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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

David Samuels
March 20, 2012
Chris Doyle
Chris Doyle
Chris Doyle
Chris Doyle

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.

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.

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.

David Samuels is the editor of County Highway, a new American magazine in the form of a 19th-century newspaper. He is Tablet’s literary editor.