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by Ben Marcus

Pub Date: March 12th, 2002
ISBN: 0-375-71378-6
Publisher: Vintage

Marcus follows up his extraordinary The Age of Wire and String (1995) with something of a disappointment. The verbal wizardry is still there, but the content has grown coquettish and slightened, no longer an engine sufficient to drive the whole.

Things open with a hilarious monologue by the father of “Ben Marcus, the improbable author of this book”: a father who is buried deep in the backyard of the family house somewhere in Ohio and who, after alluding to “the Silent Mothers,” urges readers to “forget Ben Marcus and his world of lies.” The Silent Mothers seem to be the women, led by Jane Dark, who have taken over the culture in Marcus’s futuristic America, devoting themselves to language purification—maybe elimination—and to the de-emotionalizing of people, not least poor young and strange Ben Marcus, who suffers under and through many of their techniques. These include straitjackets, “witness water,” rags that are chewed to absorb sounds and languages, spartan diets, wooden posts to be gnawed on, deliberate fainting, sundry brutalities, even a “language diaper.” The book’s narrative languor comes about in part because these group-women remain only anonymous ciphers; their motives are left unexamined while their doings are endlessly, albeit brilliantly, “described” in dazzling cascades of Marcus-language. The author’s wit can still capture perfect tens, as in “Blueprint,” about writing a novel such as this one (“The book should be closed so hard that a wind blows from it, gusting however feebly into whatever little world there is left”), or in the closing piece of anti-male virulence (by the “author’s” mother): “The four-point stance is my favorite posture for men. It indicates readiness, disguises fear, and raises their bottoms above their heads, which more authentically prioritizes a man’s body.” But ennui can set in, not because subject, theme, or story are lacking, but because, amid these fountains of linguistic brilliance, the reader never really meets, gets inside of, or cares about the people.

Dazzling, genius-driven—and, alas, often tedious.