Interview: Ben Marcus on The Flame Alphabet and…Weirdness

"What’s strange is when deeply strange things are passed off as normal."

Ben Marcus is a critically acclaimed writer whose previous books include Notable American Women and The Age of Wire and String. His new novel, The Flame Alphabet, has received much praise, from Michael Chabon and others, and been excerpted in national magazines like Esquire.

As I wrote for the B&N Review, The Flame Alphabet is “chilly yet passionate,” imagining an apocalypse in which “the world ends not with a bang or a whimper but because of lingering collateral damage from daily speech — communication as a killer.” In the novel, a sudden universal plague originates with Jewish children, “in which the words of the young render adults sick and then dead. The ghastly symptoms include retching, speech fever, yellow skin, and bruising around the mouth. Victims eventually turn into ‘leaking sacks of mush.’” The novel’s narrator, Sam, is a father trying to protect his family, who falls in with LeBov, a kind of Nabokovian trickster. LeBov is trying to find an antidote to the plague, and is willing to employ any and all means to do so.

Adding strangeness to The Flame Alphabet, many Jewish couples worship at secret “Jew huts” that lead to tunnels. Uncomfortably fleshy “listeners” attached to the orifice in the hut floor seem somewhat influenced by the work of William Burroughs. Even though The Flame Alphabet shows characters working toward a scientific solution to the epidemic, its surreal yet visceral world is still one familiar to readers of writers like Kafka. It is a deeply strange novel in many ways. I interviewed Marcus for via email recently. – Jeff VanderMeer

*** Was what might be considered weird or strange fiction welcome in your household growing up? And what childhood books do you remember reading that were definitely out of the ordinary?

Ben Marcus: All kinds of books were welcome and I don’t remember any distinctions being made, except in the case of one book that my mother found dangerous: No One Here Gets Out Alive, a biography of Jim Morrison. She blamed this book for a terrible misdeed of mine. But I believe that I concocted this misdeed without the help from a book. And, no, I will never discuss this misdeed. The strangest book I read was Ida, by Gertrude Stein, which my mom gave to me without much fanfare. This must have been when I was in high school. It’s an odd book, with a telescoping narrator and that new-brain prose of Stein’s. My first encounter with very simple sentences looted of sense. I loved it. Do you consider yourself an experimental writer? Or does that description strike you as odd?

Ben Marcus: I get by on my own, in private, without a label. The word writer is enough. I actually don’t even require that. I want to create something with language that will come to life, cause feeling, lock down a reader’s attention — these are the first three things in a two hundred and thirteen item list. If I had a label, it would be that entire list, printed in sequence on a strip of linen, then wrapped tightly around my torso (flesh bulging out around it etc.). It’s possible that I experiment in trying to execute the items on my list, but this term, when it comes to writing, has passed its half-life. Let’s have a funeral for it. What kinds of literary experimentation don’t interest you?

Ben Marcus: As I reader, I’m curious about what is being done, and I particularly like to see what younger writers are doing. I don’t have a rule about things that don’t interest me, but I suppose that if the writing doesn’t hold my attention, move or stir me in some way, excite my interest, or etc., then I guess I’ll move on. Boredom is powerful and it’s hard to overcome. But I like to try to give everything a chance. What do you think readers mean when they say they want a character they can identify with, and should they get what they ask for?

Ben Marcus: I’m sure they mean different things. If there are readers able to articulate exactly what they want in advance, and they are accurate in the description of these desires, then I’m sure they have found the writers who can service them with the right kind of content. The literary marketplace must be pretty aware of these kinds of readers, no doubt striving to satisfy them. Books are not usually marketed with too much deception, so I think readers of all kinds can generally get some information before they make a purchase. Should readers get what they ask for? Thank god I’m not legislating on this one. If they think they should get it, then they probably will. I like to make discoveries when I read. I like to feel and think things I’ve not yet felt or thought. In some sense, then, I don’t know precisely what I want when I read, and this is what drives me to books. I want to require the book in my life, I want it to feel crucial — and there are so many ways for books to do that. But readers, of course, are free. The law can’t touch them. How often does the real world give you something seemingly inexplicable, something weird, that becomes a spark for a story or novel?

Ben Marcus: Almost never, but I still hope it might happen. I figure it’s not too late for me to enlarge the way I’m influenced. On the other hand, sentences come to me on the street, and maybe they are a direct result of something I’ve just seen. Maybe I just don’t know how to connect the two things. Can you recall any particular spark — image, character, whatever — that got you started writing The Flame Alphabet?

Ben Marcus: I had the image of parents leaving their child behind, and it was troubling to me. I wanted to explore it, to test it, to put it into play. It felt horrible, but not random, and it consumed me enough that I started to write it, to see where it would go. Can you describe the process of writing The Flame Alphabet, and was it different than for prior books? Did you enjoy writing it?

Ben Marcus: I had a year off from teaching, so I worked every day, except weekends. I went to a few short writing residencies as well, so I could more or less work 247. I tried to write the first draft with some momentum, and I finished it in about a year. Then I slowed down and did a lot of revision, cut a lot of material, rewrote large sections from scratch. I really did enjoy writing it. Some of the revisions were difficult, and I got a few conflicting reads at one point, so I was confused, but that’s all to be expected. Some reviewers have described The Flame Alphabet as a departure for you, calling it less experimental and “almost like a thriller”. Do you think of the novel as different from what you’ve done before? And do you see it in those terms — that this novel mimics a more conventional structure or approach?

Ben Marcus: I tried new things with this book. There’s a single narrator, Sam, who faces a series of difficult moral choices as the use of language erodes around him, and I wanted this to be his story, in his words, masking or revealing his feelings. In restricting myself this way the narrative took on a certain shape, and I discovered some things that seemed promising and energetic, along with other things that were dull and dead in the water. I had to build an engine of consciousness and it had to feel urgent. The mode of telling seemed to have limitations, but also sudden rich pockets, and I tried to navigate these without breaking the rules of narration I’d set up. What did you leave out of the novel?

Ben Marcus: A whole cast of characters, including one fellow who repeated ran into a wall, fell down, and bled. A seventy-page interlude in the middle that ended up without the necessary tethers to what came before or after. A kind of black hole in the book that the book didn’t seem to miss when I cut it. And then chunks of overdone material, rehash, redundancies, and bad writing. There are what I’d call “weird” elements in The Flame Alphabet—the Jew huts, the epidemic itself. At any stage did you step back from the novel and think about how you wanted these elements to come across, make adjustments, etc., or did those elements just appear organically?

Ben Marcus: The religious process in the book, along with the radio mechanism to deliver the sermons, took some thought. I wrote many versions of it. I felt like I was sculpting it out of something larger I couldn’t see or understand very well, and I knew that it had to feel precise, if mysterious. I wanted it to be tangible but also kind of, I don’t know, vague. That was my urge. I think, to be honest, that I know how I wanted to feel when I read it, but I wasn’t sure right away how to accomplish that. So it took a lot of refinement. Finally, what’s the weirdest piece of fiction, story or novel, that you’ve ever read? Why?

Ben Marcus: It might be Raymond Roussel’s novel, Impressions of Africa. There’s a double strangeness to the book. The first part of that is of course the content — animal-powered musical instruments, lozenges that recreate meticulous works of art when dropped in the water — but the master strangeness is that all of the content is presented without blinking, as the most perfectly normal material. It’s the strongest deadpan I’ve seen, in prose, and it is tremendously unsettling. What’s strange is when deeply strange things are passed off as normal.

3 replies to “Interview: Ben Marcus on The Flame Alphabet and…Weirdness

  1. What’s strange is when deeply strange things are passed off as normal.” This seems very reminiscent of Kafka’s approach, as well as one of the first of the WFR fiction postings, Jean Ferry’s “The Society Tiger”. Strange things are passed off as not just normal, but almost expected. Really enjoyed this interview.

  2. Pingback: SF Tidbits for 2/14/12 - SF Signal – A Speculative Fiction Blog

  3. So I wrote this weird piece the other day called “Grinding the Humanoids” and thought, gee, I should send that somewhere weird, and I’ve always thought one day I’d send something weird to Ben Marcus, and so I Googled “where to send weird story ben marcus” and came upon this interview with him and so, the thing is, ever since I got ahold of the Anchor book of New American Fiction I’ve felt a deep and twisted affinity with that kind of voice and because I have a fairly demanding writing day job five days a week I still write a lot of fiction but do not send anything out but … OK so here is the weird piece right here in this comment box, even though duh I’m aware I’m not sending it to Ben Marcus, who probably doesn’t need any more weird pieces sent to him, but I have to do something so I’m sending it to you, out of just a friendly gesture, because in a minute it will be time to turn to the reading of letters from people in all sorts of pain and conflict and the crafting of responses to them, which I do five days.
    p.s. It was windy on the beach this morning and I’m in a bad mood because I drank too much coffee, which I gave up except for recently I’m not sure why.

    Grinding the Humanoids

    Once you got the snow out of your eyes, the opponents were easy to see. They were all lit up and dancing around, while we had chosen all-white uniforms to blend in. The wind was howling so loud you couldn’t hear us as we crunched their bones in our hands and disposed of them in the van, carefully noting each one’s tag as we did so. It was all done without much talk because of the noise. By noon we had worked our way through half of them but they kept dropping from the copters into our midst on suicide missions. After a while you started to feel sorry for them. They were just grunts like us, who signed up for combat duty because it beat working in one of the fast-genetic-makeover storefronts that dotted the landscape now, if you could call it a landscape what with so little land and practically no scape.

    It’s a living, says Fraggard when we’re done and the sun is setting and we’ve got our tea and crumpets in the quonset hut.
    You call this living? says Rumi, in a bad mood again. …

    The thing is, Ma, the reason I’m writing, is I don’t know how much longer I can go on grinding the humanoids before something starts to sink in about the basic immorality of it all. I mean, I’m happy with the retrofit. But at times it seems I could be put to better use. 

    Thanks for the cash, and the bandages. It all came in handy. Sometimes some of the bots aren’t done fighting even after a full day on the field, and things can get a little testy in the quonset hut. So I’ve been able to make a little extra taking strategic positions on our futures market. Still, things are tight, and any more you can send will always be appreciated. Plus, I’m running low on poison. Some of these fuckers take a lot to die. You wouldn’t believe how resilient they’ve become. I think, as the geneticists predicted, they’re evolving and adapting. Which is a grim thought indeed, but we don’t have to think about that now. 

    The snow is getting lighter and the wind is dying down. I think soon we’ll be able to go out and count the wounded and dispose of the dead, and then, if there’s time, there’ll be poker.