches, need to get up to speed?
I dont allow bearded men on benmarcus.com,
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 dont
think. Coetzee doesnt 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
Ritchies 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
Finally, I forgot to wear my helmet during the reading
of this book and have been experiencing brief memory loss.
Should I be concerned?