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Notable American Women by Ben Marcus
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Notable American Women

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Notable American Women by Ben Marcus
Paperback $15.95
Mar 19, 2002 | ISBN 9780375713781

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  • Mar 19, 2002 | ISBN 9780375713781

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  • Dec 18, 2007 | ISBN 9780307427052

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"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

"Ben Marcus has created an innovative and unflinching portrait of the turmoil of the human condition, providing the reader a most rare gift: something truly new. Notable American Women contains strains of Donald Antrim and Samuel Beckett but is beholden to neither; it is a brave, original book." —Myla Goldberg

"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

"Marcus (The Age of Wire and String) has crafted a dystopian novel in the tradition of Brave New World and 1984, with an overlay of 21st-century irony and faux naïveté. 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." —Publisher’s Weekly

"For another disturbing book about breeding, try Notable American Women by Ben Marcus, an allegory about a misdirected child-rearing experiment (a boy is raised to have no feelings) that makes for a stunning, strange and beautiful novel." —Esquire

"[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

"Ben Marcus’s first novel Notable American Women is a beautifully strange and compelling family allegory—Midwest mum and dad raise their son to shun all emotions—rendered in language that seems imported from a universe of deepest feeling, of intellect, of poetry, and, in the end, of majestic heart."—Elle

"[A] darkly funny caricature of modern life."—Time Out New York

Author Q&A

Q: The novel’s opening line is "I am probably Ben Marcus." Just who is this Ben Marcus, and what distinguishes him from Ben Marcus, the author? How much of the novel is autobiographical?

A: The Ben Marcus in the book is a version of me if things had gone terribly wrong when I was growing up.  It’s a kind of What If? Ben Marcus. What if my parents had decided I should grow up without feelings? What if my mother met a mesmerizing cult leader named Jane Dark? What if my father was entombed in the backyard while the Silentists took over the house? Using my own name is a way for me to believe the story is real. If there is an autobiographical aspect, it is emotional. The fears I had as a child, the sense of my family as fragile, the idea that even the physics of the world could suddenly change, leaving something frightening and unknown in its place. If I can be afraid of it, then it’s autobigraphical, and maybe it’s worth trying to write about. But the Ben Marcus in the book is the Ben Marcus I hope never comes true.

Q: What inspired you to write this book?

A: I once wondered if my parents had conducted psychological experiments on me as a kid. This would account for me feeling different, "not like the others," something almost everyone I know used to feel. When we raise kids, we tell them how to behave. We explain, as best we can, how the world works. There’s so much power involved in being a parent–what if that power was put to a strange, terrible use? What we believe as kids is very fragile, but it’s also a time when we are in touch with the biggest questions: Who are we? What are we here for? I wanted to write a novel that would recreate that place of wonder and strangeness.

Q: You also have a very unique writing style that seems to devise new uses for language. Have you made a conscious decision to challenge the traditional forms of storytelling?

A: No, that was an accident. There was the story of this family, but I also needed to describe the emotion removal procedures they undertook: the fainting, the pantomime, the special food. These sections needed a different sort of writing, something closer to nonfiction, which might make the book seem like a document of a real place. I knew that I was imagining crazy things, and a fake documentary format could help it feel more believable. My ideal was a skewed non-fiction book with dubious facts, but one that still told a story.

Q: Members of the Marcus family appear in NOTABLE AMERICAN WOMEN. In fact, both parents narrate different portions of the book. Did you draw from your own personal history in creating the characters of Ben’s parents? What did they think about appearing in the novel?

A: My parents don’t yet know they’ve written parts of my novel. This should be a big surprise for them.  Maybe they’ll be happy to have been published. I wonder if they should be paid? I guess it’s the opposite of telling my life story and changing the names. Here I’ve kept the names, but I’ve totally invented the story. The parents in the book are fairly disturbed and cold, whereas my own parents could not be sweeter and more loving. I like the idea that readers might wonder how true this all is. The story is more sad if people think it really happened. And sad, in a novel, is good.

Q: Jane Dark is a mysterious character, and her Silentist movement is very conscious of gender. Do you feel this has the potential for some controversy? Do you anticipate a feminist response to this book?

A: I wanted, maybe crazily, to think about the differences between men and women in some way that wasn’t overtly political. I know that many people think this is impossible, and dangerous, to do. On top of that, my mother and sister (in real life) are both feminist professors, so I thankfully grew up believing in gender equality in every sense. Maybe I thought the bloodlines would protect me from criticism. I wanted the differences between men and women in the book to be mythical: women are immune to certain kinds of weather, they have sharper hearing, their gestures can control people’s feelings. If anything, I’ve imagined women with more power. I’ll be interested to see if feminists take affront, because I’d kill for some of the powers women have in this book.

Q: In the book, Ben’s parents try to raise their son to have no emotions, subjecting him to bizarre diets and elaborate pantomime, and gesturing to him through "behavior flashcards." Ben Marcus also introduces the novel by inviting readers to pull characters from the page and manipulate them, including himself. How do these elements of control relate to personal freedom and the role of the family? Is there a connection between being an author and being a parent?

A: The obvious difference is that we can try things in a book that we could never try in real life, the same way dreams allow us to practice at danger and taboo without being punished or killed. The Ben Marcus character laments that characters from books are not real, that you cannot touch them. As vivid and real as a book might be, it’s only words on the page. There’s a sadness to this. I have memories from books that are more real than ones of my life. Maybe this novel rehearses a worst-case scenario for a family while fantasizing about some perfect book where you could control all of the characters, the same way parents might control their children. When I finished the book, I still couldn’t help thinking that the book had failed because my readers could not take me home and play with me.

Q: Which authors have influenced you? What contemporary authors’ work do you feel is most akin to your own writing?

A: I like the hell-bent and stirring writers: Thomas Bernhard, Richard Yates, Philip Roth, David Gates, Kenzabaro Oe, Coetzee. The hilarious, innovative ones: Donald Barthelme, Padgett Powell, Mark Leyner, David Foster Wallace, Kobo Abe, Donald Antrim. And the ones who did it all: Flann O’Brien, Borges, Beckett, Nabokov, Flannery O’Connor, Jane Bowles, Raymond Roussel. But most akin to my own writing?  So hard to say. I know who I wish I wrote like: a genetic cocktail of everyone above.

Q: You have published parts of NOTABLE AMERICAN WOMEN in literary journals such as McSweeney’s, Tin House, and Bomb. Is there something about these journals or the authors who appear in them that particularly relates to your work?

A: The editors of these journals seem keen to give space to new writers. I love this. What’s great about American fiction is that the tradition is strong, but is always being challenged by newcomers. Cheever, O’Connor, Carver, George Saunders–they all published in literary journals, and they were all once an afront to the old guard. It keeps storytelling strong. When my work appears in journals like these, I know I’ll find at least some readers, like myself, looking to be moved and challenged in new ways.

Q: You teach creative writing at Columbia University. What kinds of guidelines do you set for your students? How many of these rules does NOTABLE AMERICAN WOMEN break?

A: Yeah, I’m a hypocrite. My novel probably breaks every rule I’ve ever given to students. But the best students are the ones who look at me slightly askance if I’m ever dumb enough to lay down guidelines. They learn to mistrust rules. Whatever tradition students are interested in, I ask them to be emotionally true, to write something that might hold a reader’s attention absolutely. The goal is for their stories to reveal what it’s really like to be alive. As unusual as my book might be, I really wanted it to be hugely emotional. My ambition for my students is the same: no matter what form you choose, make it matter to people. It has to matter.

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