Reading Ben Marcus' fiction can be a heady, hilarious, and even risky experience. Fortunately, his novel "Notable American Women" is full of cautionary advice for the reader: "The doctor-to-audience ratio of a crowd listening to this book, by choice or by accident, should be 1:15 or better.
"A helicopter should be standing by at all times, unless the recitation occurs in an urban stadium within one mile of a hospital, in which case ambulances should be ready to cart the wounded to whatever local healing site obtains. A religious figure should be stationed nearby the site but not inside."
If David Foster Wallace is the obsessive "maximalist" writer of his generation, Marcus may be the great minimalist. His debut story collection, "The Age of Wire and String" (1995), consisted of 50 short narratives, most just two or three pages in length, that read like chapters in a survivalist instruction manual for living in some kind of alternate universe or an inspired expository pairing of mechanical engineering textbook and tribal creation myth.
One of America's great storytelling innovators, Robert Coover, endorsed the collection as "the most audacious literary debut in decades."
Marcus' 2002 novel "Notable American Women" (Vintage Books) does not lend itself to thumbnail description any better than Laurence Sterne's "Tristram Shandy" does, but it is ostensibly the fictionalized memoir of a boy named Ben Marcus (also known as the Ben Marcus Life Project) growing up on a farm in Ohio that is besieged by a cult of American women known as the Silentists led by an anti-charismatic leader known as Jane Dark.
The Silentists overthrow and apparently bury the patriarchal windbag that is Ben's father, Michael Marcus, although his disembodied head keeps on speaking.
It is not a novel that book clubs anywhere in this solar system will soon embrace, but in the end it somehow gets back to the mis-en-scene of family life with all of its primal emotions, pathos, and melodrama.
Marcus, who lives in New York City and teaches at Columbia University, is also editor of the recent "The Anchor Book of New American Short Stories," an anthology that has been widely praised for both for its quality and inclusiveness.