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Notable American Women

3.84 of 5 stars 3.84  ·  rating details  ·  748 ratings  ·  91 reviews
Ben Marcus achieved cult status and gained the admiration of his peers with his first book, The Age of Wire and String. With Notable American Women he goes well beyond that first achievement to create something radically wonderful, a novel set in a world so fully imagined that it creates its own reality.

On a farm in Ohio, American women led by Jane Dark practice all means
Paperback, 243 pages
Published March 19th 2002 by Vintage
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Labyrinths by Jorge Luis BorgesSlaughterhouse-Five by Kurt VonnegutPale Fire by Vladimir NabokovIf on a Winter's Night a Traveler by Italo CalvinoThe Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka
61 Essential Postmodern Reads: Los Angeles Times
32nd out of 60 books — 13 voters
Infinite Jest by David Foster WallaceGravity's Rainbow by Thomas PynchonSlaughterhouse-Five by Kurt VonnegutIf on a Winter's Night a Traveler by Italo CalvinoThe Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon
Postmodern Genius
146th out of 414 books — 316 voters

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Community Reviews

(showing 1-30 of 1,688)
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Joshua Nomen-Mutatio
A wise man once said, "Hell yeah, motherfucker. You're gonna love this." Such wisdom remains etched as it first was at the head of the communication boxes below. Verily, I say unto you, this language vessel rises above the din of most experimental or surreal endeavors. It is surely not the only such book concerned with the nature of language and meaning and reality, or assembled with slyly strung together and unrelenting and astounding oddness, but it does more in the service of agitating the re ...more
Ian Heidin[+]Fisch
Understanding a Genius is Overrated

If you were ever confronted by a true genius, how would you deal with them?

Would you just accept them as they are, or would you try to understand what made them so?

Based on my reading of his second book (the first of his I've read), I suspect that Ben Marcus is a genius.

It’s possible that you could learn a lot about "Ben Marcus", one of the narrators, just by reading this book. However, even his fictional mother is dismissive of understanding:

"Understanding is
What follows is a review I wrote on June 13th, 2003 for the book Notable American Women by the author Ben Marcus. It was written for a consumer review website, and that website had some standards for how a review should be written, and I followed them at the time. You'll notice an absence of fucks, they didn't allow cursing, and if there was cursing it had to be censored. I don't think there are any fucks in this review, so you won't see any F***'s, I don't think. I just skimmed through the revi ...more
Nate D
Mar 25, 2013 Nate D rated it 4 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: the speaking tube in the field out back
Recommended to Nate D by: bathing in behavior water
Ben Marcus' writing is a kind of synaesthesia, a movement of once-familiar terms across modalities (language, physiology and medicine, sociology) into the deeply unfamiliar. Those threads of familiarity are strong, though. They lead straight back to the source and can still call up a convulsive empathy. In a book and world as wholly bizarre as this one, this constitutes nearly an act of magic.

Of Marcus' other books, both of which excel in certain ways, The Age of Wire and String is the most vis
Ashley Crawford
Ben Marcus
The Age of Wire and String
Notable American Women

If, in the ‘postmodern’ canon David Foster Wallace made claim to the footnote and Mark Z. Danielewski to crazed typography, then in The Age of Wire and String Ben Marcus has pretty much secured The Glossary as his initial trademark feature.

The Glossary has, of course, been used in fiction before – most recently by Neal Stephenson in his massive Anathem – but never before, as far as I know, has it made up the entirety of a work of fiction.
Aug 05, 2007 Jenny rated it 5 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: everyone
Shelves: fiction
my friend farmer brown was always telling me to read this, and i was always asking him, is it, like, history? when he sent it to me, i read it. it's definitely not history. it's fiction, and the best i can say about it is that sometimes, reading on my morning subway commute, i had to close the book and quick distract myself just to keep from throwing up. i mean, it's one of my favorites.
This book is very strange, and I didn't know what to make of it for a while. Ben Marcus is a boy living in a cult of women who believe in silence and at times communicate with motion and other times want to ban motion. They also try to use Ben for breeding purposes. The bulk of the book is Ben explaining the rules and history of the cult, but from the perspective of someone who has always lived within its confines...basically, the book reads very clinically at times. I was ready to dismiss it fo ...more
Matthew Peck
Ben Marcus's debut novel defies convention in form, style, and content. There's family ("Ben Marcus" and his parents) at the center, living on a farmhouse-turned-compound in a dystopian Akron. Mrs. Marcus has come under the influence of a visionary cult leader named Jane Dark, who espouses a philosophy of extreme self-denial where absolute silence and stillness are seen as the ideal mode of existence. Mr. Marcus, meanwhile, has been exiled to an underground prison cell in the back forty, while y ...more
Li'l Vishnu
“In the next card, the boy received a shock if he tried to enter the father’s shadow. Cards showed him being flung back as if from a force field, sparks roving over his body.” — p. 160

This book comes from a genre I like to call Prize-Winning Humor. It is funny, particularly if you are a panel of judges.

I'd say it's something like a imaginary thesis, there is almost no dialogue. It imposes a rigid structure: a tale, an FAQ, some empirical evidence, then a timeline. This is repeated three times, b
ben marcus's book is as good as it is off-putting. i got hypnotised at times by the reinvention of language - the way he describes the activities, beliefs and diets of the followers of jane dark (a movement of women who strive for complete stillness and silence, using a vowel-only language, eating nuts and specially brewed water, and soaking up the angry air of sound and emotion [mainly created by men] with pieces of linen). fascinating stuff, and beautifully written throughout.

i was carried alo
Aug 23, 2007 Rob rated it 5 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: open-minded people looking for something totally unique
Shelves: fiction
if i didn't give this book 5 stars, i might have to give it 2. it is truly avant-garde, and i think many, many people who pick this book up will get about a third of the way through it and then just throw it against the wall.

the first and last chapters are actually fairly coherent and remarkable. they are riveting, chilling, hilarious, and bizarre. but the body of the book consists of an (almost?) incomprehensible series of, what, nightmare collage flashbacks? alternating with "historical" biogr
Any attempt to describe this book is confusing.

Roughly speaking, it is a book made out of language.

Language is the main character.

The language is set in a Midwest that is as abstract as the landscapes in Wallace Stevens poems, and concerns a cult of women who ritualize stillness and silence.

There is another character, a boy, the narrator who lives among the women as a kind of captive in a war between the sexes.

That war is described in the lyrical and formal epistolary language of diplomacy,
This might be slightly less compelling than The Age of Wire and String. It's missing the shock of the totally new. The longer form means it's more diffuse and Marcus has increased the sense of an actual mimetic story going on (from "none" to "some", which is a long way). On the other hand, this makes some of the surrealism even more unnerving.

So what we've eventually got here is by far the oddest troubled family semi-autobiographical soap opera memoir you'll ever read. Where The Age of Wire and
Yes Ben Marcus is daring and wicked smart he echoes Barthelme but I feel nothing when I read his books. Nothing. I'm impressed yes but Lonesome Dove now that's more up my ally, or anything by Harry Crews, Ben's part of the in-crowd of the literary world along with George Saunders and like him I fear he likes the sound of his own literary voice too much there's a lot of literary muscle here but very little literary heart, "Notable American Woman" is much like Nicolas Winding Refn's new film "Only ...more
Bryan Dunn
I hate this book. I hate it in a way that's difficult to put into words.

It's unapologetically intellectual; I don't mean that as an insult or a compliment, more an observation. There isn't any emotional involvement here, unless you count the love the author has for language itself. Technically, it's inventive and ambitious. I think it succeeds at everything it sets out to do. It's the novel equivalent of listening to deliberately atonal music. There's a staggering amount of talent and intelligen
I stand from a social fiction bias, but I couldn't really glean much from this novel when I stepped away from the sentence to sentence breakdown. The language is imaginative, and I think that was the basic point of his work. However, the novel failed to evoke any kind of emotional response from me. In my mind, it is the physical and emotion responses that make fiction worth reading again. Notable American Women just functioned as brain exercise.
Robert Stewart
Couldn't finish this. I've read a fair amount of what's known as plotless fiction, most of which I've enjoyed; some of which I've loved. The letter from the father, Michael Marcus, at the beginning of this book, is hilarious. Everything seemed full of promise. I read another 80 pages beyond that, and was disappointed to the point where I was avoiding picking it up. For me, it's never an easy decision to stop reading a book.
The syntax, prose and Marcus's ability to use language as an art is cream of the crop. To good to be ignored by any language or word geeks.
N.A.W. is a dystopian novel, that while it is a little strange, it isn't something you read for plot.
Ben Marcus is terrifyingly brilliant. He is too smart, too clever, too beyond the pale for casual consumption. He might be an alien, or a computer program, and if so, his programmer should be cut up and eaten as baby food.
So surreal and weird, and fixated on language almost to the point of feeling clinical, but an amazingly personal story too. Marcus is one of the most experimental writers out there, but, surprise surprise, not boring at all.
Drew Lackovic
Ok so Ben Marcus is phenomenal but a very acquired phenomenal. This book worked for me. It worked well. There were parts that really sparked my interest, and I burned through a whole lot of pages in the really way too limited morning reading period of my so-called existence. HOWEVER, if you haven't read his first book, The Age of Wire and String, then I'm not sure what, if anything, will be gleaned from this book. Marcus crafts an alternative world narrative that's so tight, so true to itself, t ...more
A few people have commented on the wrapping text, the first and last chapters of this novel. As in "Age of Wire and String," the wrap-text does a kind of shuffle, aw-gee kind of introduction to the meat of the book, which, like "Age..." is composed in Marcus's novel diction, while the wrap-texts come closer to plain-speech.

For me, at least, these two chapters convince me that this is actually a novel, rather than a collection of pieces-- which it is, of course. In this, then, Marcus's efforts,
Oct 09, 2007 Summer rated it 2 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: curiosity collectors
I started reading this book because I appreciated a couple essays and/or periodical contributions by Ben Marcus. But this book... I was absolutely committed until it was over. I was ready to spread the gospel of Ben Marcus wherever and whenever, until the book ended and nothing had made my brain explode. The language was expertly crafted, yes, but by the last fifty pages it felt formulaic. The story? Wildly creative, but no funny no so true it hurts no heartache for the family unit. Or, if they ...more
I had the strange experience of two things directly related to Ben Marcus happen during the reading of this book:

1. My girlfriend got into the MFA Creative Writing Program at Columbia (Marcus is a chair in the dept.)

2. I met Ben Marcus at Columbia, sort of. I sat behind him and my girlfriend conversed with him.

These strange but inconsequential coincidences are the kind that I imagine Ben Marcus likes. After all, in one sense this entire book is about inconsequential details that are pulled out a
Part of me wants to give this novel one star because it has some of the most off-putting content I've ever come across, and the author is very obviously using this content to try to show how innovative and daring he is. Yet there are parts of this book that actually ARE innovative and daring, but they are not the moments when the author is doing his best to press the readers' buttons. Almost everything sexual in this novel seemed designed to show that the author was flaunting tradition in some w ...more
This one was a slog. I know it's "experimental fiction" and I'm supposed to be patient and let it re-program my brain a little, but I just couldn't find a way in. The book is (more or less) about a group of women in Ohio who live in an isolated compound where they perform behavior modification experiments to eliminate all movement and emotion. The story is narrated mainly by a character named Ben Marcus whose mother is part of the group (cult?) and whose father may or may not be buried alive in ...more
Eric Phetteplace
Great, surreal book with a variety of forms: lists of historical events, lists of names and their effects on women, a stillness contract, what passes for normal Ben Marcus narrative, intro by the father and outro by the mother. I like how Marcus translates our universe into something entirely other, where ordinary objects (cloth, water, spoken words) transform into almost magical, strange devices. My only complaint would be that, even at a paltry 242 pages, things get sort of boring and repetiti ...more
Strange and wonderful book full of odd ideas and impossible sentences. There is a straightforward story in there of a boy growing up in a all female cult on a farm in Ohio. Told mainly from the boys point of view through descriptions of what is going on around him and happening to him. But the book is all about the writing and this is where it is in a class of it's own. Marcus has come up with a very experimental style which is also incredibly readable and manages to be very funny, pretty horrif ...more
Brent Legault
Mar 09, 2008 Brent Legault rated it 5 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: angry fathers, loving sons
I never could get comfortable with this book. The book, and what the book was saying, never let me cozy up to it. This is not the kind of book I could, for example, read next to a crackling fireplace, wrapped up in a bear rug, brandy snifter and meerschaum close at hand. (Not that I own any of those things.) Every sentence unsettled me. Every page unhinged me. I wanted to hug this book many times. I wanted to get close to it, you know, muss its hair, chuck its chin. But it was like having a love ...more
Ben Marcus, you are a swell dude. Maybe Swell Dude of the Year. But this book was a slog to get through. Notable American Women is less of a novel than an experiment…about an experiment. Every page inundates you with supremely unsettling set pieces concerning the toxicity of language, of suffocation by and for women, and of polluting emotions. The words on the page bludgeoned me almost as hard as the words in the story bludgeoned the characters. All the same, Marcus's sentences can be startingly ...more
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Seemingly the most conspicuous aspect of Ben Marcus' work, to date, is its expansion on one of the most primary concerns of the original Surrealist authors -- perhaps most typified by Benjamin Péret, husband of the acclaimed painter Remedios Varo -- this being a very deep interest in the psychological service and implication of symbols and the manners by which those symbols can be maneuvered and r ...more
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“Spelling is a way to make words safe, at least for now, until another technology appears to soften attacks launched from the mouth.” 11 likes
“A misspelled word is probably an alias for some desperate call for aid, which is bound to fail.” 6 likes
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