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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  1. 88888888888888888888888

      You accidentally a verb

      Winner: Trolling for typos

  2. Brooks Sterritt

      Thanks for posting this

  3. jesusangelgarcia

      This is sweet, Lily. I love your fangirl missive. Better: your letting go.

      Both of which remind me of Stephen Elliott on Vaclav Havel in this morning’s Daily Rumpus: “It’s a little bit of a trap to think you have to write a [certain kind of] book. Better to think, I have to live creatively. I have to put my creative energy into things [i.e., the kind of writing, etc.] I care about.” (The [inserts] are mine.)

      Gotta say, though, and I know I’m in the minority on HTMLG, that Notable American Women came across to me as a hollow affect. I remember Marcus himself posted ( then retracted (but now it’s up again, obviously) an unironic apology shortly after publication of NAW: “I have written a bad book.” And I remember writing about this book at the time and appreciating validation from the author for my own feelings on how it didn’t work, despite its clever setup and use of language and artifice.

      I was turned on to the work by the excerpt in Harper’s, which I thought was amazing as a stand-alone freak piece. And I loved the idea of the Silentists and the idea of a fascist female cult seeking self-actualization by purging all e/motion from daily life. I also loved the idea that “language is a social form of barely controlled weeping,” best left bottled up or imbibed in small doses from the “learning pond.” I loved how the writing was twisted and provocative and the ideas important: the pointlessness of asserting individuality in a conformist society, the brutality intrinsic to post-feminist gender relationships, the self-loathing that stems from sexual confusion, and most importantly, the cancer of feeling too much (or too little) and the power (and ultimate powerlessness) of language to change the course of fate. Potent ideas… in small learning-pond doses.

      But as a whole, for me, the book didn’t hold up, even while specific passages were clearly inspired (and for some, clearly, inspirational). In the end, for me, the artifice masked (rather than contributed to) meaning, feeling, substance, takeaway. In the end, as Marcus put it in his McSweeney’s apology, I didn’t “care much about what… happened.”  

      I’d really like to know why/how you did/do. I’d like to hear from other Ben Marcus fans as well. Thanks.

  4. jesusangelgarcia
  5. Adam Robinson

      That’s the best cover of 2012. 

      And nice tribute, Lily. Makes me want to read it more.

  6. Brooks Sterritt

      I can’t help but have the feeling that Marcus’s McSweeney’s thing is at least somewhat ironic. It is McSweeney’s after all–though I have no way of knowing for sure. And if he truly thinks it’s a bad book: author’s feeling be damned, I LOVE NAW. I can see why people who like well-rounded characters (whatever those are) and books in which something happens (whatever that is) might be disappointed–people tolerate different levels of abstraction. NAW is far from character- and plotless, but even if it were, it would be remarkable for its sentences (the syntax [as Lily mentioned], the sound, and the surprise contained in nearly every one). I also really enjoyed his latest NYer piece, which was pretty straightforward, whatever that is.

  7. Erik Stinson

      “[…] the summer before starting grad school.”

  8. jesusangelgarcia

      I remember really being drawn to all the ideas and the language, Brooks. What was weird for me is that I’ve always been into novels foremost for their ideas and the language (music of the sentences). When readers/writers talk about characters/plot first, I have a hard time getting that, though I’ve been working toward a better understanding in recent years.

      Still, with NAW, while I loved certain parts — I marked that book up more than most (some of that stuff was hilarious in excerpt) — when I got to the end, I was like… hrrrrmmmph. It didn’t hang together. It’s hard to recall exactly, but it was something about all these great “thought rags” (concepts) introduced but never completely fleshed out in a way that, I dunno, mattered, ultimately. It was something about hanging all these compelling ideas on a creative artifice that also relied on some level on narrative, but then the author never fulfilled the narrative trajectory, if that makes sense. I think that was it. The total story/idea/”world of the book” didn’t “come alive,” even while pieces of it, I thought, were blazing-brilliant. And so, I wasn’t convinced.

      I don’t believe Marcus was either. I initially read that McSweeney’s piece as irony, but then when it was retracted, I kind of felt like OK, it must be legit b/c he’s tripping. Also, he seems unironic in his tone, no? Finally, how he talks about writing that book, I think, reveals precisely why it’s flawed. And so, I still don’t get why it’s got such fans in certain circles.

  9. Brooks Sterritt

      Interesting. I actually never even thought about whether NAW hung together or not. I guess I didn’t need or expect closure of any sort and was just left stunned by its power. It’s one I definitely plan to reread and will have to think about the structure more. I see what you mean about the narrative trajectory, Jesus, but I really do think it’s a deliberately incomplete trajectory.

      About the McSweeney’s thing, I think there might be some truth to it, but to me he seems to be making fun of critics who don’t get the book, and compare it to a “badly written instruction manual.” Though even if it is 100% serious, it doesn’t mean that readers have to adopt the opinion of the author who has changed, developed, etc. I am very excited to see how The Flame Alphabet compares now.

  10. deadgod

      Taken from that “daily humor website” linked to below:

      It makes us think what strangers we are to the other people in the world, when these people can muster enthusiasm for something unfathomably trite or lifeless, as I think I’ve done.  [. . .]  Maybe this accounting of my novel’s lack of interest might be the first sincere thing I’ll have written.

  11. deadgod

      whatever whatever that is is vs. incongruity between semantic and contextual meanings

      winner:  ironed thong

  12. Brooks Sterritt

      let me see that bracket

  13. deadgod

      panoramic brackets vs. withdrawing hinges

      winner:  cartilaginous jaws

  14. William VanDenBerg

      Yeah, I think he was saying in the McSweeney’s piece, “If you come into this expecting a traditional novel, then this is how I’ve failed,” or, “If you’re going to claim that I failed, I might as well have failed wholly.”

  15. Jonathan Safran Foer

      I think he’s kind of drag, to be honest.

  16. Mike Meginnis

      Yes I am obsessed with that cover. I think about it when I have no call to do so.

  17. BenMarcusIsAJamesFrancoFan

      Realism is experimental writing, and you can thank Ben Marcus for introducing the most recent red herring steel cage match between “experimental vs. traditional.” I’ve never really trusted Marcus at all or considered him sincere about anything.  

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  22. alan

      You don’t see any irony here?“You won’t hear from me again. If you do, you are entitled to use your hands to stop me. You may use force and feel justified. To see to it that I stop. To smother my little, miserable self. It would be best for all involved.”

  23. jesusangelgarcia

      Some, sure. But most of that letter feels like sad self-loathing to me. Doesn’t matter much anyway. I’m still wanting to know (asking for) what it is about NAW that works for people b/c, as I’ve said, while it’s fascinating in parts, in sum that book fell apart for me, and I don’t get fans’ crazy adulation. Powerful sentences and big ideas are essential — but there needs to be more, like structural integrity or consummation of the setup (however that stuff plays out).

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