Visceral Language

By Jake Miller '91 / July / August 2002
July 10th, 2007

In the new novel Notable American Women (Vintage, March 2002), by Ben Marcus '91 M.F.A., words have a life of their own. They affect the weather, and a group called the Silentists struggles to erase all noise and emotion from the world. The protagonist, who is named Ben Marcus, wears a language diaper and stuffs his mouth with cloth.

BAM: What's your fascination with fabric?
Marcus: I'm perversely attracted to the things I find most banal. It's like I just chose to marry it, like an arranged marriage.

BAM: There's a line in the novel in which Ben wishes that his words didn't make all the birds disappear from the sky. It feels very poignant, even though it doesn't make any literal sense.
BM: A lot of what I'm doing in the book is trying to suggest that language has a physical property, that it's a form of wind that the body makes, and as such goes into the world and does a lot of damage. So on the one hand, that is an exaggeration and an imaginative invention, but it's got a sort of metaphoric truth to it.

BAM: So it's a way of looking at the world freshly?
BM: If we really looked carefully at our world, we would see how strange and amazing it is. But of course, we would become exhausted. We develop immunities to the fascinations that are right in front of us.

BAM: Another line struck me as a key to understanding your work: Jane Marcus, Ben's mother says, "It is in my interest for you to be wrong about me. The less you understand, the more attention you will pay."
BM: [Laughs.] Yeah, that's a motto, I guess. She also says she wishes Ben were smarter, and then she says, "which only really means I wish I understood him less." The novel is playing around with these supposedly smart voices, voices of expertise. I'm satirizing them by showing that you can use an authoritative voice to claim sheer nonsense and have the nonsense seem true.

BAM: Do you think a lot of people think about this kind of thing?
BM: [Laughs.] Every time I talk like that I worry that there's this Brainiac crowd out there that's going to slap me down for being a moron. Here I am talking about satirizing intellectual knowledge, and then I'm afraid that a real intellectual is going to find me stupid.

BAM: Your first book, The Age of Wire and String, includes stories in which you seem to take a normal sentence and substitute one noun for another noun that doesn't make any sense.
BM: Right, like Mad Libs. The writer Harry Matthews once gave a great talk in which he brought in a paragraph by Kafka and replaced all the nouns and showed how it was a perfect piece of writing because of the syntax. He made it completely nonsensical, and it was really beautiful and still sounded like Kafka. The argument was that a real writer is an artist of syntax and not of content.

BAM: There's a branch of literary study in which forensic linguists analyze the syntax of a text, trying to identify the author. I wish them luck if they ever try to figure out who you are.
BM: Yeah. I hope they let me know.

- Interview by Jake Miller '91

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July / August 2002