Contributor Ted Weesner is a longtime contributor to The Boston Globe, and his stories have appeared such places as Ploughshares and The Cincinnati Review. He is currently working on a novel. Today he gives us some relief from lists as he reflects on why he’s looking forward to one of next year’s titles.
In Anticipation of Ben Marcus’s The Flame Alphabet
The first time I caught sight of Ben Marcus was in the late ‘90s. Clad in black, shaved head gleaming, he stepped up to the podium at Brookline Booksmith and teased a yard of electrical tape from his mouth. It was as if an eel had risen from its home in his pancreas. I gazed on. Was this a writer? Or some pretentious art twat playing one for kicks? Certainly, I thought, he was no rifleman. Because at that point in my (slow) literary education, real writer = rifleman.
Thanks to a rural New Hampshire youth, I’d once been a decent shot. From a dozen yards, with my Crossman pump-action air rifle, I could drop a robin resting in an apple tree. Impressive, I know. More instrumental, I grew up in the presence of men who both shot animals and wrote novels. They were the writers-in-residence at UNH, my father one of them, and overall they were an accomplished bunch, whether National Book Award winners, Esquire and/or Atlantic and/or New Yorker contributors, or Random House groomed. They rode motorcycles. They fly-fished for steelheads in the Pemigewasset. They played regular, high-stakes poker. Some mornings I’d go for my Sugar Pops and find these bad asses seated around our kitchen table, doing what they could to close out last night’s card game.
It’s hard not to look back and see the rough handling of Ernest Hemingway all over these men. Not that they weren’t profoundly their own characters, but still, it would be hard to say the Hemingway myth hadn’t colored this particular pocket of literary culture and magnetized a whole lot of lean prose. (Only later would I comprehend that someone like, say, Virginia Woolf could rough up Papa whenever she wanted.) The idea, as I understood it, was that a fiction writer should embrace the clear and simple view, should induce in a reader the full physical experience of whatever reality was underfoot. More generally, the writer kept himself, or herself, but really himself, the hell out of the picture. Anything else was show-offy, undisciplined bullshit.
You wouldn’t dream, for instance, of floating a sentence like the following one, from Ben Marcus’s first novel, Notable American Women:
It will help to scan smartly away from Ben’s [the character Ben Marcus’s] form on occasion to the more realistic objects in the landscape—the trees and houses and people that happen to fill your view, or the bookcases, lamps, and flowers—in order to appreciate just how wrongly Ben’s body juts out of nothingness into a space worthy of a more substantial creature or household object; considering all the while, if you are able, what a miracle it is that even routine self-examination on this part—while brushing his teeth or soaping his face before a mirror—has not yet led him to quietly end his own life down at the river, with a rope or gun or razor, and give everyone concerned a needed breather from the exhausting obligation of his existence.
In the New Hampshire school you cut that sentence down to: Ben tried to zip up his worsted wool slacks. They were three sizes too small. Pale winter sun was glancing off the motel television and he found his neck wet with sweat.
Back at that Marcus reading, I bought his book, a collection of stories called The Age of Wire and String, read a few of its “experimental” entries—a toxic word around my childhood household—and mothballed it for a decade. Later on I tried the first few pages of Notable American Women and felt similarly exhausted. Sure, he was wickedly funny and scarily smart, but in the end: no rifleman. He wrote idea-driven fictions pumped high on seriously hot, flaunting air. I repaired to the etched subtleties of Ray Carver, et al.
But then a few things happened. As time passed I found myself increasingly bored by yet one more realist novel about a family in decline. Then I read a couple of Ben Marcus’s more recent stories.
I’m betting “Rollingwood” and “What Have You Done?”—published last year in The New Yorker—grabbed a wide range of readers, whether old school or new, plot-ravenous or idea-consumed. These stories are not only vintagely Marcus, ie: wickedly funny and acidly cerebral; they bite hard at the edges and even straight into the heart of flat-out realism (if realism tends to feature scene, setting, and John Gardner’s definition of fiction as a “vivid and continuous dream”). A memorable sample line: “His sister and Rick whispered and cuddled and seemed to try to inseminate each other facially….”
So I hauled my cautious reading ass back to what had been spoiling on the bookcase. This time around I got a somewhat better handle on what had initially put me off: Marcus’s rigorously stilted, oddly rhythmic prose, his scathingly anxious comedy, and most vitally, the strains of real pathos running hard beneath. That pathos just presented differently from what I was used to. Years ago I was maybe intimidated by or too quickly dismissive of the brute intellectual display, but now I leapt fast at Harper’s December excerpt of Marcus’s upcoming novel, The Flame Alphabet.
In an excellent interview of Marcus archived on Harper’s online site—one that any fiction writer or reader could benefit from—the novel is described in this way: “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.”
Okay, not exactly Ray Carver, but I plunged in (if five pages requires plunging). And this further dialed up my appetite for The Flame Alphabet. The novel appears to be a brilliant admixture of everything Marcus has got. It features his trademark brew of cerebral apprehension and glinting, frightening humor but also—to this eye—vivid traces of what surfaced in those New Yorker stories, i.e., the facsimile of an unfolding, actually-lived reality. An example:
The sickness rode in on my name, loaded and weaponized: Samuel, which Esther was old enough, her mother and I thought, to call me. A little grace note of parenting that seemed to work for other people, and that we proudly took up as though we had invented it. But Esther wasn’t impressed by this privilege. She barked my name until it became an insult, said it louder, softer, coughed it up and spat it at me.
To steal Marcus’s word, he’s weaponizing language and story in a new, thrilling, disciplined manner. Sounds like a new-century rifleman to me.
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