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Marx, deceased : a novel /
by Carl Djerassi.
Athens : University of Georgia Press, c1996.
xii, 218 p. ; 24 cm.
0820318353 (alk. paper)
More Details
Athens : University of Georgia Press, c1996.
0820318353 (alk. paper)
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A Look Inside
First Chapter

Chapter One

"Rocco's." The voice on the telephone was brusque, the R rolling like a Ferrari in first gear.

"I'm calling about a dinner reservation," he said. "For two. Next Thursday, 7 o'clock."



"Spell it."

God, not again, he thought. It's just a four-letter word "Marx, like Karl Marx."

"With a C or a K?"

"That's just an illustration: Karl Marx, Groucho Marx . . . my name is Stephen, not Karl."

The brusque voice turned defensive. "Let's start again. Your last name?"

"M A R X."

"Ah, gotcha."

Stephen Marx sounded relieved. "I'd like a booth--not a table--and if possible, a corner booth with some privacy."



Ambrose McPhearson was smiling as he reached across the table to shake hands. Only. Marx's friends or relatives used that nickname. This time he took it to be affectionate.

Nicknames usually start in childhood, yet Stephen Marx had not become "Saint" until he was in his early twenties. Shortly after graduation from Yale, during a year abroad in Zurich, the first envelope addressed to him in German had read "Herr St. Marx." Upon learning the German abbreviation for "Stefan," he'd promptly ordered stationary and envelopes reading "St. Marx, Dreidingstrasse 43, Zurich." By the time he'd returned to the States, fluent in Deutsch, the nickname "Saint" had already spread among family and friends.

"It's good to see you," McPhearson said. "It's been months."

"It's good to see you, Boz," replied Marx. "I don't usually get to see you on such short notice."

McPhearson smiled. Nobody at the bank ever called him "Boz;" he was too much the boss at the bank. "Oh, you know. `Busy' depends on who's asking. For you, I'm not busy. How's Miriam? What have you people been up to?"

"She's OK," Marx shrugged. "She's up to here with her catering business." He leveled a hand across the bridge of his nose.

"And how's your work going?"

"Have you seen the reviews of my last book?"

"I'm embarrassed to say I haven't," replied McPhearson. "How were they?"

Marx's attempt at nonchalance vanished in a rising wave of anger. "You know how reviews go: most were good to superlative, but then Noah Berg's got me so angry I almost wished dueling were still in fashion."

McPhearson's eyebrows rose. "Really? What did he say?"

At issue in Cohen's Dilemma is what happens when a theory, "sweet" to the scientist, turns out to have been "proven" in a flawed experiment. The drama arises when the culprit turns out to be Professor I. Cohen's (I.C., he is called, and icy he is) favorite assistant, and the tainted results turn out to net Cohen--and the assistant--the Nobel Prize.

The serious side to this story--though its author no doubt thought his book entirely serious--has Cohen trapped morally and personally by his professional dependence on the opinions of his colleagues. The issue of reputation and its shadows and taints is the central theme, but Marx's treatment of it here would lead one to believe that reputation is a single prize, given reluctantly and destroyed completely at the first question. You either have it or you don't. One would have thought Man: capable of greater subtlety.

Perhaps he has too much Nobel Prize on his mind.

That was what the review had said, and through hours of obsessive reading and rereading Marx had almost memorized it. He resisted the impulse to recite it aloud: the words were bitter enough without giving them voice.

"Never mind," he said. "I didn't invite you to bitch about a review. Let's order."

Screened by their open menus, the men missed the arrival of two women who settled in the adjacent booth. Both were in their twenties--one, tall and thin: a fashion-model type; the other, of average height and weight: on first impression not particularly striking--at least not by comparison with the model.

"So what is it, Saint?" McPhearson asked when the waiter had departed with their orders. "What prompted this dinner invitation after all these months? Did you just miss me, or do you need free financial advice?"

Marx leaned forward. "Did you know that Hemingway managed to read his own obituaries?"

McPhearson gave him an appraising look before answering, coolly, "Yes."

"Yes?" Marx looked nonplussed. "How did you know that?"

McPhearson made a dismissive gesture. "I did an honors paper on Hemingway at Dartmouth." He leaned across the table, voice confidential. "Now do you mind telling me why you want to know?"

"Wouldn't it be exciting to read one's own obituary?"

"Exciting? I can just see my obituary: Ambrose Samuel McPhearson, born April 16, 1939, Pocatello, Idaho; educated at Dartmouth and the Wharton School. Then I hope it will say I'd reached some ripe eminence in banking, what a whiz I was at arranging corporate mergers, and how much I was missed by my grieving wife Jessica, my three children, and my many inconsolable friends. All things considered, I'd rather be alive."

"Who's talking about dying? I'm talking about reading your own obituary while you're still alive--just like Hemingway."

McPhearson looked. "Why this sudden interest in Hemingway, Saint? This isn't some competitive writer thing, is it?"

"I'm not really interested in Hemingway. Besides--as you seem to know so well--he blew it: he reappeared so soon, there was no time for anyone to rush to print with a critical assessment of his work. But what if he'd managed it better?" Marx leaned forward, hands planted flat on the tablecloth. "What if you could stage your death and stay dead? Long enough for the serious critics to come out of the woodwork, not the journalistic hacks "

His voice had become progressively louder. On the other side of the partition, one of the women had caught the gist of the men's dialogue. She let her companion do most of the talking, while she listened.

Marx lowered his voice. "I guess a banker wouldn't understand. You're either a financial success or a failure--there's hardly anything in between. The judgment of your peers isn't that important. All that counts are numbers: dollars, profits or losses; the bottom line."

"Come now," McPhearson protested mildly. "Don't be so conceited."

"I'm not being conceited. That's just the difference between bankers and people like me--people whose self-esteem depends on the opinion of others."

"Oh, now you're really talking rot, Saint. Since when does your self-esteem depend on anyone else?"

"You think so?" Marx said mournfully. "Have you ever stopped to think how it must feel to work in a field where success isn't something you can quantify? How much uncertainty that involves? How much insecurity? Well why should you: I didn't. Not until I spent all those months interviewing scientists for Cohen's Dilemma. What struck me from the start was the way they were all fixated on the opinion of their peers The only way Einstein knew he was a great physicist was that other physicists told him he was. If they hadn't, he would have remained a clerk in the Bern patent office to the end of his days. When I was working on Cohen, of course, I thought this was some quirk of scientists. Since then though...." Marx leaned back, hands in his pockets, staring beneath the tablecloth at what McPhearson could only guess was his shoe. "Since then, I've seen it everywhere. Playwrights and actors who can hardly wait for the appearance of a newspaper after the opening night. Composers. Architects. And writers, like me, who get ulcers waiting for the Times to review their latest book. You even worry about what page they're going to run it on."

Marx fell silent. He realized that he was lecturing--not his normal rhetorical mode, no matter what his friends said--yet he couldn't help himself: he felt a compulsion to make McPhearson--to make anyone--understand. Still, how could he explain the anxiety that had been crawling over him since he'd finished Cohen's Dilemma: was his writing worth anything? The reviewer's phrase, the Issue of reputation and its shadows and taints, had seized on him like a cancer until it had become an almost palpable pain. Stephen Marx, author of thirteen novels: he had a reputation, but what was his true worth? How could he ever know?

"When John O'Hara died," he said quietly, "Cheever wrote about him in Esquire, six months after Cheever's death, Saul Bellow wrote an enormously sympathetic piece on him in the New York Review of Books; or Philip Roth's reminiscences of Bernard Malamud in the Times. I bet O'Hara, Cheever, and Malamud would have loved to have read those words."

McPhearson had listened without taking his eyes off his friend. "What about the critics? You have your Bergs, sure, but there are other critics. Can't you get some kind of consensus?"

"That's just it," Marx said irritably. "I'm convinced most critics judge writers less by what they do than by where they are in their careers--as if there were some standard yardstick of performance. If you're a newcomer, they go easy on you. It's not necessarily out of generosity; critics realize there isn't much sport in demolishing an unknown." The gnocchi on Marx's fork had nearly reached his mouth, but at the last moment he put it down. "The second phase starts when they're covering a well-known author, preferably someone who's written a couple of best-sellers. Then the critics begin to sharpen their knives: some of them try to be clever, others are brutal; some, of course, remain complimentary and you become their favorite."

"Saint," McPhearson interjected, "eat that damn pasta."

"Sorry," Marx said. He looked at his fork, as though uncertain of its purpose, then set it down. "But it's the third phase that intrigues me: the posthumous evaluation. That's when one learns their true opinion. I would like to know what some people--even Berg--really think of me; what they'd write if they knew I was dead." But even as he turned finally to his meal, Marx was left with a doubt. Will I know my real worth even then? He remembered the concluding note of the Times's obituary of John O'Hara, who, during his last years, had been treated rather shabbily by the serious critics: "John O'Hara's huge body of work may be around much longer than we had predicted." Is that what Marx, the fly on the wall, wanted to read about himself? That he won't go away?

McPhearson stopped eating, a bemused expression had spread over his face. "I've a feeling you've something specific in mind," he said, staring at his friend. "Is this why we're meeting here tonight?"

The woman had long ago stopped paying attention to her companion. Who is this man, she thought, who wants to read his own obituary? He's bound to be famous; otherwise no one would bother. She wanted to get a better look at him. Walking to the ladies' room would offer an opportunity. Yet the details were becoming too intriguing for an interruption.

"Saint, you worry me. You've hardly touched your gnocchi. I've heard you talk about your work this way before, but this obituary business...." He shook his head. "I don't know."

Marx tried a forkful of the dumplings, and grimaced."There's something about cold gnocchi." He shoved the plate aside. "Did you know Agatha Christie once staged her own death?"

"Uh-huh. But that had nothing to do with her wanting to read her obituary. She wanted to revenge herself because her husband was about to abandon her."

Marx wasn't paying attention. "It's interesting," he said musingly. "She arranged her disappearance quite carefully, but she didn't devise a plausible way of returning. In the end, all she came up with was `temporary amnesia.'"

McPhearson put down knife and fork. "Are you writing a novel about this, or is this for real?"

Marx took a gulp of wine "Real That's why I wanted to see you. I need your help."

"You're not seriously suggesting--" McPhearson fixed him with a stare that made Marx feel as though his payments were in arrears. "You're not even considering asking me to help arrange your death?"

"Relax, Boz. What I'm about to propose is not illegal. It involves no risk on your part. I simply need your help."

"I'm not sure a banker's help is exactly what you need. old friend." McPhearson grinned as he said it, but it was a grin with teeth in it.

"I'm not Joking, Ambrose. I'm convinced it will have an enormous impact on my future writing. Even if it doesn't, I'm so caught up with this idea it's left me with a mammoth writer's block. Please listen." Marx reached across the table to touch his friend's sleeve. "Let's start with the basic premise: if you want to read your own obituary, you need to stage a plausible disappearance: something in which everybody immediately assumes that you're dead even without finding the body. Right?"

"I can't believe I'm having this conversation."

Marx took a grip on McPhearson's wrist. "Right?"

"I suppose so," McPhearson said grudgingly. "Go on. And let go."

Marx let go of the wrist. "As I told you, I'm not interested in a simple obituary. I want to read detailed, critical retrospectives by some important critics--"

"Like Berg?"

"Berg?" For a moment, Marx seemed startled by the interruption. "Fuck Berg," he hissed. "He's a reviewer, and reviewing has nothing to do with criticism. I'm now quoting Henry James," he added in a calmer tone.

"`Critics are the lice in the locks of literature,'" laughed MacPhearson. "It's amazing what sticks in your head from school days. Tennyson is supposed to have said that about critics."

"Or the brilliantine that makes their locks shine. Do you know who said that?"


"Yours truly. Just thought it up. But criticism--lousy or glossy--takes time, at the very least some weeks, if not months. If one goes to the trouble of staging a plausible death, one might as well get maximum mileage out of it--"

"Have you finished, sir?"

Stephen Marx jumped at the waiter's voice.

"I suppose so," he mumbled, glancing at the barely touched food on his plate.

"Any dessert? Coffee?" asked the waiter.

Marx shook his head and waited impatiently while McPhearson consulted with the waiter. "One tiramisu and two forks. And two cappuccinos."

Marx was relieved to see the waiter depart. "Let me continue. The dead author has to stay dead for several months. This is where I need your help."

"What?" McPhearson growled.

"I need about twenty-five grand, but I can't take that sum out of my bank account without it being noticed. I'll repay you the day I return. At prime plus two percent," he added sheepishly. "Furthermore, would you rent a car in your name and let me drive it during that time? I can't very well rent one if I'm supposed to be dead, and I don't want to do anything illegal, like getting a fake driver's license."

"What if you get stopped by a policeman?"

"I'll have to drive carefully and hope no one runs into me. Boz, are you willing to help me?"

"I doubt it," replied McPhearson. "First, explain to me how you'll stage your death. And how you'll reappear after a couple of months without admitting it was simply a farce."

"I've got it all figured out," replied Marx. He leaned forward, staring straight at his friend. "I'll tell you later how I'll get back. First let me explain how I'll die. That's where I need your help."

"Oh no, you don't," interrupted McPhearson. "You're not getting me involved in any death, real or imaginary."

"Please wait," pleaded Marx. "Just listen to me. You know I often sail by myself. The Mamaroneck Yacht Club people all know me; none would be surprised if I went out by myself during the middle of the week. Remember: I'm the famous author who has no fixed hours. Suppose I told them I'm leaving for a day's sailing in Long Island Sound; that I'd be back by five o'clock. You follow me in your powerboat. We'll pick a lousy, windy day when nobody else is out on the water. As soon as we're out of sight of land, I'll board your boat and leave the life-vest behind." Marx's voice had assumed a pleading tone, as if he were begging to be believed. "You know how many sailors don't wear one, especially if they use a safety belt. You'll take me ashore where your rented car is parked and I'll take off. The safety belt will look as if it had torn; it will be obvious that I fell into the water. We're committing no crime, you're not claiming my death. I just disappear, and you simply go home."

"What then?" asked McPhearson.

"I'll take off for San Francisco. I'll drive carefully because I don't want to break any speed limits. I've been on the West Coast only once, years ago. Nobody knows me there. I'll get a mailbox in San Francisco and let you know how to get in touch with me."

"You've got it all worked out," McPhearson said quietly.

"I think so," Marx said.

"What about your friends and relatives? And Miriam?"

Copyright © 1996 Carl Djerassi. All rights reserved.

Full Text Reviews
Appeared in Publishers Weekly on 1996-07-01:
When Twain gave Tom Sawyer the exquisite pleasure of watching his own funeral, he articulated the narcissistic fantasy of all writers. Here, Stephen Marx, the womanizing author of 13 much-praised novels, stages his own demise in order to hear what posterity has to say about him. He carefully crafts his death ("NOVELIST STEPHEN MARX LOST AT SEA," the headlines read, "PRESUMED DEAD"). The prominent critic Noah Berg‘who was once cuckolded by the novelist‘approaches Miriam Marx, the not-too-grief-stricken widow, on the seemingly innocuous errand of preparing a critical evaluation of her husband's work. In truth, Berg intends the article to be "his masterwork as a critic," as well as "his masterstrike of revenge." The scheme is derailed, however, by his sudden involvement with Miriam. The undead Marx, in the meantime, has surfaced in San Francisco, where he has launched a second literary career as the mysterious "D. Mann." (Get it?) His secret, however, is uncovered by an enterprising journalism student who makes a bargain with Marx that could make her career and end D. Mann's. Djerassi (Cantor's Dilemma; The Bourbaki Gambit) has had a varied career as a biochemist, writer and art patron. A writer of great intellectual range and facility, he is no craftsman. Many passages in the novel clank like rickety lab apparatus punctuated by the snorts and wheezes of strained gags and puns. But the pleasures of cleverness abound in this Rube Goldberg contraption of a book. Author tour. (Aug.) FYI:FYI: An excerpt from Marx, Deceased can be found on the author's Web page: (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved
Appeared in Library Journal on 1996-07-01:
In his new novel, Djerassi (Cantor's Dilemm, LJ 8/89), winner of the National Medal of Science for the development of the first oral contraceptive, grapples with issues of literary criticism, self-esteem, and the creative instinct. Despite having written 13 novels, in the process winning both the Pultizer Prize and a National Book Award, Stephen Marx still obsessively wonders how posterity will treat him. He decides to fake his own death and sit back and watch how the critics react. Complications arise when Marx's "widow" begins a relationship with a well-known literary critic and Marx‘now posing as a novice novelist‘meets a potential Marx biographer, a young journalism student who has overheard part of his plan to disappear. Unfortunately, a host of unsympathetic characters and a leaden writing style obscure the potentially interesting premise of the plot. Public libraries with comprehensive fiction collections might consider for purchase; others can skip.‘Nancy Pearl, Washington Ctr. for the Book, Seattle (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
This item was reviewed in:
Kirkus Reviews, June 1996
Booklist, July 1996
Library Journal, July 1996
Publishers Weekly, July 1996
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