Book Review: Readings
Reviewed by Roger Gathman, Fri., April 19, 2002
Notable American Womenby Ben Marcus
Vintage, 224 pp., $12.50 (paper) A reader who picks up your average American novel expects the characters in novels to use some recognizable form of English in which to communicate inter alia. Readers also expect the events in the novel to unfold by way of the writer's judicious use of a more or less conventional vocabulary, grammar, and syntax. Adjectives and adverbs will apply, approximately, to the nouns and verbs they modify. Humans (and animals, if there are animals) occupy time and space in recognizably human (or zoological) ways.
Forget all that. Ben Marcus' new novel intermittently fictionalizes these usually realistically preserved aspects of the novel. The novel will often plunge into a broken-jawed bureaucratese -- some garble that is one part self-help lingo, one part instruction manual, and one part dream-speak. Here's a not untypical sentence from the book: "If I profit from my ensuing stillness, it is from an arrangement of my own, though money I earn while physically still is fully taxable and subject to paralysis funds or there dowries initiated to support motion-free localities and persons residing there or en route to them."
Context helps, a little. The plot of Marcus' book is something like this: Ben Marcus, the narrator, is the son of Michael and Jane Marcus. They live, approximately, in Ohio, although there are features of Ohio that seem distinctly non-Ohio-istic -- mountains, for instance, on the horizon. The family even has a slight resemblance to another famous Ohio family -- the Thurbers. Their inbred eccentricities are inexhaustible. One day the Marcuses are visited by Jane Dark and her girls, the Silentists. Jane Dark's mission, as the female Jesus, is to encourage silence and physical stillness. The Silentists are less a feminist cohort than some outlier group from one of the planets in Henry Darger's cosmos. After the Silentists arrive, Michael Marcus is buried in a field in back of the house, and Jane Marcus encourages her son to breed with Jane Dark's girls.
Are there funny things in this book? There are very funny things in this book. Sometimes Marcus (the author, not the character) becomes the inspired heir of S.J. Perelman and Ring Lardner, with an uncanny talent for making a sentence go haywire.
But is the book tedious? This is a problem. The best parts are the rants: Michael Marcus' rant at the beginning, Ben's rant in the middle, and Jane's at the end are wonderful. But there's a cost/benefit problem with corrupting the denotative structure of a novel: It saps the reader's motive for progressing through the text. If you stopped reading this novel in the middle, you'd miss Jane's account of warding off her husband's amorous advances. But you would not be likely to think, "if I don't read the next part, I won't know what happens to Ben." Or to Michael. Or to Jane. The author so manifestly doesn't believe in his characters themselves, except to hang verbal wallpaper on, that it's easy for the reader to lose interest in them too. And that is fatal.