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Notable American Women

3.81  ·  Rating details ·  901 Ratings  ·  109 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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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 "Marvin" Graye
Jun 15, 2012 rated it it was amazing
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
Vit Babenco
Mar 30, 2016 rated it it was amazing
“Except Dark did not speak at night because the darkness lowered her voice so much, it frightened her women. She slept in a sentry harness outside my mother’s bedroom door, her hands dangling like roots, wrapped in the translucent linen that was starting to fill our house, baffling every sound-making thing until nothing more than the smallest whimpers could escape from it. She rested and kept watch. Even sleeping, she muted our house with her long, soft body, a silence that lasted well into the ...more
May 26, 2007 rated it it was ok
Shelves: fiction
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 11, 2013 rated it really liked it
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
Jan 08, 2009 rated it it was amazing
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.
Jul 19, 2011 rated it it was ok
Shelves: fiction
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
Jul 16, 2007 rated it it was amazing
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.
Nov 27, 2011 rated it really liked it
Shelves: book-club
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
Bryan Dunn
Jun 20, 2012 rated it did not like it
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
Jul 13, 2017 rated it really liked it
Maybe he didn't know it at the time, but when Admiral Akbar yelled his now-famous warning ("It's a trap!"), he could have just as easily been talking about language. The way it shapes us, the way it labels us, the way it restricts and controls us. (It has a few positive aspects, too, but let us not digress.)

Joking. Digression is next to godliness. Or is that digestion that induces cleanliness which then.. ? Some where some body keeps track of these things. Probably a Ben Marcus. Many a Ben Marcu
Matthew Peck
Feb 09, 2014 rated it really liked it
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
Nov 04, 2008 rated it it was ok
“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
Oct 17, 2016 rated it really liked it
“Healthy, sturdy, ‘strong people’ (an oxymoron) are welcome to do their best to fetch this book into their persons through whatever word-eating technology they favor: reading, scanning, the poultice, a Brown Hat. But healthy, study, and strong people probably don’t need to be reading a book, do not miss anything in their lives that would make them want to waste time sitting down with a book that, admittedly, won’t do much to add to their strength or confidence or well-being, properties that are ...more
Aug 22, 2007 rated it it was amazing
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
Sep 25, 2013 rated it it was amazing
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,
Jack Rousseau
Sep 11, 2015 rated it really liked it
Recommended to Jack by: Robert Earl Stewart
The Jonathan Franzen - Ben Marcus feud well documented. The gist of it being that Jonathan Franzen is dismissive of challenging authors. Embodied by William Gaddis, or "Mr. Difficult" as Franzen calls him. (What does this say about Franzen's attitude toward female authors? We already know how Franzen feels about female readers, based on his reaction to being inducted into the Oprah Hall of Fame.) Whereas Ben Marcus champions experimental and innovative forms of writing.
For readers who dismiss Be
Jul 08, 2010 rated it it was amazing
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
Mar 04, 2014 rated it it was ok
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
Josh Friedlander
It's all very well to abandon the trappings of the conventional novel and write a book about the annihilation of language, in which the language itself is alienated, flattened and harsh. But surely there must be some point behind it all - not just a painful repetition of bizarre sadism, patricidal angst, and a trove of weirdness from the vintage Americana jumble sale? Feels all too much like an angry undergrad essay, stretched out far beyond its flimsy premise, signifying a disdain for the normc ...more
Jeff Jackson
Mar 27, 2013 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: book-club-2
A world where the act of speaking creates weather disturbances, fathers are imprisoned in holes, women have taken vows of stillness, and language towels stuffed inside the mouth are a must. Ben Marcus makes these absurdist situations at once screamingly funny, oddly tender, and heartbreakingly sad. Imagine an inverted version of "The Handmaid's Tale" with parts of "Tender Buttons" grafted into its DNA and you're still only partway there. A singular achievement and a major American novel.
Apr 30, 2012 rated it liked it
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
Jul 21, 2011 rated it did not like it
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.
Feb 01, 2013 rated it it was amazing
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.
Jul 16, 2012 rated it liked it
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.
Sep 30, 2007 rated it really liked it
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.
Aug 20, 2007 rated it really liked it
Marcus continues his language parade with this odd autobiography from some dystopian otherworld (maybe a world thought up by Borges and Barthelme). Absolutely strange beauty.
Aug 25, 2017 rated it it was ok
Having recently enjoyed the author's short story in The New Yorker, I really wanted to like this book. But no. He attempted to re-invent the novel and left us with an obtuse mess. Poorly drawn and unengaging characters, with little plot. It makes me sad to say that this book goes nowhere.
Dylan Hussey
Jul 15, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: favorites
I very much enjoyed Notable American Women and understood it completely. Paul Sahre's 'Man Burps Clouds' is a fun edition to a fun book. I've known a few notable American women in my time, though none as notable as Mrs. Dark. Someone should tell Ben Marcus his author's photograph makes him look like a violent egg (I'm sure someone already has).
Aj Sterkel
Jul 09, 2015 rated it it was ok
Shelves: literary-fiction
I saw this book on a list of experimental novels, and the premise immediately got my attention: The main character (also named Ben Marcus) is living on a farm that has been taken over by a group of women who are trying to stay completely still and silent. The women imprison Ben’s meddling father in an underground cell and use Ben and his sister for strange behavior-altering experiments. The women speak in an all-vowel language, ride around on sleds to avoid walking, faint voluntarily, and brew w ...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.” 13 likes
“A misspelled word is probably an alias for some desperate call for aid, which is bound to fail.” 8 likes
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