The title of this novel, Notable American Women, sounds like one of those encyclopedic works that stales on a library shelf without ever becoming obsolete or outdated. After all, once a person is considered notable, the mere passing of time cannot make her unnotable. This is one of the principles that makes history possible. One can pass into its chapters and find it nearly impossible to exit.
In much the same way, writer Ben Marcus has ensnared himself in the pages of this, his second strange work of fiction. The first was the sparkling short-story collection, The Age of Wire and String.
In Notable American Women, Marcus writes a story of writing a story, in which the author is caught in the spotlight, like the man behind the curtain in The Wizard of Oz. He’s the awkward operator of a mechanical god. And he wants you to know it.
In the first chapter, the author’s father, Michael Marcus, is imprisoned by his family in a dark basement cell; he warns the reader of the author’s flaws, weaknesses, propensities for misguided thought and inconsistencies of the wildest varieties. And after the reader’s confidence is adequately shaken by the father’s hypercritical rants, Marcus (as Marcus) begins a disjointed, hollowed-out narrative that echoes with vague confessions, an airy, ethereal sensuality and pale, barely recognizable sketches of traditional themes, both mythological and literary.
Through his skewed childhood recollections, Marcus surrenders any semblance of bland reality to a cloudy boyhood fantasy dominated by females. Between present-time struggles with writing the book itself, Marcus revisits his childhood home, a hostile place occupied by sirenlike young women under the leadership of the mystical Jane Dark. Later, Marcus tells of the teachings of a female Jesus.
His spiritual confusion, sexual repression and linguistic oppression take shape in the imprisonment of the father, the alienation of the son and what resembles the future-speak used by Orwell, Vonnegut et al.
The “story” culminates in the final chapter, “The Launch,” which suggests birth or beginning, but turns out to be a macabre letter to the reader from the mother, Jane. It’s haunting, but an oddly appropriate finish for this engaging, puzzling and uniquely daring book.
E-mail Norene Cashen at [email protected].