The December issue of Harper’s Magazine features an excerpt from Ben Marcus’s new novel, The Flame Alphabet, to be published in January by Knopf. In the novel, Marcus’s fourth, the United States is in crisis: families are being torn apart by an epidemic of lethal children’s speech. The narrator, Sam, and his wife, Claire, are eventually forced to flee their daughter to live in silence, but Sam is determined to find a cure for the effects of toxic language and reunite the family. Harper’s put six questions to Marcus about his writing and the book:
1. In The Flame Alphabet, language becomes so harmful to people that the narrator is assigned “to test letters, alphabets, possibly engineer a new script… to string together symbols that might be used as code, a new language to outwit the toxicity.” Is this similar to the experimentation you do as a writer? Do you share his concerns about the possibility of reaching readers safely and the “bottomlessness” of the project?
Language is a poison in The Flame Alphabet. But the question the narrator faces, when he begins his work at the research lab, is whether this is true of all languages. He has to figure out if the script matters: are letters a visual poison, their very design something that causes illness to look at? Or is it the meaning: do certain ideas and feelings sicken us? His work is about trying to find some way — any way — to communicate that is not unbearable. If I had to connect this project to my work as a writer, I’d have to say my approach is the opposite. Everyday language, punished by dull and joyless deployments, is too often so nontoxic it makes no impact at all. Language is a placebo. It is medically vacant. For the most part, and for most people, language is used for basic interactions, and not to amaze, to delight, to entertain, to emotionally destroy, to upset, to confuse, to challenge, to reorient, to invent, to thrill. In different ways I would like my writing to do all of these things, and I’m not sure I see this as “experimentation.” I see it as writing. If language is poisonous in The Flame Alphabet, maybe in our world it is not poisonous enough. Or maybe it is not so easy to weaponize, and that’s part of what one tries to do with fiction. It’s difficult to arm a narrative with agents of derangement, something so vital it gets in our blood, like a drug. But I like trying.
2. In The Age of Wire and String and Notable American Women, you’d often interrupt your stories to coin new terms and switch up voices, but The Flame Alphabet seems to be more straightforward. It’s a personal narrative written in the first-person voice of a single protagonist. I read a past interview in which you said that you wanted to write something “continuous, a straight shot powered by one voice.” What was so appealing about sticking with one character?
In Notable American Women, each section, to me, constituted a small book. It had its own shape, its own voice, its own (sometimes not so apparent) arc. When I finished a section, I had to essentially start anew, working from the same narrative territory, yes, but not able to rely syntactically, tonally, structurally, on what I’d done before. There was a lot of reinvention necessary, a lot of starting over. I wondered, at the time, if I was missing out on the support system a continuous work could provide—the momentum, the accrual, being able to stand on the sentences I’d already written and maybe see new things, a single tower of language getting built. Could this approach have pushed me in a different direction, enhanced the narrative? So, yeah, I did think that in my next book I would see what narrative continuity, along with formal simplicity, might do for the world I was making, if only to reverse my approach and not disgust myself.
It wasn’t so much about staying with one character, as you say. The Flame Alphabet has several characters. But I wanted to see if the emotional possibilities for a book would be different or greater if I took a simple line of attack. And the other part of this is that I was exhausted by, or just done with, certain techniques. I kept using the same shovel, digging up the exact same shit. I wanted to change my shovel. Maybe use my hands. Maybe dig up into the air instead of down into the soil. I wondered if my endless return to the same ideas and concepts could maybe be blamed on my regular reliance on the same techniques — the syntax, the tones, the rhetoric. I felt that if I changed those I might be able to uncover a different part of my imagination, maybe some little untouched place the other tools weren’t reaching. A different kind of surgery on whatever place I look to for fiction.
3. Was writing a novel in this more straightforward narrative style a qualitatively different experience from your more experimental work?
I wrote this book more quickly than my others. Once it was up and running it was easier to return to on a daily schedule, and I never wanted to miss a day. I felt a ridiculous urgency about it (which doesn’t mean much — it’s just preferable to disgust and indifference). I could pick up each day wherever I left off the day before, whereas sometimes with past projects I have felt that I’m in a one-sided relationship with what I’m writing, trying to love and fondle something that is entirely indifferent to me, relentlessly stubborn and uncrackable, like sexing a stone. The unity of the story in The Flame Alphabet was something that — I found — kept giving ideas back to me. I thought about it constantly when I wasn’t working on it. It fed me ideas pretty regularly (not always good ones). I had the experience of momentum, which was new for me. I also allowed myself to use plainer, more transparently functional language in the first draft, because I had never done this before, and it was weird and hard to let go of my control. Each sentence did not need to be a piece of rare jewelry, a new food, a perfect sculpture of light. Sometimes I used plain language, even deliberately banal language, as a placeholder in order to push forward in the story, just to see what the effect would be. I did this against my instincts because I was bored of my instincts.
During rewrites I spent much more time on the language, whereas in the past I did almost all of the language dressing inside the first draft. Of course none of this means the book is any better than what I’ve written before. I’m not that interested in mythologizing the process, or talking about what pajamas I wear when I write (none). And I don’t mean to say that this approach will work next time (I’m sure it won’t). I’ve started to realize that I have to make changes to what I do — to the style, to the tone, to the story or storylessness — in order to care enough to get back to work. Otherwise I’m just building the same table in a world in that already has plenty of tables.
4. In your previous novel, Notable American Women, a mother and father attempt to control and regulate the emotions of their son, a character named Ben Marcus, but in your new work, the power dynamics shift, and children exert power over parents by weakening them with their speech. You and your wife have two children now. Has your writing been changed and shaped by your experience of fatherhood? How so?
I have more happiness in my life now, with two kids, and I also have a lot more to lose. Before I had kids I could lose my wallet, I could get hurt, my parents could die. Now I could also lose two sweet little people who, in my opinion, should be allowed to live forever and have whatever they want. The fact that harm might one day come to them is among the worst things I’ve ever had to face. But I don’t really have the correct stethoscope to figure out how this has all changed my writing. I fantasize about my writing being “changed,” but in the end it’s not that easy to rewire that part of oneself. I seem to have only one story to tell: a man is in a hole where bad things are happening to him. So I have to work to mask this basic fact. All that ever changes is the nature of our assertions that we’re different.
The daughter in The Flame Alphabet, Esther, is a teenager, but I don’t have a teenager. I also have never conducted medical experiments on my wife, at least formally. I have not invented a new Hebrew letter made partially from hair, something that sweats and seems nearly human, something that imparts a folktale when held in one’s hand. I invent a lot in what I write — I invent almost all of it. But I don’t get past even the first half page unless I can tether the hell out of my real feelings to whatever I’ve invented. I need a thousand different emotional connections or else the whole thing is silly and without purpose.
5. In the past you’ve described your writing as a space in which basic emotional concerns could play themselves out. What basic emotional concerns were you pursuing in the writing of this book?
Well, the conflict that arises out of loyalty and love. You love your daughter, you adore her, but when she speaks you get sick. Your wife gets sick. So what do you do? The hardest person to leave would be one’s child — there’s almost no conceivable circumstance in which I could imagine willingly leaving my kid behind. So that, to me, meant I had to come up with that very circumstance, to make a narrative from that emotionally unbearable circumstance. Is that perverse? It might be. I had a desperate need to write from conflict, and to wonder what precise conflict, in a narrative, would make me the craziest, the most terrified, the most anxious. For some reason I want to trigger these feelings in myself when I work. I’ve come to believe, rightly or wrongly, that when I can churn up these feelings, and convincingly tie them to what I’m working on, then my prose might reflect that. There might be some seepage into the sentences. And most importantly I will just care more, which will make me work harder to get things right.
6. Six years ago, in an essay for Harper’s, you wrote a defense of experimental fiction against the efforts of some to marginalize it because they perceived “difficult literature” as a threat to the publishing industry. Has your perspective changed at all since then? What do you think the status of experimental writing is today?
I like to believe that new amazements are possible in language — that literary entertainment can come at us in ways we’ve not seen before — and I would still defend the need for this kind of work in our culture, although the idea that it would even need to be defended is still sort of odd to me. I love some of the literary traditions that are well entrenched by now, because I love being engrossed by a carefully observed story, but I also love reading the unexampled, the crazy, the weird, the baffling, and if that work comes in unprecedented forms, so much the better. But it turns out that I don’t think I’m a very good crossing guard in the street war—if there even is one—about this supposed polarity in writing in any case. When I read for pleasure, I try to read what looks exciting, and in the end that’s just personal. Putting styles into camps doesn’t seem so interesting for the larger settlement of people who care about literature — our tents should be linked by well-lit tunnels, right?, and we should have campfires at night, and play truth or dare, and mystery writers should be able to French kiss the language poets without shame, right? — but I still don’t blame literature’s failure to dominate the entertainment industry on any particular kind of writing. And I don’t understand anyone’s need to legislate the way other people read or write.
At the moment, in terms of reading, I’m looking forward to Diane Williams’s new book of stories. I was impressed by Blake Butler’s novel, There is No Year. Tough, taut, prose. Tremendous feeling. Like everyone else I was crushed by Sam Lipsyte’s The Ask. I thought the prose that resulted from Jonathan Safran Foer’s cut-outs in Tree of Codes was striking. As beautiful as that book’s design was, I’d love to see the story itself printed on its own. And I think the direction suggested by his story, “Here We Aren’t So Quickly,” is pretty exciting. I love Barbara Comyns, Deborah Eisenberg, Mavis Gallant, Joy Williams. Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go killed me. Maybe the most intense thing I’ve read in years is Wallace Shawn’s “Grasses of a Thousand Colors.” It is terrifying, brilliant, and unlike anything I’ve ever read. Who else? Joanna Ruocco, Alissa Nutting, Victor LaValle, Padgett Powell, Deb Olin Unferth, Lydia Millet, and Evan Lavender-Smith. With too many others left out.
For more of Marcus’s writing, read this excerpt from “Why experimental fiction threatens to destroy publishing, Jonathan Franzen, and life as we know it: A correction,” which appeared in the October 2005 issue of Harper’s Magazine. Or, subscribe and get free access to the entire piece, as well as more than 160 years of Harper’s, including several selections of Marcus’s fiction and criticism.