Notable American Women
Calling a novel "The Corrections as imagined by Samuel Beckett" may seem glib, but glibness should be regarded as a tribute to the disarmingly brilliant Notable American Women. A bizarre work of experimental fiction by first-time novelist Ben Marcus, Women tells the somewhat straightforward story of a young boy (named "Ben Marcus") whose parents subscribe to a child-rearing technique governed by various forms of "behavior water" and peculiar language experiments. Marcus' mother belongs to an all-female cult of Silentists led by Jane Dark, a spectral figure in flowing robes who is revered as "someone to disappear against." His father is locked away in an underground cell, left to rail against his resentful wife while berating his son as a traitorous failure. Strictly speaking, Women follows a plot, but the story mostly serves as the catalyst for and byproduct of a sparkling meditation on the powers of language. The enemy of Silentists, language is responsible for the ills of the world, which gets battered by storms brewing from the winds of speech. In Women's mystically clinical dystopia (actually a near-future vision of Ohio), words are used as weapons, capable of bursting human bodies and forever changing the landscape. The same goes for the character-shaping nature of names, the focus of a monumental nationwide study that gives the book its title. Only the author's power as a writer keeps such parlor-game subject matter from falling into coy gimmickry. A frequent contributor to the McSweeney's literary journal, Marcus plies the stony poetics of postmodern figureheads like Donald Barthelme and William H. Gass, while bracing his clever virtuosity with a solemn sense of purpose shared by few of his peers. As both a stylist and a storyteller, Marcus divines moving truths from disparate parts, rubbing unrelated words and plot points together in ways that prove somehow counter-counterintuitive. More than just a formally dazzling debut, though, Women casts inventive light on the universal tale of a family struggling to reconcile its shared sense of disappointment and resentment. With his semiotic concerns woven directly into the story, Marcus equates the ideals and realities of family life with the slippery space separating thought, speech, and meaning. The result is a narrative that fuses the literal and the figurative into a unified concept, and a debut novel that distinguishes Ben Marcus as a name worth remembering.