It’s a tale of the Marcus Family Project, in which “Ben Marcus” is trained by his Silentist mother to lead an emotion-free existence while his father is force-fed language in an underground cell. Like the aggressively mystical Quietists of the 17th-century who sought alternative ways to commune with God, the women of the Silentist movement respond to the disappointments of their world with radical measures, striving to achieve “zero-heart” through the painful abdication of motion and sound. “The whole world is a crime scene,” we are told early on. “The wind is slaughtered when [people] move—should a person cease to move, she would cease to kill the sky and the world might begin to recover.”
Unlike satires that make clear their underlying motive, this book is not telling you what to think—it’s reminding you why to think. What is ultimately exposed are not facets of human experience, but the dependence of those facets (family, love, truth, pain, and pleasure) on the one thing we consistently fail to resist: language. Ben’s mother laments, “I would like … to be new in this awful, old job … to outsmart the role that is destined for me. But I can’t. I have failed to destroy my category.” But failure is not where it ends. We look to the mouth, the “language apparatus,” for possibility. Inevitably, she admits: “It is through Ben’s language apparatus that we are pinning most of our hope, looking for unprecedented utterances. New words, old words said newly, nonwords, sounds. Maybe something else. It’s a big hole there. Anything could come out of it.” In this case, what’s come out of it is a provocative, humorous, haunting work. Marcus finds a way, through writing about the denial of emotion, to write searingly about emotion; by the same token, while his story exploits the follies of language’s categorizing tendencies, as a book it resists categorization. For now, it’s up on my poetry shelf, next to Beckett’s novels.
Notable American Women was published by Vintage Books in March 2002.