I imagine Ben Marcus, despite his prodigious talent, sadly, doesn’t make the biggest splash outside of the literary world. His previous works: experimental, challenging and brilliant, have drawn wide acclaim and a cult-like following, but he lacks the controversial nature of other authors (unless you count an argument with Jonathan Franzen in Harper’s Magazine) and often writes with a density that precludes a mass audience. However, in his new book, perhaps his most stylistically conventional to date, The Flame Alphabet, Marcus attempts to meld his ambitious intelligence with a more classic narrative style. Not shockingly, our conversation touched upon a range of subjects including the power and limitations of language, Kabbalah, the nature of family dynamics, and the state of the American novel.
Jewcy: Your book describes a world in which the language of children literally kills adults, both a scary and ambitious idea for a novel. Where did this idea come from?
I have always thought of language as something very potent, something that could change us on a biological level, the way a drug can. It affects our feelings, changes our behavior, and when I thought of it that way, and magnified it, I wondered what would happen if we consumed too much of it, if it could or would be poisonous, and that was the first idea of language as a virus, which seemed to generate a lot of stories for me. But it was equally important to be happening to a family. It was important for me to portray the struggle of a parent. I was really interested in having a parent go through the challenge of having to choose between staying with a child and perishing because of it, or leaving and dealing with that shame.
You chose to unleash this nightmare virus on a family that already displayed some pretty dysfunctional relationships…
Yea, that’s right. It’s not as though they had a perfect relationship beforehand, and I thought of that, but it seemed that if this toxic language visited a happy family, it seemed too easy to just pick on this joyful and peaceful family and send this meteor down on their house. This choice seemed to me more morally complicated, that they already had trouble and issues. I think one of the things that I try to do throughout the book is to slowly escalate the moral problems.
You speak of morally complicated situations, and your characters are morally complex as well, almost to the extent that some of them can engender a lack of sympathy. I’m thinking of Esther who gives the angst ridden teenager a new dimension. What do you think of her as a character?
Well she might have been a teenage bitch to her parents, but quite possibly she was not to her friends. We only have the story from one person, her parent, Samuel’s eye, and I am fascinated how people are different around their parents than around their friends and everyone outside in the world. In a way, parents are a punching bag, of course that’s not all they are, but it’s safe to misbehave around your parents because they wont break up with you. I think what attracts me is that in our lives and in our imagination family is completely essential and yet it is a cauldron of a lot of bad behavior, tension, and vulnerability. You don’t love anyone the way you love your family, but it’s also the safest place to test out your fears and bad behavior. I like Esther, but I was aware that I was just showing one side of her. Plus to me, her teenage rebelliousness made a kind of sense; the logic of a teenager. I think what it comes down to is that it is not her story, we see ultimately as her father sees her.
There seems to be an inherent tension in a book full of words attempting to describe the danger and limits of language.
Well, that’s a kind way to put it. I basically gave a gift to a reviewer who didn’t like the book. It’s a huge unanswerable paradox to use language to write about the end of language. I can’t imagine my life without language. I have the craziest and the most delusional belief that there is far more to language than we’ve even discovered. Consequently, to try to write with language about this paradox can be one of the most fascinating things I can try to do, and I keep thinking that more is possible and if you put the right words in the right order we will unlock deeper riches of human experiences. It’s a lot of faith in language, and that’s partly why I wanted to reverse the idea for myself. I try this a lot, to reverse my belief so as to feel vulnerable when I’m actually writing about it, because if it’s antithetical to what I really feel it almost forces me to live the bad dream I am writing and to try think differently.
This idea of the untapped potential of language leads us into the mysticism of the book.
To me I couldn’t imagine this book without mysticism. It’s fundamentally, at least how I understand it, opposed to using language to try label our deep spiritual experience. It suggests that deep spiritual mystical experiences are beyond language, which is an amazing taunt to me. On the one hand people chase after it and try to describe describe and describe, but I think there is something romantic and alluring and compelling to the idea that language can’t reach a certain level of experience, not only can’t, but that language is almost a suspicious decoy away from those experiences.
Besides mysticism, there seem to be a little bit of Nietzschean idea of the limits of language.
He’s an interesting reference, but even on the sweeter side, it’s funny, but for some reason I am noticing more and more people going on retreats were they take vows of silence. Places where the whole idea is to not speak for a while, to pursue this fantasy of what you might think and feel if you weren’t constantly trying to say what you think or feel. The more I read into Kabbalah, I found that what I had invented at least with the way these characters worshipped in the woods and their relationship to language, made my idea of language feel less invented, and more of an ancient idea, maybe I just needed to delude myself, but I am pretty sure there are many antecedents.
In terms of style, this seems to be the least experimental of your books. This is a book with almost a classical narrative arc. How did you make this choice?
Well, I found it essential that one person tell it. As opposed to my earlier books which used different narrators, or unseen or removed omniscient narrators, here, I felt very compelled that this wasn’t supposed to be told that way, that it needed to be a story of one person, and that is why it has the look and feel of a more traditional narrative. Additionally, I felt that I wanted to have a lot of momentum to move along as quickly as possible so that in a certain sense the hurdles to the believability of the idea wouldn’t settle in, because the conceit would put too much pressure and leave the reader scratching their head. So the ruse was to keep changing and moving things so that people wouldn’t stop and think about.
In a book of evil, grotesque, and disgusting situations, there are moments of beautiful poetic transcendence in the writing. How does that fit in with the larger tone of the book? Specifically, you wax poetically on the potential of the Hebrew language.
Well I think that it is intentional there. The narrator is trying to invent a new language and out of some dim notion of respect he has refused to use Hebrew to test on the subjects because he doesn’t want to injure anyone with the Hebrew language, but he starts to think he might find a sort of personal antidote in it. I wanted to suffuse that feeling with some reverence and hope. Sam feels reverence towards this, and believes that the Hebrew language is not finished, that the whole mystical idea of the Hebrew alphabet has sort of these potential missing pieces if plotted together, or built out, would release everybody from this difficulty.
This is a novel full of mysteries, riddles, and philosophical ideas underlying the compelling narrative, did you ever think that there is a saturation point of philosophy or ideas in a novel?
Yes. The saturation depends on trendiness. It also depends on how commercial you want to think about a reader, and what kind of reader you write for. I think I did put thoughtful material in the book, but I did not want it to feel inert or just a repository of ideas, although there is all that, I think I used to do that more often, but here I was more interested in illustrating or embodying ideas, setting it in motion, so that a reader could find it there if he or she wanted to, but it wasn’t feeling like you were getting schooled in this book.
These questions sound similar to those you tackled in your Harper’s article on experimental fiction and Jonathan Franzen
Look, it’s an interesting question about American fiction in general and the kind of books we consider major. I try to think of the ten major books of the last decade, and it’s an interesting question. I think the basic question is how to write substantive books that you want to write without alienating people. I don’t feel that readers need to be forced to read anything, and if something feels didactic to them, they shouldn’t read it. In the end I think the challenge and problem and responsibility comes back to the writer, and the writer needs to accept how much they care about something. The artistic challenge is whether they can find a delivery system for their material that is engaging vital and entertaining without forfeiting the issues that started their novel off.