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Notable American Women: A Novel Paperback – March 19, 2002

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Editorial Reviews Review

For the ambition and creativity he displays alone, Ben Marcus has written a very memorable debut novel with Notable American Women. Marcus demonstrates an extraordinary stylistic ability in this challenging and bizarre account of family life within an oppressive cult. The author places himself within the novel as a character whose mother joins and hosts a feminist group known as the Silentists, whose goal is to put "an end to motion and noise" for the purpose of complete "emotion removal."

The strange and fantastical novel is composed primarily of the fictional Marcus's explanation of the leaders, rules, and history of the Silentists, as well as a description of his youth spent in the group's Ohio compound as a test subject and sire for a planned "emotion-free" society. Most accurately classified as science fiction (though often darkly humorous), Women maintains an unsettling balance between absurdity and horror, shifting its subject from the academic to the domestic. Yet throughout, the narrators maintain a cold distance between themselves and the events they're describing, reflecting their lack of emotion through an objective tone and placing the reader squarely in the emotional vacuum in which the fictional Marcus is raised. The effect is akin to viewing the world from behind glass, or from behind a layer of shed skin, as the fictional Marcus does when he wears the empty husk of his sister. A heart can be found in the novel, however, that is well worth discovering: beyond its detached creepiness lies an allegory deeply concerned with the dangers of conformity and the maniacal pursuit of human advancement. --Ross Doll

From Publishers Weekly

Conceptual daring, deadpan humor and dizzying forays into allegory mark Marcus's first novel, the semi-science-fictional tale of a boy raised in a futuristic Ohio by his experimentalist parents and a sect of radical women Silentists. Ben Marcus, as the young protagonist is called, is made to swim in a "learning pond," drink "behavior water," follow the "Thompson Food Scheme" and take "language enemas." This regimen, designed by Silentist matriarch Jane Dark, is intended to purge Ben of all emotion, to "zero out [his] heart." Ben's father, who introduces the book with a bitter message to the reader, has been banished by the Silentists to a hole in the ground behind the house; Ben's mother, who bids the reader farewell at book's end, is a remorseless Silentist disciplinarian. Ben himself, taught to eschew all personal expression, tries to present a strictly utilitarian narrative of his upbringing weaving in a history of the Silentist movement, a disquisition on female names, and a manual of Silentist behavior and yet cannot help expressing the distress he feels in the smothering grasp of Jane Dark and her minions. 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 na‹vet‚. 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. (Mar. 12)Forecast: Anointed by the junior literary establishment as one of its brightest stars (sections of Notable American Women have already appeared in McSweeney's, Harper's and Tin House), Marcus will get major review coverage. A strong ad/promo campaign, a 10-city author tour and a clever, minimalist cover will help push this comfortably priced paperback original.

Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.


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Product Details

  • Paperback: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage; 1st Vintage Contemporaries ed edition (March 19, 2002)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0375713786
  • ISBN-13: 978-0375713781
  • Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 0.6 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (27 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #289,994 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Ben Marcus is the author of The Flame Alphabet, Notable American Women, The Father Costume, and The Age of Wire and String. His most recent book is a collection short stories, Leaving the Sea, published by Knopf in January, 2014. His short stories have appeared in Harper's, The New Yorker, The Paris Review, Electric Literature, Granta, The Believer, McSweeney's, Conjunctions, and Tin House. He is editor of The Anchor Book of New American Short Stories, and a new anthology of stories that he has edited -- New American Stories -- will be published by Vintage Books in July, 2015. Among his awards are a Guggenheim Fellowship, a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in fiction, three Pushcart Prizes, the Berlin Prize, and awards from Creative Capital and The American Academy of Arts and Letters. Since 2000 he has been on the faculty at Columbia University.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

36 of 41 people found the following review helpful By James Wallis on May 4, 2003
Format: Paperback
This is not an easy book. It is a difficult book. It is not a conventional book. It is not a conventionally unconventional book. It is challenging. "Hey," it says, "want a fight?"
It is not for people who like happy endings or, for that matter, endings.
Ben Marcus's prose glistens darkly, heavy and slug-like, subtle, sublime and subliminal. You may have to read it aloud to yourself to understand its full weight. If you do this in public, you will be arrested.
If you thought "A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius" redefined the scope of what a novel could be and threw down the gauntlet to modern writers, then you are unlikely to get beyond the sixth page of Notable American Women. But you're welcome to try.
Not as good as The Age of Wire and String, but the moon is not as good as the sun.
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20 of 23 people found the following review helpful By John C. on March 7, 2004
Format: Paperback
Mr. Marcus seems to be a little misunderstood and rightly so; he is not completely interested in being completely understood as far as I can tell. Notable American Women by Ben Marcus is probably not for everyone (and yes, some books are or should be). First, if you are interested in notable American women, this book isn't about that. If you are happy by nature or genuinely miss diagramming sentences, you may not like this book. I mean that with no innuendo. The book is boldly, perhaps brazenly, creative, cynical and hilarious. But if the near-incessant cynicism is unpalatable to you, it simply won't be that funny. For me, when this book is not completely on the mark nailing Skinnerian human nature (not nailing it to anything, mind you, just hammering it), Marcus' use of language is enough to completely engage me. This book is a matter of words more so than most books. There is great insight, humanity and humor here (I laughed out loud often), but your enjoyment, I think, will ultimately depend on your patience with a creative and relatively unrestrained lyrical prose that is more purely portrayed in Marcus' The Age of Wire and String. In my opinion, a plot helps, so I enjoyed this book more than I did Wire and String. There is talk of Notable American Women being science fiction, I dunno, maybe, sorta, sure. I give it 5 stars because that's how much I liked it.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful By Bartolo on October 10, 2010
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
When someone writes a straight biography of Ben Marcus, I will be a customer. For this surreal parody of a feminist cult, set in the Ohio of his boyhood, must be in some ways autobiographical, but taken to absurd, imaginative extremes. It would be fun to discover which of the cockamamie inventions, therapies, theories are based partly in fact and which are made up from whole cloth, for most resemble no cult or human consciousness movement I've ever heard of.

But I welcome Marcus as obviously one of the most gifted postmodern authors of his generation, perhaps the most innovative, and often the most hilarious. Now that Beckett and Gilbert Sorrentino are both gone, it's important for serious literary art to be fueled by a sense of humor, and preferably a ferocious one. A mark of general awareness of the human condition? You decide.

Marcus has a huge and varied vocabulary, obviously a feel for the sound of words, and chisels his sentences like a modern-day Flaubert. This is part of the glory of his writing here, and also cause for effort on the reader's part. I didn't find the writing settle into a rhythm that pulled me along, as happens with so much literature, even Beckett's, but a staccato series of sentences and paragraphs, self-consciously hewn. But this is certainly worth the trouble: as with modernist and postmodernist writers from Joyce onward, slowing one's reading pace is well worth the rewards of originality , certainly of Marcus' verbal pyrotechnics.

Other reviews here will make up for what I've omitted in this description, but I wanted to add my own encomiums. Few of the younger generation have risen to take up the challenge left by Beckett, Perec, Calvino, Sorrentino and others; but we have Marcus, presumably at the dawn of a long and rich career, and, happily, writing in our own American idiom.
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11 of 15 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on June 9, 2002
Format: Paperback
I first picked up "Notable American Women: A Novel" because (blushing) the cover caught my eye. I didn't know anything about the book itself, nor the author Ben Marcus. It was, as other reviewers have said, very original and unique. The plot is based on lists of what to eat, what to wear, how to act, etc. in Ben Marcus' world, a place where women dominate. However, the plot was where I had my issues with the book. It is up the reader to soak up the bits and pieces of plot from the lists and descriptions, and although some things he points out about our modern culture hits the target dead center, other ideas I had trouble accepting. For readers who are willing to try something new or put a lot of weight on originality, try this book. For all others, read this with an open mind, and be prepared for something VERY different.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By Verve on June 16, 2012
Format: Paperback
There are few writers that I can read over and over, but some force you to do so, and in doing so your reap the rewards - this novel is a challenging read - but that is what I favour... being able to return to a work and in each reading coming across elements I had not found before, or which had not hit me quite so intensely in the earlier reading(s) - making the work somehow new again, deeper, more fulfilling... Jayne Joso is another author who has this effect - with lines that plant themselves in your memory and which you find yourself musing over later on in a cafe - or lying awake some night... check out both these authors - and I strongly recommend Perfect Architect and Soothing Music for Stray Cats.
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