Keeper of the Flame
Experimental-fiction king Ben Marcus, the son of a Jewish father and an Irish Catholic mother, may be the best Jewish writer in America
I remember being thrilled when my friend Heidi told me she had started dating Ben Marcus, author of a recently published book of short stories called The Age of Wire and String. I immediately explained to Heidi that, whether their relationship worked out or not, I would always love Ben—who in my mind was the heir apparent to the leadership of a cult that included Donald Barthelme and Robert Coover, fiction writers who were deadpan-hilarious and rigorous and could make words rub up against each other in new and unexpected ways. Heidi was taken aback by my enthusiasm for her new boyfriend, perhaps because she knew he and I had never actually met.
She agreed to introduce me to him—as soon as possible, I urged her. He and I and another friend from Harper’s met one afternoon for coffee. I remember Ben was shy and diffident, and very funny. Later he told me that my friend and I were the first writers his age he had met who liked his book, which had received a short but scathing review in the New York Times. Heidi and Ben got married and moved up to Morningside Heights and had kids. I visited them at their apartment a few times, where I discovered that Ben had great taste in music and was an excellent cook. Clearly, if Heidi wasn’t already married to him, I would have married him myself and lived happily ever after.
Ben’s third book of fiction, The Flame Alphabet, published by Knopf this month, is a departure from his previous work. Told by a dad named Sam, the novel tells the story—a first in Marcus’ determinedly anti-narrative oeuvre—of a plague carried by language that sickens and kills anyone who comes in contact with words. The first carriers of the language-plague are Jewish children, who may also be the source of a cure that is being eagerly sought after by a tribe of crankish pseudo-scientists who are all named LeBov and work out of a compound in Rochester, N.Y.
Marcus’ trademark effects are all to be found in The Flame Alphabet—entirely unexpected combinations of words that create new kinds of energy, his vivid descriptions of shabby and vaguely sinister kinds of apparatus, his striking descriptions of physical objects in totally unfamiliar but incredibly vivid terms. What took me completely by surprise is his ability to orchestrate a more or less traditional plot with the propulsive energy of a sci-fi thriller. Even more shocking is the presence of domestic scenes that would feel at home in a short story by John Updike. There is material about a religion called Judaism, in which scratchy sermons broadcast by a rabbi in Buffalo are received by believers over a communications apparatus located in summer cottages known as “Jew huts.”
Through his publicist, we made an appointment to meet. What would it feel like to write a lasting book, which like his other books was sure to be panned by critics? Would Ben Marcus be appearing at Jewish book fairs now? Would his newfound interest in traditional plots and domestic drama, however fucked up and dark, mean that he would no longer listen to Will Oldham records and talk about Barthelme and Coover? Did he believe that the world actually makes sense in a linear narrative way, and what were the rest of us supposed to do now?
I canceled the first appointment, then the second, then a third—suggesting that I was too scared to find out the answers to my questions. I finally worked up the courage to keep the fourth meeting at Community Food and Juice, a restaurant on Broadway opposite the campus of Columbia University, on a rainy afternoon at the beginning of March, to find out what had happened to my friend, and whether it was good or not.
This book oddly felt a lot more directly emotional and even autobiographical than the Ben Marcus work I know and love. I felt in some places like I was overhearing a real conversation in your kitchen or some other place in your home—not that you live in a Jew hut or regularly employ the weird communications apparatus you describe in the novel.
My first book, The Age of Wire and String, came out in 1995, and it was hardly reviewed at all. It did get a very brief Times review and was very aggressively dismissed. Even the reviews that were appreciative essentially accused me of coldness, of writing in an inhuman way and having purely technical interests. I remember that really stung, because it didn’t seem true to me or speak to my motives as a writer. I’d always from the beginning wanted to create feeling. The idea of being some kind of robotic, uber-experimental writer never interested me at all.
So, a story of the family was just always what I wanted to tell here, but I wanted to collide it against my conceptual interests. I feel I’ve only ever written about a few things over and over again. I keep writing about the limits of language. It’s physical, you can smear it on yourself, it’s inadequate—and so here I was, doing it again.
I thought that the only way out of that was almost to return to my roots as a reader of realist American fiction and write a very, very domestic story. I used to feel that it was the worst kind of failure to write autobiographically, to seem to be literalizing from your own life. And so now sometimes if I do it a little bit, it’s really exciting. I mean, I wrote a much darker family than I’m in. I wrote a much darker marriage by far than I’m in. I need to surprise myself right now as opposed to just being this kind of purveyor of weird sentences.
At his 86th birthday party, a question arises: Is there a needier, more agonizingly ambitious figure in American popular culture than Jerry Lewis?