December 19th, 2011 / 12:49 pm
I Like __ A Lot

Fan Mail #4: Ben Marcus

Dear Ben Marcus,

I just finished The Flame Alphabet. I woke up early on a Sunday morning to finish reading. And it was magnificent. I have read your books, or several of them at least. I read Age of Wire & String and Notable American Women the summer before starting grad school. They are audacious books, the syntax unlike anything I’d read before – call me a limited reader, of course, I’ve since read a lot more and come to understand its lineage – I wanted to emulate your style, your language, the way you created complex narrative by parataxis. I thought you were a fearless writer, and back then, I was young and afraid, although I didn’t show it in workshop, I wanted to be liked, as we all do when we’re young and insecure, but you, you were brazen, your writing was full of effrontery, and that’s what I wanted most in my writing. In short, you were an inspiration, maybe the biggest and most influential to me as a student.

And then years later you came to read at Notre Dame. I was teaching then, no longer a student. You came to read at Notre Dame, Ben Marcus, and I wanted to talk to you, but I was nervous and probably came across as a creeper. I had so much to say to you and ask you, and I think I said something banal like, “I really liked your reading,” which was true of course, of course it was true, but it wasn’t nearly what I wanted to convey. Platitudes are platitudes, and they’re fine, but saying I liked your reading was such a massive understatement as to be absurd. But I did like your reading. You read a story about a guy standing in line at a coffee cart. I was expecting something like Notable American Women, and I got a smart story that could not have been written by you, or so I thought, or so I thought because I thought that writers must remain static in style or experimentation, which is stupid – Now I realize! Now! But I learned a lesson that night, listening to you read. See, here’s the thing, Ben Marcus, you came to read at Notre Dame and most of the audience knew your name probably, maybe a few of them had even read one of your books, but the point is that what they knew about you, Ben Marcus the writer, was simply what you read for us, which is to say that most of them probably thought you are a very good – very good – realist writer. And you are, I’m not calling that into question, but they didn’t know about the first two books, how radical of a departure this story they heard was. And I felt bad for them, for not knowing, for only having had the experience of one facet of your writing. Such is the state of readings though.

See, Ben Marcus, I wanted to tell you that I’m also a writer – I’m sure that was revealed in conversation – but saying you’re a writer is loose. It doesn’t mean much. I wanted to tell you how much you inspired me, but that doesn’t mean much either. There’s a lack of legitimacy to both of those statements, an emptiness that is just that: vacant. But you did, inspire me, and I am, a writer. I am a writer who from my very nascent stages of writing learned from you and your departure from tradition. And from that departure, I was allowed to depart as well.

I read your first two books, Ben Marcus, and I wanted to write something worthy of being called books, like your books are called books.

And like so many other young writers – ok, look: we’re not all so young any more, and I’m still caught in this pathetic desire to be a prodigy, a daydream I should have thrown away long ago – I scoured your website and saw the promotions for your new book, The Flame Alphabet, which wouldn’t be released for a year, and I waited, like all of us here at HTML Giant, for what would come next, from the great Ben Marcus. Would it be something like Age of Wire & String or Notable American Women? Or maybe it would be like what you read at Notre Dame. Or maybe it would like the story in The New Yorker. Another lesson I’ve learned from you: writers can have range. Writers can evolve.

The day I got the galley for The Flame Alphabet, I was so excited that took a picture and texted it to my friend Evan Lavender-Smith. I was proud to have it, your new book, though the galley was covered in cheap construction paper, it didn’t matter: it was new and it was yours. Later that week, at an editorial meeting for Puerto del Sol, I offered my students a chance to review it. They hadn’t read you: I was appalled.

I wanted to read it immediately, stop all my classes and read, but I couldn’t. It’s my first real job, and I had to focus. That, and I’d absurdly stacked my classes so full of books I didn’t have a chance to read, except in preparation, but the moment I was slightly relieved of my teaching duties, I grabbed at your book, hungry: so fitting for the book itself.

I read your book a plane from El Paso to Providence. I wanted the people next to me to see what I was reading, to ask me questions about it, but the people on the plane were anti-social, and I wanted to read uninterrupted. I am a contradiction. I have to be honest: the first chapter was difficult for me, but it matters little because it lasted for only a few pages, and then I was in, in the middle of a Ben Marcus world: so like our own only not at all. I didn’t know what to expect.

And The Flame Alphabet, written in traditional sentences, written as a traditional narrative, but fuck, it’s more experimental or conceptual or whatever word you want to use than your first two books. Maybe because you work within tradition to disguise the glory of your ideas. I started to read your book on the plane, and I wanted to find a microphone and read it to everyone sitting there, complacent and bored. I wanted to give them a glimpse of what literature can do: transport, unnerve, sate.

A book about language and disease, the pain and torture you force your characters to endure, the lack of hope, and then in the end, there it is: the faintest bit of hope, or, maybe delusion.

Thank you, Ben Marcus, for writing this book, for writing all of your books and stories. See, I’ve been struggling, well, maybe not struggling, that’s a strong word. But for years now, I’ve written these experimental books. I’ve written fairy tales and played hard with language, making it elastic, but recently, I’ve been writing these realist stories that don’t. I’ve been within convention, and it’s bizarre and fun and I thought maybe there was something wrong with me, maybe this is the wrong road for me. Editors expect what they’ve seen from me before. Editors respond, saying things like, This is really not like anything I’ve by you before, and it’s not necessarily a compliment, but reading The Flame Alphabet and your more recent stories, I’ve learned that I don’t need to do what I’ve done before, for the mere sake of branding or expectations. I can do what I want. You see, Ben Marcus, the lengths at which you’ve inspired writers, all of us who have encountered your work, and we thank you, sincerely and fully. Thank you, Ben Marcus, thank you.

Your Fan, xoxo, Lily

The Flame Alphabet will be released by Knopf in January. It can be pre-ordered here.

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