Ted Pelton reviews Ben Marcus’s novel that’s not one.
Notable American Prose
Notable American Prose
I can’t recall so eagerly awaiting a new book as I did Ben Marcus’s second book, Notable American Women, and it’s a feeling that seems to have been shared by others. Seven years ago, The Age of Wire and String established Marcus as a major new talent in fiction. In the last couple of years, pre-publication excerpts of Notable American Women have appeared in Conjunctions, Fence, and McSweeney’s - all of which serve as good barometers of the contemporary scene - as well as several other prominent literary magazines. The flood of advance praise for Notable American Women is so conspicuous that Vintage Contemporaries more or less tailored their cover design for the book around the blurbs it had acquired for their author. As effusive as these are, from Robert Coover, Gilbert Sorrentino, George Saunders, and others, there is little one can truly disagree with after finishing the book. Notable American Women now confirms that Marcus is no one-hit wonder. He is as innovative and singular a fiction writer as any in current practice in the United States, dateline July, 2002.
Nonetheless, any successful innovative work, especially one as lauded for its originality as Marcus’s, brings with it challenges to the states of the art, questions of a higher order that require discussion and analysis. Is Marcus’s power merely owing to the lyric beauty and versatility of his prose, or does his work bring with it a compelling vision of contemporary life, society, human psychology and interaction? (“The Poet,” Emerson said in his essay of that title, “apprises us not only of his wealth, but of the commonwealth.”) Marcus’s title, purporting to apprise readers of women’s accomplishments, feigns patriarchal condescension, but what does the book actually have to say about gender? Identified as a novel on its cover but quite loose in its interpretation of the form - intentionally elliptical, frequently contenting itself with making only gestures toward narrative and character in favor of inversions of voice and various authoritative, non-fiction discourses (histories, how-to manuals, anthropological accounts, etc.) - does the book open up new space for the novel or fail to achieve wholeness within a received tradition of the form? Are such questions about the form of the novel itself obsolete, as Marcus has suggested in interviews, and as Notable American Women may implicitly infer?
Whew. Let’s take these questions one at a time, and admit at the outset that there is not likely to be found here final word on such problems, but rather surveyings of the terrain into which Marcus’s work leads us. His project is worth the trouble.
I. Style, Vision
Marcus’s status as an innovator is beyond question: with The Age of Wire and String, Marcus debuted a unique way of creating fictions, reminiscent of certain great masters of twentieth-century prose such as Kafka, Stein, and Barthelme, yet entirely distinctive. In the literary magazines one already sees imitators of Marcus’s style: composed with a distant, clinical diction, at once scientific and elliptical, vaguely sci-fi in orientation and interest in futuristic much-like-our-worlds with a difference. Like Kafka, Marcus’s sentences court desperate emotional states any one of us might experience - sudden, sharp pains of experience, all the more desperate due to their origins in banality. The beautiful shapes and unexpected swerves of NAW ‘s sentences are such that they seem to have come from someone in a trance, channeled from some strange elsewhere that is also familiar enough to remind us of our own dreams. Also like Kafka, who so superseded Poe as the master of the short fiction nearly one hundred years ago that he remains the most relevant historical practitioner of the form all these years later, Marcus so enflames quotidian domestic conflicts that they become universal struggles with enormity, with unseen or barely understood agents of evil, frequently figured as conflicts with or between father and mother but always with greater symbolic import, battles with sinister apparatuses of control and enforced mediocrity. The nuclear family is the world in which his protagonists (and the main one, known as “Ben Marcus,” in particular) do battle in NAW, and the twin, gendered adversaries, or parents, have reached such a cruel, final, and archetypal face-off that their contending voices (father having been buried in a cell in the family back yard, mother having joined the political cult responsible for interring him) begin and end Notable American Women. The son Ben wanders in between these two, with only a dog for brief emotional comfort, and with an entire society - both establishment and revolutionary reformers - setting upon him to perform behavioral experiments and social engineering projects.
Realism this ain’t, and amen for that. Frightened by the ever-greater impulses of late-twentieth century narrative toward fragmentation and heightened consideration of the role language plays not only in representing but constructing lived reality, major American publishing houses rarely give a book like this a chance. Indeed, Vintage’s splashy cover disguises the fact that they let Marcus’s first book quickly go out of print, so that the edition available now comes from a reprint from the art-fiction house, Dalkey Archive, even though the book was first only published in the mid-1990s. Stuck as they are in the “original voice” model of fiction, which suggests that fictions, particularly by young authors, be more or less direct representations of their authors’ own thinly disguised experiences, big publishers (always shrinking in number and gaining more power to represent what constitutes literary fiction, in tandem with the increasing prominence of book superstores) have insisted on the dominance of the confession/memoir mode in most of our well-published fiction (not best, mind you, but by far most easily purchased in book superstores, to the point that it becomes difficult to discover writers not partaking in this form). In this climate, a new, horrid genre has even sprung up to stand next to novels: creative non-fiction, which even further and with greater naiveté stabilizes the simple truth-value assumed to be contained in book-length narratives. The few good examples of this form - for instance, Maxine Hong Kingston’s work - are swallowed up in legions of mediocrities that pretend that narrative is a simple operation, that true stories can be told straight-forwardly, accurately, and unproblematically.
In contrast, Marcus’s book never even efforts to be considered verisimilitudinous; everywhere, it deliberately stakes its claims in the realms of the figurative and symbolic. Verisimilitude is, in fact, mocked at the most basic of levels, the book’s title and the names of its central characters: son Ben, his father Michael, and his mother Jane. Even the dullest of readers would never suppose that the author’s father is indeed entombed in the family’s Ohio backyard, nor that such things are told “as if” true (verus, true + similus, like), any more than such a reader would believe that a Prague bureaucrat woke up one morning transformed into a human-sized dung-beetle. Nonetheless, the symbolic pain and powerlessness of the son/protagonist has direct emotional impact. Marcus never achieves this by resorting to sentimentality; the book’s language is alternately lyric and pseudo-logical and removed, as well as creating combinations of these modes. But by this very strategy we gain entrance to his character’s suffering, humiliations, and yearnings. Protagonist Ben’s parents are ashamed of him; his sexuality is a curse. He is forced, in the very middle of the book, in a section called “Failure to Mate,” to endure a series of forced intercourse sessions in which young female “Silentists” come in and sit side-saddle upon him, perhaps wearing “a hood or blinders, a mouth-guard, a helmet.” Here, in this upside-down world, Marcus’s prose is direct, tactile, spare: “I wanted to handle the heads of girls, to grip their faces, clutch their brittle tied-back hair, clasp their necks” (103). Touch, intimacy, is of course denied him. None of the acts of intercourse achieve reproductive success.
Marcus’s prose styles, as noted above, continue to mine territory first staked in The Age of Wire and String. Marcus is a writer’s writer, and various of his contemporary fellow-practitioners have offered technical descriptions of Marcus’s way of creating sentences, like alchemists looking for formulae for the making of gold, descriptions which then pay homage to Marcus’s work’s relevance and accomplishment, praise that goes beyond considerations of mere style. Innovators in American fiction have always had to defend themselves against charges of flippancy and gimmickry, as if the most true stories must also be those told in the least complex ways. Stacey Levine notes, in an interview essay on this site, “the syntactical ring of car repair manuals or religious tracts” in AWS and that Marcus “has toyed with inserting unexpected nouns into the rhetoric of technical manuals or sociological tracts, mixing and mis-matching words on purpose,” techniques likewise employed in Notable American Women. Nonetheless, for her the result is not “formalist experiment-driven narrative, one of the banes of college writing workshops,” but “mysterious pastiches” which “employ both heavy restraint and connotative vocabulary, so while the narrative is often deliberately wooden, a sensation of absence and pathos also lurks, the sort of haunting tenderness that is linked with memory.” Lance Olsen, writing about NAW in Rain Taxi, describes how another technique employed in both works, the redefinition of words utilizing “obsessively self-conscious insertion of abstract dissonance into them (reading, for instance, is defined as `an embarrassing spasm of the body,’ language, as `a social form of barely controlled weeping, a more sophisticated way to cry’), results in writing which “defamiliarizes our engagement with words, text, and the world.’”
Yes, but defamiliarization to what end? Let us examine at length a paragraph from NAW to see to what effects Marcus transforms the familiar world through his own version of making-strange. This excerpt concentrates on an activity which anyone experiencing the book is engaged in, reading, and recasts it in strange light so as to make it appear anew, in a bath of referential possibilities:
If you wish to fondle the author, I should take off my clothes for you and sit on the bed to the tune of a funeral march, or a sound track of your own choice, or no music at all, though I will warn you that my mother has spoiled me for silence and my body sometimes fails to appear in a hushed room; I do not show up so well without sound. There should be mournful music and the smell of warm food, an unimpeachable day of fair weather, and you should be allowed your way with me, until whatever terrible insufficiency you’re nursing has been soothed. At the time of this writing, I am nowhere near my ideal level of compliance. I should be so submissive that something will finally come true for you. You should take out your worst, your most secret fantasy on me. You should use me as a surrogate for what never happened to you, or whatever happened too much, or didn’t happen correctly. (50-1)
Evoked here and literalized is Roland Barthes’s “the reader who takes his pleasure”; likewise, the innocent and typical posture of the reader we see in the opening pages of Italo Calvino’s If On a Winter’s Night a Traveler or in the cliché housewife’s lament that the only thing she curls up with at night is a good book, stressing the sexual element of escapist fantasy in this latter image by presenting the possibility of presence for the absent, naked body of the author (nonetheless still absent for us). At the same time, there are reservations about the pleasure of the text in the paradoxical evocation of a funeral march as the most appropriate accompaniment, punning perhaps on “petit-mort” or Blake’s “marriage hearse.” Music and sound feature prominently throughout the book, as “Ben Marcus” is trained by Silentists who have already instructed his mother in how to be absolutely quiet, equated in the book with not expressing emotions. But then to make noise is figured as an act of violence throughout as well, and the objective correlative is the constant buzz of postmodern America, where no activity, from shopping to being the subject of dental work, is allowed to take place without a soundtrack. It is notable here that Marcus’s use of the word “soundtrack” cleaves it into two words, “sound track,” back to its origins as a neologism in our language, before Hollywood talkies helped usher in an age of American cultural imperialism throughout the world. “Sound track” - two words - makes more clunky and thus tangible what is designed to claim its power invisibly, subliminally, a strategy utilized throughout Notable American Women. That there will be no sex without a soundtrack is the implicit threat of American cultural products: J-Lo (or whoever) writhes and strips on the screen to a tumescent swelling of Muzak. But Marcus figures both high and low culture here, inseparably; Walter Benjamin (in “The Storyteller”) told us about readers of novels years ago: we are warmed by vicarious experiences represented in books of things we do not actually wish to experience ourselves, primarily first-person death, but also unrequited love, tragedy, etc. The self-help blockbuster is also within the realm of Marcus’s referents here. “You should use me as a surrogate for what never happened to you, or whatever happened too much, or didn’t happen correctly”: the book is a space wherein the reader can fantasize not only sexually but psychologically - can come, be repaired, or saved through another. “I should be so submissive that something can finally come true for you”: abjection, irony, sadomasochism, pleasure, derision, humor. Marcus’s language is always going in several directions at once.
It is this multiply significant reading experience that Lance Olsen points to when, after floating several readings of NAW as a whole, he comes to identify it as a “postmodern parable,” where “everything seems simultaneously authentic and inauthentic, moving and cerebral, arch and sad, true and untrue, done and undone.” I chose the above paragraph more or less at random from NAW, a book that never lets up; most any substantive paragraph in the book offers as rich a connotative reading experience, with different handfuls of referents from worlds literary, legal, historical, psychological, political, domestic, religious, corporate, medical, behavioral, archaeological, anthropological, linguistic, dietary, sinister - you name it. Indeed, the language creates an almost terrifyingly formidable effect: “When recited with a German accent, this book might induce crouching” (56).
Symbolic impotence is everywhere in evidence in Marcus’s book’s nightmare vision, beginning with the father’s section, “Bury Your Head.” This opening is a startling, 18-page text, so striking and powerful that, after it was published in Fence,Marcus was appointed fiction editor starting with the next issue. The narrator of “Bury Your Head” is father Michael Marcus, forced to live in a hole in the backyard of the Marcus household, now ruled and used as a headquarters by the Silentist movement, led by the shadowy female messiah, Jane Dark. In his hole, the father not only has involuntarily ceded all of his former authority, but he must endure a constant stream of piped-in, propagandistic language engineered by the Silentists.
There’s more than a little male anxiety in Marcus’s evocation of the pervasive, invasive Silentist movement and the loss of paternal authority that followed Jane Dark’s entrance into the fictive Marcus household, so much so that Marcus’s book might first be perceived as an allegory of postmodern attempts to redress patriarchy and the responses of a young man to establish his own selfhood where all that has traditionally defined it is referred to as an “error”: an intellectual and poetical brother-text to the male angst of Susan Faludi’s interviewees in Stiffed or the teen male killers who have attempted armed takeovers of Columbine and other American high schools in recent years. But if the figuring of an overwhelming and oppressive new women’s movement in Marcus’s fiction seems to fearfully mourn the passing of male-centered family authority, it is also reestablishes such authority, again in similar fashion to Kafka, through a father’s martyrdom that reinvigorates the language-structures of patriarchy. When the Silentists first enter the Marcus household,
I quickly saw too much of my father, an amount of his person I didn’t think possible, which made me scared and disappointed by him at the same time. He should not be viewable so close-up, I thought. He should not be that dismissable. (31)
However, as the first words in Notable American Women, our entrance into the text, are the father’s, the ultimate effect for the son is much like that of Kafka’s “The Judgment,” where the narrator’s father, seemingly ill, powerless and verging on senility, rises from his bed with new strength and potency to reveal that, far from invalidity, he has secretly been controlling the events of his son’s life. The revelation leads Kafka’s Georg to accept his father’s judgment that he should drown himself, a death sentence which arrives coincident with an affirmation of love by the father, simultaneously an affirmation of authoritarian narcissism: “Do you think I didn’t love you, I, from whom you sprung?” (Kafka 86). Marcus’s fictive father gives greater voice to the wounded patriarch, who thickly ladles guilt, disapproval, and statements of judgment. “His complicity with mediocrity has been impressively well realized” (Marcus 11), the father deadpans at one point regarding his son. He calls for his son to commit a “respectfully necessary suicide” (12) and instructs readers to disregard everything his son says: “Given his systematic incompetence and neglect of the one person he was born to love, how can a single word from Ben Marcus’s rotten filthy heart be trusted?” (16). But son can only mime father; father cannot write for himself from his hole in the ground, and son ventriloquizes his words for him, the words of the book we are reading. Kafka-like, the son pronounces his father’s sentence upon his own head.
While one pole of the book is occupied by the guilt-dishing father, the other is the domain of the narrator’s angry mother, who has accepted the program of the Silentists to overturn patriarchy and who offers as justification the servitude in which marriage to Michael Marcus placed her in her naive youth. She addresses herself to the now-captive husband:
Did I ask to be Ben’s mother? I did not. Did I know that you were having sex with me? I did. Did I enjoy it? I did not. Encourage it? No. Did I realize that your rampant thrusting over my inert body would lead to a child such as Ben? I don’t think so. Whose fault is it? Mine, of course. Is anyone else to blame? You are. Do I want something from you now? You’d better fucking believe it. (198)
Jane Marcus consents to participating as well in the reeducation of her son Ben, much as the most severe Maoist would employ the term: as behavior modification towards the acceptance of his own thinking as mistaken and the group’s initiatives as supreme in authority. But, again, lest we think this to be an allegory of post-patriarchal men’s helplessness in a world dominated (or soon-to-be) by the correctives of feminism, we need only to reflect on the book’s formal, narrative strategies. Throughout Notable American Women, seamless discourses of authority which have traditionally claimed power through various patriarchal structures - such as those noted above, of history, law, and other traditionally male-voiced provinces - are relentlessly parodied and inherently problematized. Indeed, Marcus himself (that is, author, not book character) has said in an interview published in Failbetter that his titling of the book is an echo of an actual historical text of the same name:
The title does reference an actual set of women’s histories that, in their early edition, were begrudging and condescending, a kind of “scholarship” that fascinates me, like the wrong anthropology of the turn-of-the-century. Pompous, expert voices that get it all wrong and insult the subject. We can see how fucked-up they are in retrospect, while at the time they might pass as sober voices of authority. Authority, in its rhetorical form, becomes dated in an interesting way. It turns demonic and vicious. The language of expertise can be appallingly mean. As a writer I am attracted to these potent mis-uses of language. (“Interview”)
It is the discourse of fiction that Marcus ends up privileging above all others, in a great tradition of the novel: think of how Cervantes’s Don Quixote, Joyce’s Ulysses, or Coover’s The Public Burning, in different historical moments of the novel’s development, have each mimicked powerful, authoritative discourses to the effect of turning them on their heads and deflating them of power, placing the power of the language arts (here specifically the novel, but in a sense that’s also true in poetry, such as in Charles Olson’s The Maximus Poems) above all other competing voices in terms of reliable authority.
In the book’s interstices, those moments when the other voices cease and something resembling a privileged voice comes through in NAW we see that young Ben’s heart would prefer to reside in the imagination and that the novel privileges something akin to an imprisoned romantic consciousness. Romantic consciousness privileges the subject’s encounter with nature, with all that surrounds the individual subjectivity instilling wonder and yielding an appreciation of how an all-pervading spirit animates us all in such encounters, beginning in and most observable in childhood, prior to society’s “education” which runs counter to the intuitive truths the lyric child knows. The “parents of Ben Marcus” subjected the growing child to exactly this type of program, stifling any romantic illusions: “It was a sobering but necessary task each time,” says Ben’s father of his son’s upbringing, “to remind the little fellow that he had not invented these special things - the buttons and stones and sticks, the disposable hearing cups and seared swatches of cotton - that all the world’s beauty existed before him, and did not require him for survival. He was just a person, and everything he thought and did had already been thought and done” (13). Father now buried in his cell, his mother’s instruction of Ben in the “New Behavior” similarly seeks to disable whatever imagination has survived his upbringing by emphasizing lack of romantic agency: “Ben still sits at the window and sings his warble, runs after the birds with his little arms waving as though he controls them with string. I am trying to discourage his sense that he can influence the life around him, that he is responsible for something that is already occurring. Part of my approach here is the institution of a Powerlessness Emphasis Program. For about an hour each day that Ben is charged to me, I take him around the house and point out things he was not responsible for, mostly tables, chairs, beds, walls, other people” (205). Meet the new boss, same as the old boss: the revolutionary strategy of the New Behavior imposed by the Silentists repeats that which it was purporting to supplant. What Marcus makes clear about how we should read NAW is that he views skeptically any discourse that would claim authority over individual perception, whether doctrinaire feminism (of which the book, all the same, gives a fantastic, aberrant version which is not actually feminism), anti-feminism, or any other -ism. Privileging of the individual consciousness over the forms of authority that would seek to rule and destroy it is an American Romantic strategy at least as old as Moby-Dick.
III. The Novel Form
In the father’s narration that begins Notable American Women, Michael Marcus damns his son’s association with a dog, Pal, through whom Ben has found emotional attachment, a quality everywhere under attack in the reigning ideologies depicted in the book. This condemnation is made in strong, sexually crude terms: according to him, his son has become the dog’s “shandy,” the dog’s “bitch.” “[T]his creature is all over your son,” says the father, employing a distancing second person address, “who is too scared, too secretly pleased, to assert his evolutionary supremacy and beat back the amorous advance, until his shoulders are calloused from the paws of a dog and he practically wears an apron for the animal, so total is his submission” (17).
In the next section, “Shushing the Father,” Pal again appears, this time from the perspective of Ben telling a tender, moving story of his association with the dog who first entered the household in the arms of Jane Dark but who instead of following the prescriptions of the Silentists, initiated Ben in an emotional life with a strong physical component available to him nowhere else. By the end of this section, the dog dies, perhaps at the hands of the Silentists.
What is curious about this aspect of Marcus’s book is that the remainder of the book not only never mentions Pal again, but seems to have been written in utter unawareness that these prior sections existed, as if perhaps the dog were a late addition to the book that didn’t then get incorporated into later appearing, but earlier written, sections. This is speculative, but the absence of such an significant character, albeit animal, in the psycho-sexual-emotional life of the narrator would normally be presumed to be a flaw in a novel that privileges the plight of an imprisoned romantic consciousness, such as I’ve argued NAW does; at least a memory of the prior engagement of romantic imagination which the narrator experienced with Pal would be expected, if not more (the book’s time sequence is not linear, so a death occurring early on would not in itself be logically satisfying as a reason for this later absence). There are indeed later sections of the book which, if the novel was interested in establishing a consistent frame of reference for its narrator’s experiences, the absence of mentions of Pal would be glaring by omission. For instance, in the second half of the book, in a surreal and often hilarious section called “Women’s Pantomime,” this passage appears:
My earliest memories of my father involve his dog mimes, then later a wolf act that became indistinguishable from his real behavior, an addition to his fatherhood that kept him out-of-doors, knocking about in the yard, hard to please. During his dog phase, in the mornings at our Ohio home, he prowled outside my bedroom door and growled and scratched and barked, sending up moans and howls and threatening sounds, sometimes gnashing his teeth as though he were tearing at a piece of meat. He often pretended he was eating me. If I went to the door, still cautious and confused from sleep, to determine what was the ruckus, I’d only hear him scamper away and discover in his place nothing but scratch marks and slobber and a strange odor, along with a hard, dark nugget of waste. Upon my return to bed, he’d be back at it, barking his hard, father’s bark and pawing at my door, throwing himself into it, whining. (130)
Particularly given the father’s condemnation of his son’s own closeness to Pal, ventriloquized through (that is, written by) the son, and given Marcus’s desire to permeate the novel with his alter ego’s imprisoned romantic consciousness, it is surprising that there is no mention of the irony of the father’s behavior, its resemblances or lack of resemblances to the narrator’s experiences with Pal (who also entered and spent hours with the narrator in his bedroom), or an affirmation of his father’s misunderstanding of dog-ness in his “mime.” Nor is there, despite NAW being a book whose representational strategies are frequently attenuated and imagistic, any sense that dog and father are the same and the father’s condemnation a sort of coded self-accusation of abuse: dog and father appear as separate and distinguishable characters in the “Shushing the Father” section. Another possibility is that Marcus is intentionally resisting resolving the book with a “boy and his dog” plot-line, but the effect for this reader, which cannot be intended if the lyrical sections are to be in any way meaningful, is to flatten the book’s central consciousness, make it less full and comprehensive. What is suggested in one sense by Lance Olsen’s term, “a postmodern parable,” may be that the notion of a consciousness is in itself a fiction, that individuals are better understood as collections of the languages that pick them up and operate them. But much of the power of Marcus’s own lyrical language lies in representing emotions and states of consciousness. He isn’t a sideshow hustler engaging in flip displays of surface, but a writer constantly probing and palpating the heart, as with bare fingers. I don’t think it’s his plan to intentionally undermine the centrally represented consciousness by encoding deliberate omissions in the memories of “Ben Marcus,” even though in other ways this consciousness is a deliberately and self-consciously constructed one.
Is NAW, in fact, a novel? The answer might not be as clear as it might first appear. While the cover says plainly, “A Novel,” there was similar confusion about what to call The Age of Wire and String, to the extent that while the cover of that book designates it as “Stories,” the author’s note at the end calls it Marcus’s “first novel.”
Marcus is conscious of the novel-designation question and simultaneously insists that his book is a novel and that such questions have become irrelevant (Marcus’s comments may be seen directly in the Spring/Summer 2001 Failbetter interview). But let me float another possibility. Perhaps Notable American Women is the same genre of text as The Age of Wire and String and was conceived of and executed in much the same way while being composed, not beginning-to-end, but in pieces which were later re-ordered to make sense as a collection. But, wanting to ensure greater distribution and/or seeing how his first work fell quickly out of print with the mainstream publisher, Marcus decided (or was persuaded by Vintage, or the two came to an agreement) that the new book should be designated a novel.
An anecdotal story about the fiction marketplace is relevant here, if I might be indulged. My former roommate in a Creative Writing Program some years ago was always trying to break in as a well-published fiction writer. He’d suffered a torturous upbringing as a child of a mother who ran with Hell’s Angels in the Oakland-Bay Area. About these experiences, he’d crafted painful, powerful short stories, which had been published in a number of literary magazines. But he knew his best way to get published was to write a novel. Despite histrionics in making several attempts to compose one, the resulting manuscripts always seemed wooden compared to his short stories. Finally, he moved to New York and met an agent. The agent was able to sell the story collection to St. Martin’s as a novel, with foreign rights and movie language, and my ex-roommate was instructed to write transitions, continuity clues, and the like for the finished book. The resulting book is, as Marcus refers to AWP in the Levine interview, “episodic,” but nonetheless categorized and published as a novel.
Now, there’s nothing new in writers benefiting from helpful editors. But when people not concerned with literature but with sales are making the decisions about which texts are allied with which literary traditions by, in effect, naming them, then readers who care deeply about literature should be apprised of the situation and factor it into their discussions of form and genres. The marketplace does determine how writers compose their texts, the texts readers ultimately see, and this is true not only of “sell-out” or “commercial” writers. Authors of short fiction collections, especially first collections, are discouraged, and authors of novels, particularly realist novels, encouraged. It may very well be that the cover designation (“stories”) alone was responsible for Vintage’s decision to consign AWS to the quick oblivion which would have ensued had not the book had such great power, but also had not been rescued by Dalkey Archive, one of the few significant small presses which today regularly publishes reprint fiction (only two other examples come to mind, Sun & Moon and FC2). A collection of stories, or as they were sometimes known for a brief time in the 1970s-80s, fictions, is a form which highlights by its very nature artifice, as compared to the novel, all other things being equal. A collection is a series of performances, and requires more difficult justifications if it is to be made to fit the publishers’ dominant desires for “authentic voices,” this notion presuming as it does that an author generally has a central story to tell - that of growing up on a Caribbean island with a headstrong mother obsessed with the sanctity of virginity, or growing up in Ireland in extreme poverty with a hopelessly drunken father (oh, sorry, I forgot, that one’s “Creative Non-Fiction”), or of a mother and daughter whose individual senses of pride put them at odds until the mother teaches the daughter the value of maintaining relationships with the help of her childhood friends and the scrapbook they all kept together long ago. A series of performances by a relatively unknown author which utilize different compositional strategies, feature different characters and/or wide-ranging concerns within the same volume, or foreground political rather than psychological concerns are simply less likely to be published, and their writers more likely to remain obscure and unread than if we had a more open and hopeful publishing establishment, with some commitment to the art of fiction rather than relentless kow-towing to the corporate bottom line via oft-tested narrative formulae. These are realities of the marketplace which pertain to the signifying of Notable American Women as a “novel,” and writers and readers should be concerned about them.
Marcus is assuredly one of the good guys - perhaps even a hero - in this battle, which is ultimately about creating a more vibrant contemporary literature, outside of purely received mimetic strategies and away from an ultimately simplistic view of lived experience that bequeaths us fictions that do little to change that view. Marcus clearly challenges the status quo:
A writer makes another mistake, I think, in believing that the things that happen are the things that make up a life. Maybe your real life is everything you don’t know about, ideas and feelings you haven’t confirmed or even imagined yet. The writing is instantly more powerful if there is an act of discovery on the writer’s part as well, as Stein points out. If you look at…Michel Leiris or the novels of Thomas Bernhard, you can see a menacing form of self-discovery at work, in which the author does not congratulate himself for his insights, as does the common memoirist, who shows off psychological platitudes at every turn, but rather is continually punished by the truths that his language seems intent on revealing. The task, for me, is to build a body beyond what my daily life has evidenced, to discover the outer possibilities of my heart and mind and possibly, as a result, produce a new kind of animal. (qtd. in Levine)
Such a project involves redefinitions of genres, part of the study of literature. Literature should always remain a space of redefinition; it always has been (though admittedly not always without battles to maintain this tendency toward fluidity). And the novel? The very name of the form suggests that innovation is a necessary part of its project. My complaint here is not that Marcus’s book is too formally radical to be called a novel. David Markson, Carole Maso, and Raymond Federman, to give three very different examples, have all authored fictions which could be said to be more deliberate in their desires to alter the basic form of the genre than Marcus. At the same time, one of my favorite novels of the recent years, Kenneth Bernard’s From the District File, is episodic precisely in the way NAW is, while successfully resolving issues of consistency in its protagonist’s consciousness. That NAW ‘s episodic nature does not suit the novel form is not at all my contention. My discomfort with the use of (and failures to use) the Pal character given the book’s centrally privileged narrative consciousness may, indeed, be an overly subjective response with which other readers will not agree. I am simply unsure why Marcus doesn’t tie up this loose end, and I suspect that it is because the marketplace encouraged him to call the book something it isn’t quite. Notable American Women is a stunning performance, to be sure, and a book I would recommend to everyone interested in the current state of American fiction. But I’m not certain it’s successful as a novel.
In summation, then, two points:
1) Any serious artist is involved, by definition, with the traditions of his or her chosen art. Questions of genre and the like thus remain relevant in discussions of current work until it is shown why they are not, again in dialogue with the past. T. S. Eliot said much the same thing years ago in “Tradition and the Individual Talent”: “No poet, no artist of any sort, has his complete meaning alone. His significance, his appreciation is the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets and artists” (Eliot 49). We can see Marcus measuring himself in a like way in the quotation above, mentioning Stein, Leiris, Bernard. It is perfectly natural that he do so; he is obviously a writer who is very aware of from whence he came, and Notable American Women itself shows his degree of care with regard to his significant predecessors. It also shows that Marcus may be a large part of what is yet to come. (We can also have faith that his editorship at Fence will prove more open than was Eliot’s at Faber & Faber!)
2) Until we are an entirely digital society - and perhaps not even then - authors’ works speak to readers through publishers, who are neither invisible transmitters of authorly production nor motivated in their decision-making by primarily literary concerns. Marketplace decisions have direct bearing on literary questions. Thus, when reading and discussing contemporary works - particularly serious fiction, a genre divided between concerns of money and art - we should be critically aware of the role of publishers, and how they may influence and label the texts we read.
Eliot, T. S. “Tradition and the Individual Talent.” The Sacred Wood. 1923. New York: Methuen, 1983.
Emerson, Ralph Waldo. “The Poet.” 1844. Essays and Lectures. New York: Library of America, 1983.
Kafka, Franz. “The Judgment.” The Complete Stories and Parables. Trans. Willa and Edwin Muir. 1943. New York: Quality Paperback Bookclub, 1983.
Levine, Stacey. “An Interview with Ben Marcus.” EBR. Posted. 05-02-02
Marcus, Ben. The Age of Wire and String. Normal, IL: Dalkey Archive, 1998.
—. “Interview with Ben Marcus.” failbetter.com. Vol. II, issue II (Spring/Summer 2001). Available at: http://www.failbetter.com/ SpringSummer2001/Marcus.htm.
—. Notable American Women. New York: Vintage, 2002.
Olsen, Lance. “Notable American Women.” Rain Taxi Review of Books. Vol. 7, no. 1, 11.