The advance copy of Ben Marcus’ new novel, Notable American Women, came with laudatory quotes from George Saunders and Aimee Bender, two writers at the heart of what might be a new genre: Call it parallax fiction, because the stories always take place in a fancifully skewed version of reality. Less techno than sci-fi, less mystical than magical realism, this new kind of storytelling is characterized by dark and trenchant social satire. Its roots go back to Jonathan Swift via William Burroughs, and its practitioners include Saunders, Bender, J.G. Ballard and Chuck Palahniuk. Where this genre departs most sharply from the bulk of contemporary fiction (Updike, Bellow, Carver, Morrison, or anything on Oprah) is in its concern for the politics of culture and skepticism toward individual psychology.
True to form, Marcus‘ book takes place in a fully imagined parallel universe. The narrator of the story, a character also named Ben Marcus, is a boy living in a farmhouse with his parents in a fictional ”Ohio.“ In this world, men speak a language made of consonants, while the women speak a language consisting only of vowels. Ben’s parents have raised him to have no emotions, and by the time the story begins a strange project has escalated. Ben‘s mother has invited a woman named Jane Dark to use the farmhouse as headquarters for her all-female cult, the ”Silentists.“ The cult’s alienated women must sign a ”Promise of Stillness“ that reads, in part: ”I admit that even by speaking or shouting or murmuring or babbling or humming, I crowd my personal airspace, and thus someone‘s potential personal airspace, with code and thus limit the insertion of codes by others, deny their entry, hoard their airways, create a blockade. For this and other crimes of motion, I hereby admit my guilt.“
The Silentists’ project is nothing less than total, tyrannical world domination through that most feminine of evils: passive aggression. The women hold Ben‘s father captive in an underground cell, and Ben is also a captive, tied down and forced to spend endless hours copulating with the Silentists as they seek to reproduce.
This plot summary makes Notable American Women sound far more rollicking and story-driven than it actually is. Marcus’ writing style is fractured and experimental, and he seems to have deliberately eschewed any sense of narrative momentum. His writing is fluid; but his abstract structure seems pointlessly difficult.
Still, where Marcus‘ prose soars, it soars very high — into gorgeous, undiscovered territory, where he has a knack for turning tough ideas into poetry. In a chapter titled ”Blueprint,“ authornarrator Marcus declares: ”A person is always camouflage for something small and soft and possibly buriable. Often he should be killed to discover what he has been aliasing, even if it is just the most perfect thing: a person-sized piece of empty space.“ It’s hard to imagine a more effective expression of the hearty American tendency toward alienation. Marcus‘ use of jury-rigged words like buriable and aliasing has a wonderful effect, enlivening the language and calling our attention to a phenomenon unique to the fiction experience: the possibility of encountering truly fresh, unbelievably precise instances of meaning and expression.
Less successfully, Marcus fre-quently uses Ballard’s technique of inventing a faux-techno-speak to offset our sense of reality. The result is self-referential passages, such as: ”This book required seven Simplification Batch Processes on the Language Cleaner Machine in order to render a legally binding one-hundred-word summary of its contents for the Annual Brochure of All Texts. The resulting one-hundred-word summary of this book proved too legally similar to the Declaration of Independence to be included here.“
This kind of language can be very entertaining, but in Marcus‘ hands it is sometimes more cute than true. The reference to the Declaration of Independence feels like a colorful non sequitur. The problem is that for a book to be this rigorous a read, it needs to be rigorously written, and at times Notable American Women succumbs to its own charms, growing discursively clever.
Marcus is at his best when focusing on the small scale, as when he is riffing on the meaning inherent in certain women’s names: ”From afar, the Susan appears to be buckling, shivering, seizing, its body exhibiting properties of a mirage. Up close, there is mass to Susan and it is real to the touch.“ And, ”The Erin is a key girl in many American houses. It is often misnamed Julie, Joanne, or Samantha, and sometimes it is clothed as a man. As a man, it is still beautiful, although less visible, and prone to lose color during sleep.“
The book is full of such gems, phrases and notions that pop when you read them like novelty candies that fizz in your mouth. So much more a pity, then, that Notable American Women is such a slogging read. Its 243 pages are so dense and fragmented, that a diligent, motivated reader needs at least three days to get through them.
With his first book, The Age of Wire and String, Marcus used a more successful format, a series of one-page ”stories“ that stand alone as prose-poems and also add up to something along the way. By rendering his uncompromisingly inventive prose more incremental, Marcus made it accessible and increased the potency of his words and his world-view.
That said, Notable American Women is worth the effort. Especially at a time when the American family experience is being defined by dummy literature like Jonathan Franzen‘s bloated blockbuster, The Corrections. For all its flaws and difficulties, Marcus’ book is a true work of art, an exciting thing to encounter in any genre.