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 felt what might be an anxiety about realism and the use of children’s language in some of those medical-experiment scenes. Do you fear that you are exploiting your kids when you write about them and your feelings about them directly—which you clearly are here, in some refracted and fucked-up way?
I don’t feel some conscious anxiety about realism. I mean, I think that there’s a nice like lit-crit elegance to that equation that is probably not conscious for me. I work, and then I leave the office, and I’m with my kids and just sort of enjoy them on a visceral level, and I don’t feel like I’m exorcising my own deep ideas about parenthood and about how my life will come into play in my work.
I mean, I may be a little bit. But I think that there are these initial urges that set the book in motion and then there’s this sort of more conscious attempts to generate some pressure, and urgency, and have it make some kind of sense within the parameters of the setup. I feel just like a day laborer dealing with the initial inspiration and trying to make it into something as opposed to something that’s more psychologically cathartic.
Your name is Ben Marcus, you’ve written this innovative Jew hut novel with a Michael Chabon blurb on the back cover. So, maybe it’s not so weird to picture you reading at Jewish book fairs in San Francisco and appearing on panels with Joshua Cohen and Nicole Krauss. I never saw you as a “Jewish writer” before, but I think that was my problem with the genre. How do you feel about the likelihood of people starting to look at you as a Jewish writer? Does it irritate you?
It doesn’t irritate me at all. Kafka was a Jewish writer without really very often writing exclusively about Judaism. Religion itself has always been very interesting to me, but I’ve never felt the urgent opportunity to make it exist in fiction. I grew up reading Bellow, I love Bellow, but I can’t write that way. What’s interesting is to look in the realm of the Jewish-American writer and think about some sub-categories. Can this subject matter withstand, let’s say, a high, fantastical approach?
In some sense prose fiction is just a way of unlocking a space. If I can unlock the space it comes out and it’s vivid, I find that I care about it, and it’s part of me. This is an invented book, it’s sort of futuristic, I could have given the religion I invented some totally made-up name. If I had done that, it would have been completely neutralized and dull. The idea of linking it to Judaism, which has a tradition of splinter groups and offshoots and subversive sects that are very cerebral and let’s say sort of self-defeating, just felt compelling to me.
I also think that in our generation there are a lot of people who had my kind of sort of half-Jewish upbringing. My father went to Hebrew school in Brooklyn, but he married an Irish Catholic, and so in some technical sense, I’m not even considered Jewish even though I was bar mitzvahed. The way I think of it is I am my father’s son. He’s profoundly Jewish, and I’m profoundly connected to him. But in some other way I know, I was a disappointment for not having a superficial Jewish practice, let’s say, not that I think he would ever show it, because he’s profoundly loving and supportive.
Nathan Englander has a book out right now and it’s very firmly in that Jewish writer category, and I really don’t see myself in that category yet. I think probably to certain people, there’s going to be a way where I never will enter that territory.
There’s a big problem with the entire category of Jewish writing right now. What makes writing Jewish? If you look at that category in 1955, it was Kafka in translation, Malamud’s stories, Saul Bellow’s version of Russo-European realism colliding with America. You had a lot of stuff that actually seemed to connect from one angle or another to the full intellectual and aesthetic sweep of a long historical-cultural-literary tradition.
The genre now is incredibly sterile. It’s Jewish writing because the author is Jewish, and all the major characters are Jewish. Even Michael Chabon who is so magically talented on the line level has been led into this weird territory where he writes these Jewish pseudo-cultural-historical polemics in novel form which are not all that formally or emotionally interesting as fiction.
I feel as though the self-labeled “experimental community” wants to say that I lean toward the mainstream, and the mainstream wants to say that I’m the experimental writer who can’t write mainstream work. To be honest I feel like it’s liberating, because I don’t identify with either of them. I don’t want to be in a camp. I just want to write what I want to write. But I don’t think I’m remotely done with Jewish subject matter. If anything, I feel like I’m just finding a way to make it mine.
At his 86th birthday party, a question arises: Is there a needier, more agonizingly ambitious figure in American popular culture than Jerry Lewis?