Rating: 4 stars
Read for The Reader’s Room Winter Challenge
Recently I watched The Man Who Fell To Earth for the first time. It’s a strange film, I didn’t understand all of it, I found some scenes confusing and uncomfortable, but I enjoyed the shape and colour of it. That’s how I feel about Ben Marcus’s books. They unsettle me in an enjoyable way, and quite often I have no idea what’s going on.
This is the third Ben Marcus book I’ve read. There are definite themes across each work. Dysfunctional relationships, sexual inadequacy, father-son issues, not feeling manly enough, possible misogyny. There are distortions of language, oblique references to the human condition that only dawn on you when you’ve peeled your way through the clingfilm of condensation that Marcus stretches over the narrative.
With Notable American Women, in a Paul Auster kind of way, Ben Marcus presents a book written by Ben Marcus, but it’s a different Ben Marcus. One from a different reality. On the face of it, the book tells the story of a dystopian society. It’s set in America but not the America we know. As I read the book, I came to realise that it was about a dysfunctional family as seen through the filter that Ben uses to process the world.
The book starts with a letter written by Ben Marcus’s father, Michael, who is imprisoned underground. Somehow he has a copy of his son Ben Marcus’s book that relates Ben’s experiences of an all female society led by a woman named Jane Dark. Michael comes across as a bully in this introduction. He rejects the son Ben has become and tries to warn the reader against trusting him. No reason is given as to why we should trust Michael over Ben.
Because everything reminds me of the 45th President of the USA at the moment, Michael reminded me of that weak bullying man who currently sits in the White House spewing out lies that support his view of the world.
Michael asserts that, as the progenitor of Ben, he is in a way the author of Ben’s work, and therefore has the right to insist that it is destroyed before it can do any harm. He uses the kind of language about his son that people use when they are losing an argument or have something of their own to cover up. He resorts to insult. He seeks to cast doubt on Ben’s capabilities, on his truthfulness. He lets us know without any doubt that he’s disappointed in how Ben has turned out. Some of his opinions about Ben are shocking.
Michael suggests that Ben’s brain was manipulated as a baby by feeding him a substance, an all-vowel language nutrition, that creates a “women’s brain”, whatever that means. Michael doesn’t seem to like women. That further predisposed me against him, and I didn’t want to believe his narrative.
When Ben’s narrative begins, it’s clear that he processes the world differently. There is something Faulknerian about his delivery, something that put me in mind of Benjy in The Sound and the Fury. It’s not quite stream of consciousness, but there is something different about it. Something dissonant. Certain things that Michael has said might be true, although his manner of saying them still predisposed me against him. Ben views Michael through a prism that might be the result of abuse. There’s a pond that he refers to as the learning pond, in a way that made me wonder if his father used it in some manner of correctional way.
Ben’s isolated and experimental existence, and especially the weird parent-child relationships, reminded me of The Wasp Factory. There’s a similar level of darkness presented as normality.
When Jane Dark commandeers the house and sets up her commune of women who are striving to be silent, Michael Marcus is banished to a field behind the house, and eventually to imprisonment underground. There was something about the way these events were described that made me surmise that this had been an abusive house. Ben had never heard his mother speak before Jane’s arrival. Michael comes across as a manipulative, weak man, one whom Ben describes as being more than willing to be an accomplice in his own capture. Jane’s arrival put me in mind of an intervention, in the way she took control and removed Michael. Usurped him.
Jane also brings a dog with her. The dog becomes a strange focus for Ben’s feelings. There’s a hint in the way Ben relates to Pal that Ben might have ASD.
Ben’s narrative about his experiences at the centre and the edges of Jane’s cult are interspersed with information about the cult’s history. The book is an exploration of The Silentists, of whom Jane Dark appears to be a corrupted leader. She has somehow refined the movement into something oppressive. The history of how this came about dots the narrative. One thing that stood out for me was the way names are important to the movement. People, mainly girls, don’t have one name, they have different names dependent on what behaviour is required of them. People cease to be individuals as a result.
The book ends with a letter from Jane Marcus, Ben’s mother, addressed to Ben’s father. In it, she explains how she feels about motherhood, and how she feels about Michael’s imposition on her in bringing her to the state of motherhood. She’s also a piece of work, also unlikeable, although I liked her far more than I did Michael. She is more analytical than Michael, and articulates her grievances more clearly. She seems the more intelligent, less emotional of the pair. That doesn’t change the fact that neither one of them is fit to be a parent. Poor Ben. While neither of his parents seem to love him, viewing him more as an experiment than a person, Jane at least seems concerned for his future. Unlike Michael who only seems concerned with his own comforts.
It’s quite a depressing book. I spent a fair bit of time pondering whether it is misogynist or whether it’s an allegory for women being so sick of subjugation that they take control of their silence for their own purposes. There are elements in it that speak of ways to pacify women and render them inert, but also elements that speak of women subverting their subjugation by men by using their near invisibility and supposed passivity to reject men and make them redundant in all but the need for sperm. I’m still not sure how I feel about it, especially given that I’ve now had the same antenna twitch from all three of Marcus’s books that I’ve read. Smoke, fire, etc. I expect that he would say I’m free to read into his words anything I want to. The strangeness of his prose accommodates a variety of interpretations.
As ever with Ben Marcus (the real one, not the fictional character), the meanings of words are slightly off, in a way that reminds me of the surreal, or maybe Dadaist humour of Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer. Its absurdist nature also makes me think of Stanley Unwin. Using indistinct phrases to refer to the commonplace, “repetitive shelters” instead of saying houses or buildings being a straightforward example, is a use of language that slightly unsettles because it’s just on the edge of being normal. It alerts the reading brain that all is not quite as it should be. It’s similar to the official speak people use when they don’t feel confident about their knowledge, filling sentences with big, occasionally made up words to sound more knowledgeable than they are. They of course end up sounding ridiculous. Or when people (politicians) avoid answering a question directly by using a range of words that sound like they might be an answer but are in reality devoid of sense.
Things that are horrific, if you stop long enough to think about them, are described in pleasant everyday terms, making them blackly funny and consequently even more horrific when you realise what you’re laughing at. Abuse of all stripes features regularly in this book. Or can be inferred to exist.
Another feature of Marcus’s writing is the inclusion of an interpretation manual for what you’re reading. In this book it appears as a blueprint. As well as that trope of introducing alternative meanings for words, this interpretation manual introduces the idea that the reader might project their own memories or experiences onto the story, to fill in the gaps they might perceive. I’d already started doing that before I read this part of the book, which gave me pause. Sometimes reading Ben Marcus’s words is like having a distorted mirror held up to me in which my human characteristics are reflected back at me in an untrustworthy way.
Did I enjoy it? Kind of. As a provocation to thought, I found it interesting. As a story about fucked up relationships, I found it sad. As a parallel reality to the one we live in, I thought it was plausible, in the sense that some of our modern isolationist behaviours caused by the minimisation of community could lead to the kind of bizarre world described in this book. Would you enjoy it? I don’t know. It depends on how receptive you are to absurdity and how irritated you are by slippery customers who flagrantly flout convention while showing off about their self-professed cleverness. (I don’t think Ben Marcus is that kind of person, but I can see that others might perceive him that way.) Serious points are made in the book about how we behave towards others and whether behaviour becomes acceptable through the sheer mass of people doing it. Those points are buried in obscure modes of expression, though. It’s good to be experimental, but maybe not so good if it alienates a chunk of your potential readership.