In his debut novel, Notable American Women, literary hipster Ben Marcus relies on clever language and postmodern artifice to philosophize on the kind of thorny topics that make postgrad English majors slaver. Set in an imaginary Ohio, his story revolves around the Silentists, a fascist female cult that seeks self-actualization by purging all motion, and thus emotion, from daily life. A section called "The New Female Head" illustrates the Silentists' behavior modification strategies, which proffer strangely witty yet disturbing instructions on how a woman can "leech herself of grief and rage" by chewing on "emotion-quieting furniture" like a wooden coat rack. This bit also explains how to vanquish "the troubling ambiguity of speech" by consigning one's "inner life" to a "thought rag," a piece of cloth stuffed into the mouth and occasionally shared with others in lieu of conversation. In the Silentists' sad, dark world, "language is a social form of barely controlled weeping," best left bottled up or imbibed in small doses from the "learning pond."
Twisted, provocative, and archly intellectual, Marcus' vision has earned him numerous awards and bylines in smart publications like McSweeney'sand Harper's. Striving to thread together a vast thematic range, Notable American Women deals with coming of age under the tutelage of misguided parents, the pointlessness of asserting individuality in a conformist society, the brutality inherent in post-feminist gender relationships, and the self-loathing that stems from sexual confusion. The author's most engaging concepts involve the cancer of feeling too much (or too little) and the power (and ultimate powerlessness) of language to change the course of fate.
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In its entirety, Marcus' novel doesn't stand up; his quirky narrative devices too often mask his real meaning. But Notable American Women does include plenty of juicy passages guaranteed to inundate your thought rag.