Friday, March 13, 2009

YotA Book #5: Ben Marcus, NOTABLE AMERICAN WOMEN

In this book, the word "decoy" means "person". A person is always camouflage for something small and soft and possibly buriable.

A one-sentence review: this may be my favorite book I've ever read, and I'm not sure I can recommend it to anybody I know.

Okay, a bit more. Ben Marcus wrote another book I loved, THE AGE OF WIRE AND STRING, a perplexing book written as a series of brief essays where ordinary words are repurposed for different uses to unlikely and surprisingly evocative results. Unlike many of his peers, Marcus doesn't write sentences with particularly difficult words or structures; he writes sentences that are difficult because they raid our vocabulary for such unexpected results, and rewarding in equal measure to their unexpectedness.

Which may lead you to ask what the fuck am I talking about. Fair enough. For instance, a brief excerpt from a subsection of NOTABLE AMERICAN WOMEN, the second (and thus far only other) novel by Marcus, by turns more conventional and much more deeply strange, called System Requirements:

This book is unfortunately designed for people. People are considered as areas that resist light, mistakes in the air, collision sweet spots. At the time of this writing, the whole world is a crime scene: People eat space with their bodies; they are rain decayers; the wind is slaughtered when they move. A retaliation is probably coming.

The paragraph continues, but it's worth noting here, apart from the awesomeness of this writing as stand-alone arbitrary brilliance, that unlike many practitioners of contemporary literature, Marcus isn't just throwing some amusing shit against the wall to see what sticks. I had no idea the first time I read this, but virtually every idea in these sentences is refracted elsewhere in the book.

The lead character of the book is named Ben Marcus, and two of the other lead characters are his parents; one of them, his father, is being kept underground in the back yard while he is assaulted with language through a tube, and the opening diatribe is written from his point of view; the closing epistle, meanwhile, is written from the point of view of his mother, who outlines her parenting plans for Ben (and her husband's enforced role in them), amidst her attempt to achieve true silence.

That probably doesn't make much sense, nor would it make much sense to tell you that many pages are devoted to stuffing different fabrics into mouths to absorb emotions, the medical effects of various names upon Ben's sister, or instructions on proper diet while reading the novel.

Does this all sound silly? Occasionally it is; I laughed out loud, quite a few times. But it's also a deeply sad, passionately felt questioning of the entire enterprise of self-improvement and other-improvement, of the scientific method; of what we do to each other and how we do it.

All that said, I can't imagine that most people I know would be excited to stick with it; it hurt my brain deeply during the opening half, trying to adjust to reading normal sentences that didn't seem to make a damn bit of sense, and I fully appreciate why most would not mistake that for pleasure. But if anyone has read it or does read it, let me know what you thought, and if you found it as awesome as I did.

3 comments:

roberto said...

I am a glutton for punishing writing such as you describe. sounds awesome, i am sold. I've added to my wishlist.

At first impression it reminded of Raymond Roussel. What was that book of his where he started each sentence with a homonym of the last word of the previous sentence?

dd said...

I've never even heard of Roussel. I'll have to investigate when I return, let me know if you have any recommendations of where to begin.

roberto said...

I've read Impressions of Africa, New Impressions of Africa, Locus Solus and the Foucault book about him.

I think there are english translations of some of these books, but i dont know how easily they would be to find. YOu can fairly easily find spanish translations and french originals. I read him in spanish (except for the foucault book) and it seemed to work for the most part. I wish my french was better. I'm not sure how the english would read.

The Foucault book (death and the labyrinth) is probably not the worst place to start.

oh man, I just found this great review of New Impressions of Africa - http://www.themodernword.com/reviews/roussel_impressions.html - and now i'm curious to get this english version with the uncut pages and all.

"how i wrote some of my books" would seem like a good place to start as well, but i've never read it.