Call for Music Critics and Essayists: If you're a smart, historically-minded music critic or essayist, let your voice be heard by our quality readership.
Call for Music Critics and Essayists: If you're a smart, historically-minded music critic or essayist, let your voice be heard by our quality readership.

The Father Costume and Notable American Women by Ben Marcus

by Ben Marcus
Artspace Books
May 2002, 56 pages, $20 (US)

by Mitch Pugh

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Ben Marcus’s rotten, filthy heart . . .

“Fathers should be neither seen nor heard. That is the only proper basis for family life.”
— Oscar Wilde

About Ben Marcus there is so much to be discussed but nothing, really, to be explained. Through the 243 pages of Notable American Women and the 56 pages of The Father Costume, themes erupt with little warning only to slink away slowly into the murky gray of the page.

These are books about fathers, you think, connecting the dots between the first several pages of Notable and the entirety of Costume. But no. Later you decide these are books about mothers and their deep, dark hearts only to watch them washed over with words of love and understanding, even sorrow.

Well then, it’s about sexuality, right? It’s something to do with the dog-like Pal in Notable and the puddled mess Pal leaves little Ben Marcus in his bed. It’s about breeding — the silent horror of sexuality. The forceful and animalistic nature of intercourse and the post coital nightmares that come as a result.

But none of it will do in this world created by Marcus, this allegorical stand-in for the real thing.

This is a world in which bodies and objects and hearts and minds have no boundaries. The walls between love and hate and human and machine are porous at best. These are big books with small pages about life, the daily and even hourly contradictions that are family, sex and, hell, even breathing. Each gulp threatens to kill you but somehow you know, in the end, it will redeem everything you thought you knew about yourself and your place in this equally cruel and beautiful world.

That’s the promise, anyway, of all the surface-level weirdness that is the fiction of Ben Marcus — below the cryptic McSweeney’s crowd hipness and intellectual posturing and buried underneath the flashes of contempt someone as brilliant as Marcus clearly is appears to have for the average reader and even his own be-speckled, grad school writing program peers.

Get past all that and you are left with two heart-wrenching, intelligent and frequently funny books about family life, sexuality, feminism, identity, death, language and simple humanity. And who can really ask for more than that from any writer?

The constructs by which Marcus tackles these themes are as follows:

In Notable, we have the Marcus farmhouse in Ohio. A cult of American women, led by the duplicitous Jane Dark, takes over the household, relegating Ben’s father, Michael Marcus, to a hole in the backyard and convinces his mother, Jane Marcus, that it is a good idea to use her son for breeding experiments. The end goal for this cult, by way of various means of behavior modification, is to create world of complete stillness and silence.

The Silentists, as the cult is called, protest sound, motion and, oh yeah, emotion, by subjecting members to such behavior modification tactics as controlled fainting, measured eating, motorized pantomining and very un erotic sex.

The actual text is a bit gimmicky, posing as letters to the reader, guidebooks, chronologies and answers to frequently asked questions. It drags at times but Marcus’s penchant for the poetic and his credentials (he has a B.A. in philosophy) to tackle a variety of human themes in a fresh, funny manner hold this book together.

One of the themes, or obsessions depending on how you want to look at things, that ties both Notable and Father together is the ineptitude of the father figure.

When the Silentists take over, Michael Marcus (who is quoted on the jacket of the book wondering how anyone could trust a ‘one word from Ben Marcus’s rotten, filthy heart’) slinks away to the hole in the backyard, surfacing occasionally to yell at the women and Ben only to be hissed back down to his prison.

In Father, two boys and their father take to the sea under the fear of attack at home. Language problems persist. The narrator admits to a language problem — he cannot read cloth. His brother speaks something called Forecast. The father wears a costume of himself and mostly ignores the narrator’s attempts to communicate.

When they get to sea, they begin to notice the futility of their trip, the evidence of families gone before them and their abandoned platforms. Once in the water, they begin to worry about concealment. But the narrator has his doubts about his father’s adequacy for the task at hand:

“If it were up to me, I would not come from a place where fathers leave their houses by boat. Where fathers kill a costume and leave heaps of cloth like grave sites in their wake. I would choose a world of straight grass roads, with only famous years, with only days of actual light, where a metronome might be silenced by the right kind of sunlight. I would choose a house free of kill holes where a mother still stood upright and walked the rooms, using a soothing medical voice entirely free of cloth.”

In Marcus’s first book of stories, “The Age of Wire and String”, the creations of language and meaning built through the text don’t add up to much. They’re brilliant and sometimes funny, but only serve to show off Marcus’s ability as a writer and thinker.

Marcus takes a giant step forward with these two offerings, proving it is possible to mix dazzling intellect with heartfelt, honest emotions. These books are getting at something, though it’s not always clear exactly what. They also prove that Marcus is indeed one of our most gifted writers and suggest even better books come.