Ben Marcus’ prose poems — if that is even a correct term— we will call them texts — started to appear in the latter issues of The Quarterly, culminating in the collection, The Age of Wire and String (1995), comprised of one-to-two page works that are interrelated, creating an alternate world, or a world living only in Marcus’ mind. Similar to Williams, Marcus re-invents reality through glimpses of prose. The “stories” are without plot, dialogue, or character development; they are rich descriptions of place and time:
It is understood in terms of phenomenon of combustion as seen in wood and brick; it is one of the basic tools in human culture. In ancient America and earlier, it was considered one of the four basic objects, a substance from which all things were composed. Its great importance to humans, the mystery of its powrs, and its seeming largeness have made the house divine or sacred to many peoples. (“Views from the First House” p. 58)
The reader is left wondering what the book was all about, in the same manner readers once felt when reaching the end of Richard Brautigan’s Trout Fishing in America. A student of Robert Coover’s, the literary world embraced Marcus the way it did Gary Lutz — here was a quirky short story writer with his own brand on the ways of the textual world (e.g., Amazon.com calls Marcus “a genre unto himself”).
He followed this curious debut with a novel, Notable American Women (2002), that, like his shorter works, is an exercise in cerebral literature—without plot or traditional literary characters, the book is more portrait than narrative. Notable American Women was not edited by Lish but published by Vintage, part of Knopf and Random House, and former publisher of The Quarterly, and issued as a trade paperback original.
In both titles, Marcus is obsessed with family—the idea of mother and father, what that means, and what that makes him, the product of mother and father. Marcus embraces the subjective “I” and questions his existence and his past, as well as the past of those he inherited genetics from.
He edited The Anchor Book of New American Short Stories (2004), the selections often reflecting his taste in writing: dealing more with what is inside the writer rather than the world happening outside the body.
He teaches now at Columbia, with Amy Hempel. One of their students, and they both blurbed his recent collection, is James Franco.