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Ben Marcus Explores Silent World in Acclaimed New Book, 'Notable American Women'

By Jason Hollander

Author and Columbia Writing Professor Ben Marcus

If you were to talk to Ben Marcus, assistant professor of writing in the School of the Arts, you would probably find him to be well-mannered, articulate, self-assured and generally at peace with the world around him.

If you were to read his latest work of fiction, "Notable American Women," published by Vintage Books/Random House, you might be inclined to think otherwise. Marcus uses his own name for the novel's protagonist, thus creating the easy assumption that there is much of himself in the troubled character who narrates the bulk of the story.

In the book, readers are taken to an Ohio town where Ben Marcus is being raised by "Silentists," a mysterious group of women who aspire to purify -- and possibly eliminate -- language, minimize human movement and strip the population of displayed emotion. The protagonist begins his story after his father has been imprisoned in a hole in the backyard and talks apathetically of various devices the "Silentists" use to purge him of his feelings.

The world Marcus invents has a unique history -- something of an America gradually stifled since the 19th-century -- and is flooded with neologisms that help explain the warped existence that Marcus' character endures. They include swimming in a "learning pond," drinking "behavior water," utilizing a "fainting tank," and fastening a "language diaper" over his mouth.

But readers should not be fooled by the subject matter and the character name. Ben Marcus, the writer, insists he had a "great childhood." The dystopia he invents is something born out of his long fascination with child rearing and development.

"The Ben Marcus in the book is a version of me if things had gone terribly wrong," he says. "It's kind of a 'What if?' What if my parents had decided I should grow up without feelings?"

Marcus says he has always been intrigued by the fact that people are given the opportunity, through parenting, to essentially "create a creature." The mystery, he says of childhood, is that "for the most part, we don't remember those days. We don't remember what was said to us." With the wealth of influence parents have on shaping their children, and the utterly complex personalities that often do the shaping, Marcus admits, "I'm surprised more people aren't off their rocker."

Choosing to name the narrator after himself will most likely provoke readers to wonder how much of the story comes from Marcus' real life, and he admits that for most authors "no matter what we write, we'll be accused." Marcus maintains that naming the character probably comes from a need to re-invent himself on paper and that any fictional character has a certain degree of the author in them.

"Someone is always behind that fantasy," he says. "It's evidence of yourself, an artifact that you're making to live on."

Using silence as the motivation of the women who dominate the tale was an irony Marcus employed in response to the idea that women's voices have historically been suppressed. He was intrigued by the concept of women rising to power with the notion that silence could be a choice -- and potential weapon -- rather than an affliction. Marcus notes that he does not write with any overt political aims, though he may have been influenced growing up with a mother and sister who are ardent feminists.

Building the strange society of "Notable American Women" was more than just a journey of the imagination. The 34-year-old author says his goal while writing the novel was twofold: to hold his own interest and to create situations for his characters that would concern the reader.

"I want what matters to me to coincide with what matters to other people," Marcus says. "I have some sense of being an ambassador to this place."

Early reviews for the book -- set to arrive in stores by mid March -- say that Marcus' role as "ambassador" is quite successful. Publishers Weekly compares the novel with the craftsmanship of Aldous Huxley's "Brave New World," and George Orwell's "1984," noting that the author has been "anointed by the junior literary establishment as one of its brightest stars."

Library Journal believes "Notable American Women" is "destined to become a significant body of work" and will "surely stand the test of time."

This praise follows Marcus' 1995 debut novel, "The Age of Wire and String," which also garnered acclaim, being called "a rare, genius struck achievement," by Kirkus Reviews.

Despite the flattering accolades, Marcus doesn't expect his work will reach a mass audience. He believes his story might appeal most to especially patient, careful readers. The Texas native writes in a style that is somehow both directive and meandering at the same time, leading one through a maze of definitions and explanations to arrive at a place beyond description. The overwhelming sense of emptiness inherent in "Notable American Women" is easier to connect with than the reality of the world it exists in.

The effort of constructing "Notable American Women" was not an easy one for Marcus. The book is non-linear; the chapters, he notes, could easily have been arranged in several combinations. The author says the experience was like writing 12 different books in one, each with the same intensity. However, Marcus admits that writers often have little control over the direction a book takes. "It starts to tell you what it wants," he says. "The piece starts to grow on its own."

Despite the unconventional structure and style of "Notable American Women," Marcus says he "never had a conscious interest in writing anything fantastical." Reading Donald Barthelme in college did "open a door to imagination" for him, but science fiction was never a genre of choice. Creating the imaginary society of "Notable American Women" is just part of the author's willingness to let his fiction lead him in whatever direction feels right to him. That includes using words to create worlds that may be unrecognizable to others.

"I'm writing in a tradition that isn't quite as popular," says Marcus. "I'd like to see what new things can be done with books and stories."

Published: Mar 01, 2002
Last modified:Sep 18, 2002

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