Ben Marcus, . . Vintage, $12 (256pp) ISBN 978-0-375-71378-1

Conceptual daring, deadpan humor and dizzying forays into allegory mark Marcus's first novel, the semi-science-fictional tale of a boy raised in a futuristic Ohio by his experimentalist parents and a sect of radical women Silentists. Ben Marcus, as the young protagonist is called, is made to swim in a "learning pond," drink "behavior water," follow the "Thompson Food Scheme" and take "language enemas." This regimen, designed by Silentist matriarch Jane Dark, is intended to purge Ben of all emotion, to "zero out [his] heart." Ben's father, who introduces the book with a bitter message to the reader, has been banished by the Silentists to a hole in the ground behind the house; Ben's mother, who bids the reader farewell at book's end, is a remorseless Silentist disciplinarian. Ben himself, taught to eschew all personal expression, tries to present a strictly utilitarian narrative of his upbringing—weaving in a history of the Silentist movement, a disquisition on female names, and a manual of Silentist behavior—and yet cannot help expressing the distress he feels in the smothering grasp of Jane Dark and her minions. Marcus (The Age of Wire and String) has crafted a dystopian novel in the tradition of Brave New World and 1984, with an overlay of 21st-century irony and faux naïveté. Writing in off-kilter documentary-style prose laden with acronyms and neologisms, he often wanders into ponderous whimsicality, but stretches of the novel are inspired riffs on contemporary totems and anxieties. Ambitious and polished, if sometimes willfully opaque, this is an intriguing debut. (Mar. 12)

Forecast:Anointed by the junior literary establishment as one of its brightest stars (sections of Notable American Womenhave already appeared in McSweeney's, Harper's and Tin House), Marcus will get major review coverage. A strong ad/promo campaign, a 10-city author tour and a clever, minimalist cover will help push this comfortably priced paperback original.