Marcus, Ben 1967-

Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article Share Article
views updated

MARCUS, Ben 1967-

PERSONAL: Born 1967, in Chicago, IL. Education: New York University, B.A. (philosophy); Brown University, M.F.A.

ADDRESSES: Agent—c/o Denise Shannon, ICM, 40 West St., New York, NY 10019.

CAREER: Writer. Conjunctions (literary journal), former senior editor; Fence (literary journal), fiction editor; has taught writing and literature in New York, Rhode Island, Virginia, and Texas; Brown University, Providence, RI, lecturer in creative writing; Columbia University, New York, NY, assistant professor of creative writing.

WRITINGS:

The Age of Wire and String (short stories), Knopf (New York, NY), 1995.

Notable American Women (novel), Vintage Books (New York, NY), 2002.

The Father Costume, illustrated by Matthew Ritchie, Artspace Books (New York, NY), 200.

Also author of short stories published in periodicals, including the Iowa Review, Grand Street, Mississippi Review, Story Quarterly, Harper's, McSweeney's, Nerve, Pushcart Prize Anthology, and Conjunctions. Contributor of book reviews to periodicals, including the Village Voice.

WORK IN PROGRESS: Collaborative books with the painters Jasper Johns and Terry Winters.

SIDELIGHTS: Ben Marcus made his literary debut in 1995 with The Age of Wire and String, a collection of forty-one short prose pieces that received laudatory reviews. The compositions in The Age of Wire and String are grouped around eight everyday themes that include "God," "Food," "Sleep," and "Weather." Following each section is a glossary aimed at deciphering some of the new terminology conceived in Marcus's prose. For example, "Rhetoric," is described as "the art of making truth less believable."

"Marcus guides us through the postmodern wreckage of our homes and social customs," declared a reviewer in Publishers Weekly, who also found a "clear eye for the suburban sublime" in Marcus's prose. According to Library Journal reviewer Jim Dwyer, The Age of Wire and String, like the work of Irish novelist and playwright Samuel Beckett and Irish novelist James Joyce, challenges our notions about language, and creates "a sort of metafictional parallel universe." Dwyer called the work "a potential cult classic." A Kirkus Reviews critic lauded the volume as "a rare, genius-struck achievement," and one in possession of "a grace, complexity, and literary ambition that put it at the highest rank."

In 2001 Marcus brought out his first novel, Notable American Women. Both the book's impetus and its title, he told Bold Type interviewer Megan Lynch, came from a 1950s-era reference book, "written by men . . . and fairly condescending. So I started to write fantastical biographies of women who never existed, and this was how I got started thinking up the world in the novel." The author's "world" takes place in rural Ohio, sometime in the future. A boy—named Ben Marcus—is experimentally raised by a group of radical women, the Silentists. In their still and weather-obsessed community, Ben swims in a "learning pond," drinks "behavior water," and takes "language enemas"—all designed to purge the boy of useless emotion. Notable American Women is narrated by Ben's father, who—having fulfilled his duties in creating a child—has been banished by the Silentists to a hole below the group's farmhouse. Ben's mother, the Silentist Jane, meanwhile, condones the use of her son for breeding purposes.

Given the author named his protagonist after himself, was Notable American Women a form of sci-fi autobiography? Marcus insisted it wasn't: "The book cries wolf so hoarsely on this topic that I'll never be believed no matter what I say," he remarked to Lynch. "If I was committed enough to write this book, it must have come from somewhere, including my ideas about family and feelings." But at the same time, "my family was very loving and I've never been to Ohio. What might be genuinely autobiographical is my need to lie about myself, to distort my past, to deceive people into thinking that my parents performed cruel experiments on me."

Notable American Women was greeted by one critic with measured praise. A Kirkus Reviews writer was quick to acknowledge Marcus's wit, which "can still capture perfect tens," but the same reviewer also found that amid the linguistic brilliance "ennui can set in, not because the subject, theme, or story are lacking but because . . . the reader never really meets, gets inside of, or cares about the people." This novel "is not easy to describe or paraphrase," acknowledged Library Journal's Philip Santo. "This will be a difficult read for many, but it will surely stand the test of time as a genuinely important book."

BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:

BOOKS

Marcus, Ben, The Age of Wire and String, Knopf (New York, NY), 1995.

PERIODICALS

American Book Review, October, 1996, p. 8.

Kirkus Reviews, August 15, 1995, review of The Age of Wire and String, pp. 1135-1136; January 1, 2002, review of Notable American Women, p. 12.

Library Journal, November 1, 1995, Jim Dwyer, review of The Age of Wire and String, p. 109; January, 2002, Philip Santo, review of Notable American Women, p. 153.

Los Angeles Times Book Review, December 10, 1995, p. 14.

New York Times Book Review, March 3, 1996, p. 18.

Publishers Weekly, August 28, 1995, review of The Age of Wire and String, p. 101.

Review of Contemporary Fiction, spring, 1996, p. 148.

ONLINE

Bold Type,http://www.randomhouse.com/boldtype/ (June 4, 2002), Megan Lynch, "A Conversation with Ben Marcus."