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Review: Ben Marcus at the Burgess Foundation

author ben marcusAndrew Biswell

  • author ben marcus

The American writer Ben Marcus first came to prominence in the late 1990s with his novel The Age of Wire and String, a willfully experimental work that gained something of a cult following, at least here in the UK. His stories would appear regularly, albeit mostly in American magazines, but more recently he has published two novels Notable American Women and The Flame Alphabet. He is over in the UK promoting his first collection of short fiction Leaving the Sea, and read from this collection on Friday at the Anthony Burgess Foundation. The stories in the book included several longer pieces published in the last year alongside older work going back to the turn of the century.

In conversation with David Winters, Marcus talked about how the limits of his imagination have concerned him – he has begun to know what it does too well, and in the newer pieces has looked to avoid some of the tropes that he would tend to return to. Whilst putting together the stories in this book he saw the publication as an opportunity to stretch beyond a tendency – he said – to rewrite his story “First Love” in different ways.

He read from the story “The Loyalty Protocol”, a dark, witty narrative about a man who is somehow an evacuee in his own community, and having found it impossible to place his ageing parents in a special facility, he brings them along to the secret group that he attends – thus compromising that secrecy.

Readers of his recent novel The Flame Alphabet will recognise the territory, a dystopian America at the moment of some inexplicable collapse. Answering a question from the audience later, he addresses whether this “trope” is just that or something bigger. Mentioning Cormac McCarthy’s The Road in which the unnamed catastrophe has already happened, he considers this dystopian theme a constant in our current culture – not just in literature, where writers like Stephen Amsterdam and Michael Cunningham have written about a “post” society, but in contemporary series like Flash Forward, Fringe and Revolution. The catastrophe, for a writer, is simply bigger and more fertile ground than the death of a single character.

If it is contemporary America we find in his work however, it’s one that is not grounded in a specific reality. He mentions how in the story “What have you done?” – published in the New Yorker – he got called by the fact checkers at that magazine (who, weirdly, fact check fiction) to say that a building in his Cleveland doesn’t actually exist. This idea of an absolute realism seems bizarre to him, though he felt the story needed a real place, preferably one he’d never been to and had no intention of researching.

If in the past, Marcus had been unjustly seen as an obscure read through being tagged experimental, his conversation with Winters revealed a warm, open, complex and very funny writer – which anyone who has delved into his work would not find as a surprise. Reading a Marcus story sets you somewhat adrift, but you always have confidence in where he’s going. Again, responding to an audience prompt he said he’d rather be true to a particular fantastical setting than jump from one unusual thing to another. Describing constants in his work, he says that he writes characters with untenable thoughts, partly because we can never really know what the other person means, despite our apparently common language, but also he tends to avoid writing about happier experience because “I don’t think that fiction does pretty that well.”

As a writer who has often written about language, he talks eloquently about writing as “a beautiful technology.” In “The Flame Alphabet” for instance, language has become an infectious disease, causing parents to flee the words of their teenage children. The words on the page still matter, and Winters gave quite a few examples of how Marcus’s turn of phrase can bring you up short. This idea of language as both a powerful and ultimately restrictive communication is something that interests him. Referencing Kafka he still finds himself amazed by the “uncanny effects” of reading a story like “The Country Doctor” even now.

Rereading his stories for the collection, in some of the anthologised versions he changed things from their magazine origins – where editors had sometimes excised all the funny lines – or at least, those lines which when he’d read out to an audience, audiences had responded to with laughter. Yet humour was also an area where we were always in the dark as to what other people might find funny. This disconnect, this concern with language and how it is received, resonates throughout his work, so even at his most restrained – and the story he read was hardly an outlier – his words always fizz with a certain energy that seems rare in a world of increasingly commodified prose.

A generous talker; a small, but attentive crowd at the Anthony Burgess Foundation got a fascinating insight into one of America’s most fascinating fiction writers. I look forward to reading The Loyalty Protocol and the other stories in the new collection.

About the writer: Adrian Slatcher writes poetry, fiction and music, and has recently had pieces in Verse Kraken, Unthology 4, Bare Fiction and Sculpted: Poetry of the NW. He writes about literary matters at The Art of Fiction.