Ben Marcus – a bright spark in the world of letters

The path of the novelist can be a treacherous one, as novelist Ben Marcus has learned – and taught


Ben Marcus chuckles darkly at the notion that his most recent novel, The Flame Alphabet , was a conscious move towards what is regarded as more mainstream fiction. From the opening pages, when Sam and Claire decide to abandon their teenage daughter, Esther, because her talking – literally the words coming out of her mouth – is the cause of their severe physical deterioration, the story flies along at a gripping pace.

It can be easily be stamped as an old-fashioned page-turner – “As I read late into the night, feverishly turning the pages, I felt myself, increasingly, in the presence of the classic”, Michael Chabon comments on the rear cover – and therefore distinct from the gloriously unusual works with which Marcus made his name.

And, of course, for all the praise, there has been an undercurrent of protest from his earliest fans, who fear that he is abandoning his vocation as a champion of daring, uncompromising creative writing.

“They seem pissed at me too!” he laughs. “They think I am giving up my roots. I don’t know that a story about people worshipping in a two-person synagogue in the woods and a book about poisonous language . . . I really don’t see that as my crossover bid.”

Marcus is leaning back at a large, oval conference table in his office, a sun-filled corner room overlooking the main thoroughfare in Columbia university. The April afternoon is bright and gorgeous and the campus has that dreamy, death in-the-afternoon atmosphere common to all universities in springtime. He is not yet sure if he will read from The Flame Alphabet when he stands at the podium at Cúirt. There are some new stories he might select from but ultimately, he says, he is happy to do whatever pleases people. “I will just see what the expectations are. I’m happy to do whatever.”

The phrase is casual but apt, in part because Marcus is tremendously affable and relaxed and in part because as far as fiction goes, it serves as a useful co-ordinate. If Marcus has been served by any guiding voice as a writer, it is to follow whatever path his mind has taken him on. Since publishing his first book, The Age of Wire and String (1995), at the age of 25, he has presented something of a puzzle in the cluttered field of American fiction. He is Jewish but grew up in Austin, the citadel of liberalism in the Lone Star State. His parents are both academics and old-school liberal.

“They did lots of anti-war stuff in the 1960s. My Mum is lapsed Irish Catholic. My dad is Jewish and I was bar mitzvahed. But that was a blip, really. Once a year we would go to Jewish services. My dad grew up going to Hebrew school in Brooklyn and I think he wanted to connect emotionally with that time in his life.

Judaism was certainly on the periphery of his mind when he set about writing The Flame Alphabet and he used elements to concoct the religion which is central to the story. “There is a great tradition of the Jewish trickster and the subservient comedic mode . . . it can be gleefully strange. When you read a little of Kabbalah it is just so profoundly nuts. Really, really searching and humble and you return to this idea that if you feel you are starting to gain a sense of how things work in the world, you are almost certainly wrong. In those ways, I feel very Jewish.”

But once he was locked into the story, the echoes of Judaism fell away. He was naturally conscious of the significance of having Jewish children (and later, all children) as the hosts of the epidemic in which their speech is lethally dangerous and contagious to adults. However, he was caught unawares when an editor worriedly drew his attention to a scene in which Sam, the narrator, sees his wife, Claire, now a “test subject” in a laboratory, naked and entering a holding tank with a group of people who are then showered with water. “But it wasn’t strictly water, because what collected in the drain had a soapy, black foam in it, a dark brew of bubbles beading up on the floor,” the narrator elaborates. Marcus acknowledges that readers might draw the most harrowing parallel imaginable from the scene. It simply wasn’t in his mind when he wrote it.

“We can’t police this and we will react how we do. That connection is going to hover at different levels for different reasons. I am not going to avoid the territory for that reason either. Yes, my editor did question the shower scene but I was in that happy and dumb place you can get into at a late stage in the book where the emotional content overpowered the more abstract historical connotation. He thought she was dead and gone and here she is being ogled by this nefarious villain. And I was caught up in that.”

And it was the theme of language – its dazzling power and dangers and what Marcus describes as the “bottomless” potential of words – that drove the story on as he wrote it. That and one of the unbreakable themes of the novel form: family. Marcus laughs at the number of people who asked him why Esther is such a pain-in-the-ass. “I like her! She’s a teenager.”

From the beginning, she has all of the reader’s natural sympathy because despite everything, she is a child who has been wilfully abandoned by her parents. Once liberated from his daughter, the natural impulse for Sam is to be reunited with her.

“Family is the way in which we rehearse our worst selves because it is safe,” Marcus says. “And children certainly do that.”

Perhaps that is the theme that has landed Marcus with the charge of going mainstream. Not that he ever asked to be made champion of the avant-garde. In 2005, he wrote an opinion piece in Harper’s responding to Jonathan Franzen’s position on what fiction should be. It was tarted up as a literary spat, much to Marcus’s surprise: he had felt he was merely offering a considered response.

“He couldn’t be more lauded as a novelist and so his opinions are going to matter more and be disseminated like crazy. But he is one of the most conservative spokespeople for fiction that we have seen in this country. It seemed so crazy and a dangerous thing to me. I respect the fiction he writes and think he clearly has a tremendous amount of skill. I thought it was fair game: it clearly wasn’t. I still believe in what I wrote and if I meet people who actually read it, the discussion tends to be a little different than those who just think I was pissing on him.”

He knew Franzen “a little” before the essay but says he has not seen him since. “He once said that he wished Harper’s had fact-checked the piece. But they did that, for months.”

It is water under the bridge now anyway. When he is not writing himself, Marcus is chair of the creative writing programme at Columbia. He acknowledges that for students, the decision to go for it as a writer can be treacherous. Above all college courses, it can offer no guarantees of a conventional, secure future.

“Yeah. But we have a pact to be honest with them. And so we aren’t talking about how they earn a living but it is this larger question: what is school for? More and more to work in a university is to have to fend off from various forces the idea that this is a training to go out and get a job and make money. There is a little bit of a resistance to the question of: well, why would you read Milton? What the fuck does that have to do with working in a bank? I love really not being able to connect the two in any obvious way. But in the grand scheme, we are still a graduate school of the arts so that question comes to us last. And in a sense, the students who arrive here have thought their way through this themselves.”

And for whatever reason, they still apply in droves. There is something reassuring in that. All Marcus wants to do is help them along and to maybe help them to discover a book or writer that made him feel as he did when he was a youngster and his mother “smothered” him in books. That, more than anything, propelled him into discovering what kind of writer he might become. He is nowhere near through that journey and if it some day connects with the mass pulse – “the fantasy of being carried out of the banquet hall on shoulders and being doused with mead” – then that is fine too.

“I don’t walk around thinking I know what a good book is more than anyone else,” he says lightly.

“I just really feel that there are books that if you read at the right time can just . . . ignite us. It’s that feeling of being shattered and remade by books.”

Ben Marcus reads at the Cúirt International Festival of Literature in Galway on April 26th.