Lethal Language: Ben Marcus Urges Writers to March on the Enemy

January 31, 2012 | 1 book mentioned 11 9 min read

In the days prior to the publication of his second novel, The Millions had the pleasure to chat with Ben Marcus about The Flame Alphabet — an apocalyptic tale about the toxicity of human language — along with everything from the development of his work and the labels people assign fiction to the ranking of MFA programs and the perils of colicky babies.

coverThe Millions: The Flame Alphabet — which features first-person narration and a single protagonist — has been described as your most “accessible” book to date. Would you agree with this assessment? Given the more “experimental” nature of Notable American Women and The Age of Wire and String , how did the structure and prose style for The Flame Alphabet come about?

Ben Marcus: Who is setting the bar for what you call accessibility? The definition of “accessible” is “easy to understand,” and so much of the fiction I love is just… not that. It is complex and rich and sometimes puzzling, and it stays with me precisely because I can’t quite wrap my head around it. Sometimes it is lucid and approachable on the surface, and other times the language is congested in order to fire up strong sensations. Accessibility is such a strange, sad measure of the writing I love. Dora the Explorer is accessible. The Unconsoled is not. But I have never been deliberately difficult, if that’s what you’re getting at. That has no appeal to me. I’ve always tried to write the fiction that compels me the most — I have to feel passionate, engaged, and nearly desperate if I’m going to get anything done. When I’m working on material that is conceptual or abstract or in some way difficult, I strive for clarity, transparency, a vivid attack. After Notable American Women was published, I felt pretty strongly that I wanted to try something different, just on the compositional level. I wanted a single narrator, a precise timeline. I was curious what narrative momentum would deliver to me and how that would impact the fictional world I wanted to create. I was just hungry to put on a new disguise and go prowling. At that point I had no idea what the book would be, but I must have been craving order, some formal simplicity. Of course I quickly found a way to muck it up, but for a little while it was like writing with a new body and the whole experience woke me up and mattered, at least for a while. If The Flame Alphabet, as a result, is easier, then that’s an accident. If anything, I hope it is a much harder book, on the emotional level at least.

coverTM: How do you view the development or progression of your work, from The Age of Wire and String to Notable American Women and now The Flame Alphabet?

BM: The simple answer is that I have changed my techniques in order to avoid the relentless sameness of my material, but I have probably only found new costumes, not new creatures entirely. In the past, if I wanted to sound a note on a piano (in prose), I didn’t just have to purchase and install the piano, I had to build it. But before I built it I had to grow the trees whose wood would yield the piano, and probably I had to create the soil and landscape through which those trees would burst. Then there was the problem of the fucking seeds. Where did they come from? I had to source them. With such mania I was either onto something or I completely misunderstood what a fiction writer was supposed to do. Simple things, even entirely undramatic ones, could not occur unless I created them from whole cloth. I was superstitious about taking anything for granted, but it also locked me into a kind of fanatical object fondling that could, on a bad day, preclude any exploration of the human (even though the process of trying to remake the world on the page is fairly, pathetically, human). This set of interests kept me away from what is usually called narrative. It wasn’t some ideological position, or an artistic stance, it was just one set of obsessions winning out over another. On the other hand, I think that I have always tried to create feeling, and then to pulse it into the reader with language. It’s very difficult to figure out how to do this. Storytelling is one way — conventional narrative or whatever you want to call it — but are there other methods worth exploring? The ground shifts, and I change my mind about what might work. How to create immense, unforgettable feeling from language? This ambition hasn’t really changed, it’s just that I want to cultivate new approaches, to try to circle in on a more vivid way to accomplish it.

TM: Was your writing process at all different with The Flame Alphabet given its more traditional narrative structure?

BM: It was. I wrote The Flame Alphabet relatively quickly, in less than two years. I worked every day and usually produced a few pages. I rarely reread the previous material each day before starting to work (whereas in the past I have been a compulsive re-reader before beginning the day’s work). I also, against my nature, allowed myself to use functional, placeholder language sometimes in order to keep my momentum, telling myself that I would go back later to make the language more interesting. And I did go back later, and later, and later. Unlike with my earlier books, I cut as much as I kept, or more. I have four or five hundred pages of deleted material. After I finished the first draft, I cut a 70-page section in the first third of the book and re-did it from scratch. I also cut a 50 page section, in Part 2, that introduced a new set of characters and conflicts. These people never returned. Thank god.

coverTM: I read somewhere that you began writing Notable American Women after discovering an old — and somewhat patronizing — encyclopedia actually titled Notable American Women. The Flame Alphabet is a book about the toxic language of children. What was the genesis of that idea?

BM: The idea came about when an obsession — language — collided with a fraught emotional container — family. I think of language as being tremendously potent. It causes deep feelings in us, so much so that its effects would seem nearly chemical, medical. Once I started to think of language as medical, a kind of drug, I wondered what an overdose would be, what would happened if the drug of language was toxic to some people if taken in high doses. This alone wasn’t that interesting, but it did give the book a basic problem, a conflict, to work from. At the time I was thinking about characters who have something crucial taken from them — what they’ll do to recover what matters most to them. So I took language away from Sam, my narrator, but that wasn’t enough of a loss. He also had to lose his child, his family. And these losses had to be connected to each other, maybe inextricable: thus the child as weapon. The child you love is the one who is harming you. This made the morality of the problem much more difficult, more inaccessible. I didn’t realize any of this at the time, but I think that I was looking to escalate the problem at every point in the novel. If there was a crisis, it needed to deepen, to worsen, and the escalation had to maybe beget the plot. This all sounds a bit too insider baseball. I didn’t know a thing when I started.

TM: In the book, Sam and Claire are part of a secretive and strange Jewish sect? And toxic language is, by some, thought to emanate first from Jewish children. What was behind your decision to make your main characters Jewish?

BM: The forest Jewry that Sam and Claire practice is invented (maybe). They worship in isolation, in the woods, receiving their Rabbi’s sermons through a complex, hard-to-operate radio that frequently fails them. But even if their process is invented, the content of their religion is tied closely to Jewish mysticism and Kabbalah — it is not strikingly fictional. They respect the ineffable and see religious wisdom as essentially nonverbal, enigmatic, and elusive. The cautions against language, against understanding itself, to me come from not just Kabbalah but from Christian mysticism as well. I quickly determined that if I made up a name for this religion it amputated the whole thing of its vitality. I wanted the religious activities in the book, for all of their strangeness, to feel believable, to feel true. To me, Judaism, with its deep respect for intellectual interrogation, for the slippery vicissitudes of Torah interpretation, could accommodate a sect like the forest Jews in this book. As this sect started to take shape, and I explored the isolated nature of such anti-communal worship, the intense loneliness of true religious commitment, this produced a lot of dramatic material, and the potential for sorrow. Connected to this, I have always wanted to invent a religion in fiction, and to me this was a chance to do so in a way that felt bound to my own personal religious experience.

TM: I was discussing The Flame Alphabet with a friend and she said that children’s language as a toxin was an idea that only a parent would have. As a father of two, what impact do your children have on your writing or the way you approach your work?

BM: My daughter, who is seven now, had fierce colic as a baby, and her scream was military grade. I remember once I was changing her diaper on the bed and out of nowhere she released a scream so piercing, so beyond anything I’d ever experienced at the sonic level, that I nearly threw up. But those days are gone. She is a sweetheart with a gorgeous voice and we tease her sometimes because even if she tried she can’t scream like that anymore. One thing that’s been interesting to me about having kids is how I now see myself differently as a son to my parents. I am more aware, I think, of how easy it is to take them for granted as providers: machines of support and love. Parents are the people you can sometimes safely experiment on, testing dark moods, dumping anger and fear. Bragging. There are so many behaviors you can only really safely show to a parent.

TM: Shifting gears a bit, when it was published, some readers said that Notable American Women was not experimental enough. So that is possibly something you’ll hear about The Flame Alphabet. Does being labeled an “experimental” writer” mean anything to you?

BM: Anyone who believes that you can make art from language is part of a small, nearly-vanishing community, and we should all form a wedge and march on the enemy. Do we need different uniforms in this struggle, different stripes on our arms so that it’s clear who the realists are? Maybe, but I care less and less. I find myself fascinated by various techniques of fiction writing, and ever since early college I have tried to read all across the divides, before I even know there were divides. I love what William Trevor can do with a short story, and at the same time David Markson is staggeringly brilliant to me: the simplest language, yet utterly original on the page. We are in a time when narrative tradition is getting honed and exquisitely refined by the novelists who are considered major: very subtle improvements on an established method. But the premise of art is that writers will seek new methods to reach people with language. This isn’t experimental at all: it’s traditional. It’s a tradition for artists to push forward and try to do new things. Such a project has defined the making of art from the very beginning. There’s nothing more traditional than that.

TM: Shifting gears again, every year we see a ranking of “the best” MFA programs, followed by numerous rebuttals to the list of “best” MFA programs, followed by vigorous defenses of various MFA programs. As someone who has been both a student and a professor at MFA programs (at Brown and Columbia), what’s your reaction to this annual ranking and subsequent controversy?

BM: I don’t pay much attention to the rankings of these programs. I do spend time trying to improve the fiction concentration at Columbia, and I am very much engaged by the question of how best to teach students of fiction, how workshops should be structured, how the secondary reading courses might work, what form of criticism can best incite a student’s improvement. I’ve been teaching in MFA programs for over 20 years now. I wonder how to make the Columbia program matter as much as it can, how to build its value to student writers, how to improve it at every level. I care a lot about teaching, and what’s interesting about MFA programs is that there is not a lot of history to fight against. It’s relatively new, when it comes to academia, anyway, and this is, I think, liberating.

TM: What are you working on now?

BM: I am editing a collection of stories, which should be out sometime in 2013.

TM: And looking at the year ahead from the point of view of a reader, what books are you most excited about?

BM: John D’Agata’s Lifespan of a Fact, Karen Russell’s Vampires in the Lemon Grove, Michael Chabon’s new novel, Marilynne Robinson’s essay collection. Then there’s a novel by some freaky writer I’ve never heard of named Heidi Julavits. It’s called The Vanishers, and it’s amazing.

TM: Returning to The Flame Alphabet, the book trailer — featuring the animation of Erin Cosgrove — is intensely beautiful and creepy. How did you come to work with Erin?

BM: I met Erin through Creative Capital, an angelic organization that is boundlessly helpful and generous to artists. I watched a feature-length animation of Erin’s called What Manner of Person Art Thou? and I was just stunned by its genius. So I asked her if she might want to make a short film that could serve as a book trailer, and she agreed. We bounced around a bunch of ideas but we kept returning to the notion of a traditional trailer. Because Erin works in animation, she could animate whole scenes and we could build up the kind of atmosphere that’s in the book. Erin worked tirelessly, for months, and the result is what you see. I’d really love to work with her again.

Image Credit: Flickr/Double–M

is the editor of The Millions, a writer, and a senior editor at Publishers Weekly. He holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Columbia University. His fiction has appeared most recently in The Literary Review, Fawlt, and Encyclopedia.


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