Ben Marcus' debut work, The Age of Wire and String, delivered "stories" with such wonderfully original--if aloof--language and stylistics that reviewers, myself included, were observed braying on their knees in amazement, asking for more. Well, after seven years, more has arrived. While Notable American Women (Vintage Books) isn't as detonatively surprising as his first book, Marcus employs the same delicious, hermetic language, and focuses his language experiment in a slower, wider, more ambitious way.

First-time readers should be warned that the pleasure of this so-called novel does not lie in its storytelling or action sequences. Textural, strange, rich, and archly distant, Notable American Women is about language itself, how weird it can sound, and how it can create sensations that are otherwise difficult to describe. It describes and spoofs the dynamics of a fictional family (the Marcuses) and works with the familiar postmodern project of disrupting knowledge and the notion of firm, concrete human identity. But there is no tedium here; any drawbacks or redundancies in NAW are consistently counterbalanced by Marcus' prodigious, hard-working imagination, humor, and sense of darkness, along with his prose, which sounds like a technical operations manual gone insane.

While the book's occurrences and characters are often unclear (for example, the daughter is referred to by multiple names, like "Lisa," and later "Tina"), there are, nonetheless, a number of characters who engage in activity which, at least superficially, is familiar: Michael and Jane Marcus, the parents of Ben, set forth to raise their son.

As Marcus plays with establishing and undermining his own definitions of self originality and the like, it also seems entirely obvious that this book is also, in a very familiar way, one of those inevitable first novels in which a writer rather crucifies his/her family and growing-up years. Marcus, who has remarked on the ideal of removing all emotion and personal psychology from writing, would probably disagree, but it's hard to ignore that NAW is enormously concerned--even if spoofishly, à la David F. Wallace--with the father-son relationship. Its calm narrative smolders with distant anger.

This is the writing's fuel, however, and the result is sharp and smart with a sensation that Marcus could generate these words forever; NAW seems a book written in automatic drive by a machine that sometimes works beyond the author's own awareness. He plays relentlessly with nouns: "I should be able to breathe without the sky suffering from lack of birds. The air I make should no longer hurt the men and women. There would not be an empty room without window. In a perfect world, nothing would have happened yet... a father, in this book, no longer affects the population of a town or peopled area. The population of a town is computed as the number of people minus the fathers."

Marcus succeeds in making his work both resonate with a psychological quality, and concern itself with denaturing language--making it plastic, showing it for what it is, an artificial cloak, a ruffled sham. Other fiction writers aspire to work with language's surface and plasticity--Diane Williams comes to mind--but Marcus is able to really fulfill the task by offering a sense of mournfulness along with his experiment.

Marcus previously taught at Brown and now teaches at Columbia, and has spawned a small generation of student imitators (whose work can be found on the Brown University creative writing website, Impossible Object), an irony that certainly is not lost upon this writer, whose fictions obsess over relationships between fathers, authorities, and sons.

It's not necessary to read this book cover to cover. Try a page at a time, skipping around, or aloud at the dinner table--read from the "Better Reading Through Food" section: "...milk is probably the primary learning water, a deep liquid that tells us how to act. It is precisely when I feel estranged from myself that I drink my own milk... nuts, on the other hand, can be derived artificially by a Voice Blizzard."