Ben Marcus on His New Novel ‘The Flame Alphabet’

Ben Marcus has an interesting relationship to language. Known for his ability to turn language in on itself, dissolving and redefining the most basic components of the human world, his work at once reveals the core of meaning while exposing the medium’s fundamental inadequacy to do so. As a man who has built his life around words (with two prior novels, stories appearing everywhere from The Paris Review to The New Yorker, and running the graduate writing program at Columbia), it’s surprising to find his view of his life’s medium as insufficient. His dark and heavily metaphorical fiction typically strays from the traditional notions of plot and narrative, leading many to regard him as a seminally experimental writer. However, his new book, The Flame Alphabet, uses a conventional linear approach to tell the story of a family torn apart by a mysterious and lethal illness caused by the language of children. We sat down with Marcus after he read at the February installment of one of our favorite events, The Franklin Park Reading Series. 

Can you talk a little bit about your new novel, The Flame Alphabet?
It’s about a language sickness that passes between children and adults. To me, the book is also really the story of a family — about parents who face a very difficult choice. The speech of their teenage daughter Esther is making them sick; they love her and don’t want to leave her, but if they stay with her they will die. It sort of is looking into the morality of parents, just how loyal are we to our kids? Also it’s about language, it’s got religion, it’s got mysticism, it’s kind of a thriller, it’s about people experimenting on themselves with untested drugs… it’s got a lot of topics. 

Where did this concept of language as a poisonous substance come from?
Real life. (laughs)

This story is told in a more conventional way than your previous works. Was this switch a conscious attempt or did it just sort of happen?
I wanted the story to be told by one character in the book — the father — because I felt his story was the hardest and the most messed up. He’s the one who has to make difficult choices — he has to leave his family. When I thought about what his story would be and tried to follow it all through him, a more linear story came out. In my past books I’ve had different narrators and I’ve moved around. I wasn’t consciously trying to be more accessible so much as trying to just have one character tell the story and see what would happen. 

In what ways did your process change when writing this novel, if at all?
I had a year off from teaching and I knew if I came back to my job without having a book done I would feel disgraced. So I did a lot of planning and thinking and worrying and not writing for kind of a while on this one. But when I got some free time, I was determined to get at least a draft of the book done. I worked day and night every day for about a year while I had spare time. With my past books, to be honest, I would have intense periods of work and then I would retreat, break up with the book for a while, and then I’d have to earn my way back. With this, I wanted to have one sustained work phase, so that’s what I did. 

Do you plan on moving forward in this style or reverting to less traditional work in terms of plot and narrative?
I’m finishing a collection of short stories from the last five or six years. It has more recent stories, ones that have been in The New Yorker that are a little more transparent and some older stories that are more dense. It’s kind of a mix. After that, I don’t really know. I hate to decide in that way. It has to just be something I can’t forget and can’t leave alone. I don’t know what it’ll be like. 

The Flame Alphabet deals with cults, plagues, odd remedies. What kind of research went into writing this book?
I actually did most of my research in mysticism; Jewish and Christian mysticism, Kabalah, essentially religious figures who had given up on language to ever describe their real experiences. So, I did a lot of that. I researched a lot on this website that’s for people who want to be immortal. They’re obsessed with their diet and supplements, they test drugs on each other, and they want to live much longer longer — if not forever. 

How old are they?
Twenties. Some of them are even teenagers. There’re all these teenagers from Norway, and they’re on these hyper-low calorie diets, first of all — like, really low. They’re these skeletons that put pictures up, and they don’t look good. They’re afraid of dying because, you know, who isn’t? But they’re really consumed with staying alive long enough for some kind of medical cure for death.

Is this some kind of fad?
It’s more than that. They’ve become these kind of amateur scientists in longevity. They’ve learned a lot. Actually, when you read their postings they seem very authoritative, very informed. 

So it’s more legitimate than just a bunch of kids being anorexic or something?
Yeah a little bit more. I don’t know about legitimate but they’re trying everything they can to live longer. Of course it may not work at all.

Well, it’s still kind of interesting. 
Yeah, it was interesting. For me that’s what happens when I research. I find cool stuff, but I don’t really know how to bring it back into what I’m working on. It’s totally beyond me. 

I read a quote of yours somewhere: "I want to create feeling." I really love that as a general objective in writing. Can you elaborate?
Well, in the end I just want to make people feel things. That’s what I love about being a reader. When I open a book I’m not necessarily feeling anything yet. But a few pages in, you start to care about people who don’t exist, you start to want things for them, you hurt when they hurt, and I love that. I want to do that for other people, and I think it’s hard, but it attracts me. When people ask if you think about the reader, and does the reader matter? To me, it’s hard to know. You don’t know your reader. But if you try to create feeling in somebody, that seems to be about connecting to a reader. 

You live in New York. How do you feel about New York?
Totally opposed. (laughs) I’m going shut it down. I love New York. I went to college here, I’ve been living here forever. I don’t really know what I would do without it. 

I agree. Do you have any places you like to hang out in the city?
I have two kids. I don’t go anywhere. I do love Grant’s Tomb on the way Upper West Side; the kids play, and there’s pretty cool skateboarding up there. I like upper Riverside Park, I like Morningside Park… playgrounds. I like the playgrounds — that’s my scene. 

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