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
There’s a plot here, there’s narrative propulsion, there’s the emotional-autobiographical stuff, and then there’s all this Jewish stuff. Did you conduct special research?
You’re not asking me if I worshipped that way growing up?
That seems far-fetched.
I did a lot of research after I started writing that thread. I kind of come to this point in the book, maybe at page 40 or so, where I found myself making these little side references to their worship and their faith. And it struck me that it was an opportunity to create a religion kind of from scratch, but using my own sort of emotional sense of what religion really is for.
Judaism to me, as badly as I practiced it, what I’ve always loved about it was its total embrace of complexity, its admission of unknowability. The whole territory of God is put into such an ineffable space. No matter how smart we are or how mystical or focused we are, we can’t get any closer.
There’s an idea I found in kabbalah that if you find yourself understanding God, then you’re sure you’re wrong. What you need to cultivate is a lack of understanding. That idea suddenly started to give me a way to not just have their religion be some practice on the side, but a really direct engine of the plot. That these tunnels beneath the Jew huts might be connected, and I could use them later in the book, and that the narrator could be like me and could be ambivalent about his own faith.
Please stress to your readers that I’m the most irresponsible reader on the planet. My own weird reading of kabbalistic texts was just something that was of value to me in my work. But there would be days when I was reading when I really started to feel that I really hadn’t made that much up, even the Jew hut and the broken radio and the difficulty of actually receiving God’s word.
I think that the Jew hut, in its physical form, at least, is clearly a Ben Marcus creation.
Yeah, and the radio. Obviously I have a love of the inscrutable apparatus, the objects that might have properties that are hard to understand. I’m not saying it’s perfectly clear now, but I had to really be strict with myself about the obfuscating language and the ways I like to make things enigmatic. I can sort of just take that pepper shaker and put an enigmatic filter onto it and de-familiarize it. I just felt that there was no real reason to show that I could do that again. It can’t just be, “Hey I’m going to pull this curtain aside and show you my cool idea for a new religion.”
I have been asked about it maybe more than I had expected. I’ve also been doing more Jewish-related events. I was just at the JCC in San Francisco for their book fest, and—
I guess it could be read as dark Jewish-themed science fiction, but still. How have the audiences at Jewish book fairs received the book?
Well, it’s a good question. I think probably the majority of the audience there were subscribers to the series and just showing up and hadn’t read the book yet. But I feel like the Jewish reaction is really, really, much more receptive than the mainstream reception. I was a little worried that it might push some button I couldn’t know about, but so far I haven’t seen or heard too much about that.
The idea that the speech of Jewish children is toxic—if you’re looking for an emotional button to press in a child-obsessed community, that’s a good one. I can imagine sitting around in some circle of A.R. Gurney WASPs around martini time, three sheets to the wind, and them being like, “Yes, the sound of these little people is intensely grating. I so do not enjoy it. Their little voices make me feel ill.” Your conceit would lose a lot of its power if the kids and their parents were WASPs. The idea that the speech of Jewish children is toxic heightens the trauma.
When I made the Jewish children responsible, it seems to raise the stakes, and it was a very worrying moment for me to confront. It really seemed very unpleasant in a way that didn’t seem sensational. It seemed like there’s a big kind of difficult vacuum ahead of it that I think I look for. I was hoping it wasn’t just a sensationalizing gesture. There were times when I thought, “Well, this is actually the power they have and not a deficiency.” I found myself maybe rationalizing it—they were being accused of something, but it was because they had a new kind of weapon, they are really chosen. But you know, it doesn’t play out that way—and it doesn’t play out the other way, either.
One of the other things I did is that I kept reminding myself that this is his story, the narrator’s story, Sam. He is quite cut off from sources of real expertise, where in general, I’ve written things where the knowingness is quite enormous. I kept thinking the really scary thing about the epidemic is its refusal to behave according to our need for logic and order and sense. You know, you could try to understand this but you’re not going to. It’s futile. Science is quiet on this thing and so is medicine really right away and you’re pretty much told the doctors and scientists don’t know anything.
I think that also made me realize that religion had to be in this book. Religious wisdom or the appeal of the irrational, I mean people would have a very cultish reaction to this.
There’s a very concentration-camp-medical-experiment vibe to certain scenes in the book, especially the ones at the institute in Rochester where they are seeking the cure for this language-plague. And yet they’re not actually persecuting Jews there, they’re just cranks. The smart people, who were most sensitive to language, all died off first. So, now the more robust semi-stupid people are in charge, which is often the way that the world feels to me anyway. They have this creepy anti-Semitic vibe, but their primary motive is hardly to persecute Jews. Still, I admit that the naked shower scene at the institute did creep me out.
My editor, Marty Asher, said you know when Claire comes in and Forsythe puts her in the shower, he was just like, “I think you can’t do a shower scene.” And interestingly, none of those things had occurred to me. I was very caught up in the specifics of what was going on in the plot. What was interesting to me was that there were records of research I could describe of the testing of all these languages, and they’re all failing, they’re all making people sick.
And you have the essential something being drawn from a child, because children are immune, so they might have something in their bodies that makes them immune. But there was a sort of outer ring that I was really interested in, hinting at a whole other realm of things that they were trying that I didn’t feel like I even understood. Like when LeBov is carrying a wagon and then there’s like a box in it with a cage on part of it and there might be a creature in there. And it’s got a tube going into him. I think I just got attracted to some really suggestive territory of fucked-up stuff that I didn’t want to spell out, really, because Sam wouldn’t know what any of it was. It’s just kind of frightening. Is there a dog in that cage, and why?
Some of the Jewish stuff is like that too—like when he comes in looking at the minyan of Jews who are all working to fix that huge Jew hole that they’ve found. Sometimes I’m trying to bring things together, but I’m also heightening the mystery or unknowability of it all to show that Sam is fleeing all of it. Here’s the chance to have some more certainty, and all he wants to do is get as far away from it as he can, and so he escapes through the tunnels.
At his 86th birthday party, a question arises: Is there a needier, more agonizingly ambitious figure in American popular culture than Jerry Lewis?