Notable American Women by Ben Marcus (Shane's book 18, 2011)

The third book in my brief sojourn into experimental fiction, this is Ben Marcus's second book. I tried very hard to appreciate his intentions but I have to admit that I hated it. [amtap book:isbn=0375713786]

Set in Ohio, Notable American Women is the story of one Ben Marcus, a young man being raised by a strange female cult called the Silentists. Ben's dad has been banished from the house and is quite possibly buried in the back yard.

Meanwhile, Ben is subjected to the bizarre strictures and whims of the Silentists and their leader Jane Dark. He is expected to suppress all feelings and to minimise motion and sound. The cultists hope to use him for breeding.

The whole thing apparently takes place in some kind of parallel universe, or perhaps in the ravings of a madman. The laws of physics as we know them seem not to apply here and familiar words appear to have entirely new meanings, which Marcus lists at intervals.

One theme here is the way that language constructs reality and Marcus explores this by cataloguing the names that his family gave to his sister. They would try different names each month and her behaviour and even her entire personality would alter.

Also under consideration here are gender roles and notions of power. Does Ben's treatment elicit more sympathy from us, or seem more wrong, because he is a young man dominated by women? Does the cult seem more strange because it is women and not men who hold all the power? The answers, for me at least, are no and no, but Marcus does raise questions about patriarchies.

There are some very funny moments here and there and some delightful turns of language but for the most part I didn't enjoy reading this at all.

The problem is that the world Marcus creates seems not be internally consistent. It is at once both silly and gravely serious and each undermines the other. Are the Silentists insane? Brainwashed? Or are the rules of this fictional universe different to ours?

Marcus never explains, which makes it hard to know how we're supposed to react. His playing with language extends so far that parts of the novel go beyond linguistic experiments and become simply gibberish.

Some of my favourite novels mix seriousness and silliness without losing emotional force. The Master and Margarita does this brilliantly, for example, as does Infinite Jest. Unfortunately, with Notable American Women I just didn't buy the scenario Marcus was selling.

There were fleeting moments where I managed to connect with the novel emotionally, or feel that Marcus was raising an important question. The rest of the time the book feels nonsensical and just plain dull.