Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Ben Marcus, the inglorious, unheroic, nobody

I finished Notable American Women by Ben Marcus yesterday. Here's a challenge: read this book and as you're reading it, try to explain to people what it's about. They will look at you like you are describing a very new, very complicated, very unappealing sex position, and maybe Snoop Dogg's there watching from a throne. Regardless, you will be met with, let's just call it, skepticism. As a precautionary measure, it's usually best to show these skeptics the paperback in question. And as prospective readers are wont to do, they will flip over the book to read the usual false, showy superlatives attached to any book of merit: Incredible!, A fantastic journey!, ____'s best yet! Usually as unreliable as a shroom-head's description of a tree. Just a guess. Even someone as dubious as I am about such things (in case that wasn't clear), I was immediately smitten with Marcus. Here's the back of the book:

"Ben Marcus is a genius, one of the most daring, funny, morally engaged and brilliant writers, someone whose work truly makes a difference in the world."—George Saunders

"How can one word from Ben Marcus's rotten, filthy heart be trusted?"—Michael Marcus, Ben's father

It's a combination that stays with you. Even this, even this act of posturing the book as a piece of marketable literature, even this is being subverted. So for someone like me, whose bitters have burned and settled in my own rotten, filthy heart, I knew this was speaking my language. Or I thought I knew. In fact I didn't know that it was doing exactly the opposite of speaking my language by seeming to speak my language.

Let me attempt, as I attempted at many bars over the past week, to explain the mechanisms of this book. Before I say this book is a critique on the very nature of an idea, it must be noted that America is, within the book and as America stands outside the book, also an idea. But now I've gone and told you what I think without even telling you what this book is about. Here goes.

As early as the 19th century, discoveries were being made to suggest that our very existences were poisoning the wind. The language we produced, the motion we produced, the breathing we produced, anything to indicate our proof of being was also a means of sullying the earth. Imagine our current desideratum push for environmental sustainability, followed to its most absurd, grotesque, and unlikely conclusion. Even Woody Allen's Sleeper, a movie about awaking from a coma to discover red meat was good, carrots bad, with poets so dissolute as to ponder the profound word-play of "dog is god backwards"--such an absurd take on our attempts at physiological ablution are at least creatively lodged in Opposites land. But this book is not relying on such a visible foil.

The book takes place on a farm in Ohio, quite the fucking boon for any piece of inspirational note. Behavior modification is necessary in order to deal with regulating our stillness and silence, and who should regulate this but a leader of American women named Jane Dark, who runs the show with a strange nascent army of American women called the "Silentists." Fathers are seen as crude and pathetic blotches on the world, and are interred alive in the backyard, with only small audible pitches from god knows where that are there to engage their small, dull imaginations. At least this is the case with Michael Marcus. There are people who are forced to breed by their mothers and fail at this act, and they go by the name Ben Marcus. When girls are born, they try on names until they fit. Each name should entirely define a person, as she will take her name from the American Bank of Names.

That just gave me heartburn. It's Magic Realism meets Science Fiction meets Global Hysteria. Like all good Ohio families, this book is a sandwiching of father and mother, with a sad law-abiding, self-deprecating (these two go hand-in-hand in this world I'm not even trying to make a political statement about our current status-quo, really I'm not) son named Ben Marcus who can't even "send" his fucking seed into a woman who actually tolerates the experience of sexual intercourse with him.

It should be noted that after this sentence, I closed my laptop and closed my eyes for five hours, which I guess is my loose interpretation of what the kids are calling "sleep." This is only to necessarily drive the point of my commitment to you, dear reader, that it is not simply my complete lack of concision that prevents me from giving you the general weathers of this book. It's just that saying BEN MARCUS IS A FUCKING LOSER only paints half the picture.

The reason I decided this would be a good topic is not just because of how much I enjoy Ben Marcus's exceptional prose. As I read Notable American Women, I could not get Moby Dick out of my head. Namely, Ishmael. Ishmael who is without origin, existing only in the prefab architecture that makes up his present-tense; Ishmael who provides us with outdated notions of whaling and a wonky, parodic take on cetology, the study of whales. This latter choice to do so encapsulates our unprecedented lack of knowledge on the whole business of such an enterprise, and no doubt, this was a choice.

Now, there is quite a difference between Ishmael and Ben Marcus: where Ishmael slips into the invisible realms of third person for most of the book, Ben Marcus is anything but. Another glaring difference: Whaling was, and still is, an extremely dangerous activity all for the sake of oil, and Moby Dick is based on this fact; the inception of the "Silentists" no doubt aligns with women's suffrage, industrialization, and a Hobbian sense of order, but such a group does not actually exist. Where these two DO align has everything to do with falsely encrypting information via a narrator who is not only unreliable, but also unheroic and abashed, whose severe mediocrity somehow allows him to survive the cautionary tale. How does one reduce the person already reduced of character? This must be how they survive so well.

Of course, to speak in this manner should mean that the focus is not on the narrator, Ben Marcus, though he is present and even fucked at points, but on the conceits of the book. And yet, we are fascinated by these flawed male characters. The conceit grows from the vertical graph of the character, who is, at best, fledgling. Which brings me to my next point. Aren't we all Silentists' or interred fathers laughing at and inflicting pain on our speaker? Don't we love watching our speaker curl up and cripple by the exceedingly-heavy blows of existential aloneness? Do we not cruelly amuse ourselves by wondering how long it will take for the speaker to be a bag of bones? And when they make it out alive, aren't we thankful insofar as we were able to properly be delivered the grim portrait of another flawed human being too fused to the implemented laws to even question the rather problematic circumstances that are his genetic make-up? Without that nagging anxiety of heroism?

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