[Note: Ben Marcus’s Notable American Women was published on March 14, 2002 by Vintage Books. For more information, see www.benmarcus.com]
In my first novel, just published and probably soon to go out of print, since it is miserably bad, I fail to live up to the promise, however weak, suggested by my last book, if you could even call it a book, which has a regrettable title and almost no memorable scenes at all. That book was a full-blown failure of its own kind, so maybe I have failed in two entirely different ways, although I doubt it. Any interest or response the first book provoked was likely due to pity on my behalf, which I probably encouraged. Those readers who did make it to the end routinely reported a kind of exhaustion they had rarely experienced before, at least not while reading. The book was called an “endurance test” by one reviewer, and was likened to a “grueling sporting event.”
The new book has many characters, but none of them ever really comes to life. They seem like concepts with attributes attached to them, and that’s exactly what they are. They were always just concepts, and it relieves me to admit it. I had no other idea how to create a character, and I’ve never known. By the end of the book, if we make it that far, which we probably won’t, since much of this book is tedious and tough-going material, as indicated by several early reviews: “the prose often sounds like a badly written instruction manual.” We don’t care much about what has happened (although very little here can be said to happen) and we can’t really feel for all of the characters who die. Even when the characters die slowly, and we watch them die, on their backs, out in a big field that I call “The Tucson Room” in the book, and listen to their last words, which are often self-pitying and inert, I am not capable of making readers care.
I had thought that having all of my characters die slowly would make readers think of their own impending deaths, and that this feeling might constitute a kind of pity or empathy. It seems clear now that the implausibility of the Tucson Room negates any emotional engagement. It’s not a realistic scenario, nor is it believable when dying characters can suddenly speak a foreign language just before they expire. I see it now pretty clearly, and I agree with the reviewer who called the characters hollow. This was almost too generous a criticism. Even as those characters were all dying out in the field, I could not resist trying, and then failing, to be funny. My own needs were more important than those of my characters, I guess, and I made it clear by trying, and failing, to be funny at their expense.
To be honest, I never once thought I could create sympathy for characters, even though I wished I could, which makes it all the more unpardonable that I wrote the book in the first place. Some better self-awareness at the time might have reduced my persistence at a task that was clearly beyond me. Why would I write a book if I knew I could not write a book? It’s a dull question that should not be pursued. Wanting to do something in writing never seems to confer the ability to do it, at least for me anyway.
I have to admit that I never felt any real connection to my book. Many days, and sometimes weeks or months, would go by without me doing any work at all, although I regularly lied to the people around me if they ever asked about it — I would be finished soon, work was going well, I felt really excited. I only ever wanted to be thought of as someone who was writing a book, which is a fairly horrible desire to live with when one cannot actually write.
The book itself was a burden and a chore from the beginning — it may be the most unnatural thing I’ve ever tried to do. I could only manage excitement for it when I was not working on it; whenever I sat down to work, the excitement vanished. It was like trying to love someone you’re just not attracted to, like trying to have sex with a gender you don’t care to have sex with — not that it’s particularly easy to love someone you are attracted to, or even to have sex with them, which I know can present many complexities, but it’s easier, and can feel right and rewarding on some days, not that I lately know how a good relationship feels. This is what I did, or tried to do, for the six years it took me to “write” this book, even when I wasn’t writing it, which was most of the time.
I did not feel right during those days.
I don’t expect anyone to care particularly about my failure, but sometimes we might look at an ill-conceived or dull book, such as my own in this case, and wonder what the author was thinking in writing it; how something so colossally boring and ponderous could come into being. It makes us think what strangers we are to the other people in the world, when these people can muster enthusiasm for something unfathomably trite or lifeless, as I think I have done. I’m here to tell you that I was not thinking much, or feeling much, which is obviously the problem, and that if I could not muster any enthusiasm while writing the book, it is exceptionally poor taste on my part to expect anyone else to do so. My only thought in writing this note is that this review of my own novel is possibly the one honest thing I might be capable of writing — unless, you know, I screw it up.
It seems that failed writers do not often provide an account of how or why they failed. I’ve been aware ever since I started writing that I usually seem unable to write anything that sounds even remotely true; right from my first sentences a heavy sense of contrivance sets in; not really dishonesty so much as artificiality. Maybe this accounting of my novel’s lack of interest might be the first sincere thing I’ll have written.
For those of you who have already seen the thin gimmick behind the book, I regret appropriating the names of my parents and attributing my own writing to them. I regret it, although it doesn’t much matter now. This seemed funny to me at one time, I guess — to say that some of the writing was written by them — but no longer, and to top it off my parents are not very happy with me right now. They’re not unhappy, exactly, but they just seem remote towards me, a bit indifferent, and we’re going through a strained time, which seems even worse because none of us will acknowledge the strain. At least, we’re behaving politely toward each other, which we have oddly never really done before. They rightly do not understand why I would use their names alongside such monstrous, albeit hollow, characters. Particularly the tall, menacing character I call “Kevin,” who frequently slaps the parent characters with a boiled rag, usually knocking them down, shouting at them while they sputter on their backs.
Am I accusing them, passively, of being monstrous and hollow parents? I honestly am not, but I have lost the authority to make that claim. People will inevitably think, if they bother to draw any conclusions, that I am writing about myself. What was really accomplished by trying to be clever in this way? Not much, I can assure you. I have no defense.
The whole enterprise might be a lesson against cleverness itself, at least as attempted by a not-so-clever person who is aging and growing fat and has no hair and can hardly move in the morning because he seems to be precociously arthritic, which can be alarmingly unattractive to anyone who might deign to date him, I can assure you. I do not present this information for your pity. It is just true. My wrists ache, and I am often short of breath.
This will appear to be a publicity stunt, some act of perverse wit. I guess anything I say at all will always look like some kind of ironic, attention-getting maneuver. I regret that. If I could write a sort of O.K. novel, and then just leave it at that, none of this would be necessary. I just feel sorry to have led anyone along. If there is any wit on display here, which I have been unable to detect, I apologize. If I have been unintentionally funny, I apologize. If I have over-apologized and appeared narcissistic — presuming outside interest in the ways in which I cannot do things, the degree to which I have failed — then I am sorry for that, too. I mean it. Maybe I wrote a bad book so that I would have something more concrete to apologize about. Just another bad attempt to keep attention, which I do not deserve, focused on me. I cannot sustain that attention, nor will it be rewarded. It seems that even my remorse can manage to be self-serving. You won’t hear from me again. If you do, you are entitled to use your hands to stop me. You may use force and feel justified. To see to it that I stop. To smother my little, miserable self.
It would be best for all involved.