Ben Marcus: Jonathan Franzen's cultural commentary is really embarrassing

"The Flame Alphabet" author on his literary rival, the shortcomings of realist fiction and life as a reporter

By David Burr Gerrard

Published February 10, 2014 1:00AM (EST)

This article originally appeared in Full Stop.

Full Stop I was Ben Marcus’s student at Columbia in 2006, more than a decade after The Age of Wire and String had established him as one of America’s foremost practitioners of experimental fiction, but very shortly after he published an essay in Harper’s that established him as one of America’s foremost pugilists of experimental fiction. Famously challenging Jonathan Franzen and other writers for whom “narrative realism, scrubbed of difficulty, was the primary viable mode” of fiction, the essay was more complicated than it was given credit for, or than I realized at the time.

In workshop, Marcus was often an eloquent and insightful defender of traditional storytelling. The Flame Alphabet, with its dystopian-thriller premise of parents physically destroyed by the words of their children, seemed to suggest a turn towards more traditional fiction. If you read Leaving the Sea straight through from beginning to end, the first several stories — deceptively straightforward accounts of isolated men hoping for connection — might convince you that he has given up on experimental fiction entirely. But more experimental stories follow, and as you read you realize that his work has always covered vastly different territories of style and approach. His objection to realism was never an objection to realism so much as an objection to deadened use of the words “realism” and “experimentalism.” Marcus seems to feel that labels are traps, and the pleasure of reading Leaving the Sea is the pleasure of watching someone jump into and out of traps.

What has not changed is that words and bodies are linked in his fiction the way that parents and children are linked in his fiction, which is to say, permanently and in the loneliest possible way. Consider the Harpers essay’s most withering characterization of prescriptions for conventional writing: “language is meant to flow pre-digested, like liquid down a feeding tube.” Food, the body, words: few contemporary writers are as vivid about the most basic elements of life.

Recently, I sat down with Marcus at his office at Columbia to talk about his new collection. The interview has been condensed and edited.

David Burr Gerrard: There are a couple stories in this collection that take the form of interviews. What draws you to the form?

Ben Marcus: I’ve always liked to write in an expert’s voice. A fake expert’s voice. Someone who sounds knowing and authoritative and knowledgeable, but about something that’s completely mad, completely twisted. It’s Borges, really. Earlier in my writing life I’d written big blocks of text of writing like that, and I found that they could be dense and a little forbidding. Hard to navigate. The Q & A form makes me think I’m reading something ultra-digestible. Is there a lower form? Lower is the wrong word. A more transparent, easier form. It looks like it’s trafficking in something really basic, really easy to assimilate. And yet the ideas being promoted are far-fetched, meant to be funny but also unsettling. So maybe it was an attempt to find a form that would counteract the heavy weight and strangeness of the content.

That question of authority really has always been one of the major themes of your work. Has your thinking about it changed at all over the years?

I sometimes worry that, as an interest, it’s too ever-present for me, and it’s maybe kept me from other explorations. Authoritative voices feature far less frequently in this book than in the last one, and that one had less than the ones before it. Maybe I’m moving away from it; I don’t know that I’ve achieved any greater insight about any of it. As a reader, and as a listener, I feel very seduced by people who seem like they know what they’re talking about. Seduced and suspicious and engaged and repelled. It’s one of those rhetorical modes that make me feel a lot of things, a lot of contradictory things, and I guess that makes it continually occur to me when I write, because I am looking for ways to create feeling. On the other hand, in a more straightforward narrative story, it’s not clear where that can arise without seeming like a shtick. So I’ve put it on hold for certain pieces, and am looking for authority in subtler ways.

One of the most interesting stories in the collection is “I Can Say Many Nice Things,” about a creative writing workshop at sea, in which the workshop instructor’s authority seems to be at sea as well. 

He’s really conflicted. He’s really there against his wishes; he thinks he’s gotten bad student evaluations at his home institution, and he’s been led to believe that if he goes and does this extracurricular thing it might help. He’s got students whose work isn’t very accomplished; he’s got to deal with their feelings. It seemed more interesting to have him be conflicted. If you have someone who’s at ease with himself, it’s just less interesting. I know those people exist; I’m not denying their reality. I just feel they don’t belong in books.

Could you talk about the collection as a collection?

I finished The Flame Alphabet, and I had also sold a collection of stories. I looked at what I had, and I had more than enough to fill a book, but that, of course, doesn’t make an interesting collection. I had a lot of linguistically rich, somewhat dense pieces that read okay to me, but looked as though they were part of a different era, and, having tried a bit in terms of new technique with The Flame Alphabet, it became clear to me that there was so much that I hadn’t tried in terms of the basic propulsive narrative short story. I used to write them a long time ago, but the ones I had were no good at all.

Looking at what I had was a real opportunity to wonder about all of these gaps in the kinds of stuff I’d written, and to wonder: why have I not, in a long time, even tried to write what might be called a realist story? What are my real reasons? In some sense it was hard to connect to the things that I used to feel resistant about, and it became interesting to almost deliberately embrace some things that had not previously felt that appealing. If you’re ruling out a lot of technique for aesthetic reasons, are you making a mistake? Are you missing out on potentially interesting territory? I thought that whatever I do, my urges and instincts and worlds are just going to keep coming out whether I write in close third person or first or whatever the tense is, and whatever the narrative idiom is. I started to feel less concerned about particular aesthetic divisions, and then it was a chance to write a lot of new stories.

Family has also always been important to your work, increasingly so in the last couple of books.

It just seems so obvious to me. It’s such a big, universal dynamic. I was in Germany recently, and an interviewer asked me how I’m ever going to manage to not write about family. I said: Why would I stop? Is it a minor interest? Is it the equivalent of being a regional writer? “This writer is dealing with important regional issues in North Carolina?” Family’s important to Chekhov, Tolstoy. Imagining fiction without family is like imagining life without a head. There’s so much organic tension, drama, joy, confusion. It’s a huge set of behavioral experiments, too. I look to relationships and families as places for conflict and potential stories, and I think: What’s not about family? You start to wonder. And obviously there’s a lot. But in the novel that I’ve started, there is a family, and it’s not a happy one.

I don’t feel self-conscious about it. I don’t think: “I really need to be more ambitious here.” It’s like trying to figure out why food tastes good. It just seems so central to us; it just seems like such an obvious place that I should be pillaging. We debut into a family.

When I studied with you, you were talking a lot about suspense. How has your thinking about narrative changed?

I was probably talking to you as a teacher, right? As a writer, I don’t feel the need to have thinking about narrative or suspense. You don’t have to think about it, except when people ask you. You don’t have to know how you swing the bat, you just have to do it. Later on, you have to step back and pretend you know what the fuck you’re doing and that you have a theory about it.

I need to be inordinately drawn into what I’m writing, and the question always is: how? That starts with the very first sentence, and it has to grip me and it has to scare me and it has to excite me. But then I think: Who knows? I’m tired of all that urgency. I’m tired of that rushed, suspenseful, anxious story, and I want to write something really plain and really calm. I think I had just written “The Loyalty Protocol,” and I wanted to really pull away from that, so I wrote “Watching Mysteries With My Mother,” which is really not a narrative. It’s essentially a rumination, it’s inert, it’s essentially inside one character’s head, very little time is passing.

I feel that I’m always pinging back and forth between territories. In some sense, I look at what I’ve just done, and I feel a little bit of disappointment. I swerve away and try something that looks like it’s recoiling from that. I don’t feel that I have to toe some particular line. Sometimes I’ll find a way into a world that I then use a little bit, until I feel that I’ve destroyed this road and I’ve traveled on it too much and it’s over, boring to me now.

You’ve famously had some disagreements with Jonathan Franzen. Would you tend to agree with him about technology in general and Twitter in particular?

Tell me what he thinks. I don’t know.

Essentially, that Twitter is making us shallow. He’s not the only one making these arguments, but he’s been associated with them.

I don’t use Twitter, so I don’t know. I don’t worry about it, though. And I really do not, at the deepest level, feel legislative about how other people spend their time. I just can’t see why I would ever want to put up stoplights around that.

I’m not following the public policy side of Franzen. His cultural commentary is often really embarrassing. For all of his gifts as a novelist, his role as a public figure seems very strange to me. I don’t understand the tone. I don’t know his argument against Twitter, but I tend to think that we always hear as though the language is getting ruined, getting debased. People are getting illiterate; people are getting agrammatical. But I think the language is insanely powerful and durable and it’s coming from a place beyond us and deeper than us, and it’s going to endure and mutate. It’s the way we connect. To suddenly say, “We shouldn’t connect in this way that’s just evolved, let’s stop that,” when there’s clearly a universal urge to connect that way — that seems strange. If eight people were using Twitter, it might be easier to second-guess what seems like a fairly primal instinct to use it. I have faith that language keeps evolving in fascinating ways, so it’s hard to feel worried.

Last year, you published two really excellent pieces. One was a short story in the New Yorker, collected in this volume, called “The Dark Arts,” about a young man’s visit to an experimental health clinic in Germany, and the other was a nonfiction piece in GQ about your own experience with chronic pain and your stay at a health clinic devoted to water fasting. What was it like working on those two pieces together?  

I didn’t work on them together at all. I finished “The Dark Arts” late last January, and then I wrote the GQ piece in June. Of course it’s obvious why you would tie them together, but until this very second I had never once done that myself. Both seemed to get at illness and autoimmune disease, and I got really sick a couple years ago. Both pieces were prompted by that experience. The short story really snuck up on me, because I did not think I was writing about illness for a long time. That story took a long time to write, and it started with the main character, Julian, waiting for somebody to come on a train, you don’t know who it is, and he goes back out in a nameless European city, and there’s nobody there. I thought: “Ugh, this is so fucking boring! I feel like I’ve read this a thousand times!” Weirdly, I had a kind of feeling, and I kept clothing it, animating it, peopling it, and it was always wrong, and I kept stripping it away. Then, somehow, he was waiting for his girlfriend, and he was going to this clinic. That autoimmune stuff just came in when I wasn’t looking. And then of course I did have a lot to draw on. I’m not a comfortably autobiographical writer, but I am really interested in finding ways for more immediate autobiographical stuff to get in.

In a way, I don’t relate to that character at all. I never to went to Germany to seek experimental treatment; I wasn’t abandoned by a girlfriend while I was seeking treatment. All of the configurations are alien to me. But the idea of an autoimmune disease as a sophisticated form of self-loathing, in which your actual physical body is attacking itself — that just felt really worth exploring, once it came to me.

On the GQ side, as I was getting better, and learning about treatment for autoimmune diseases — or, really, the total lack of treatment, and the alternative community’s strategies in the face of the total lack of treatment — I was reading a lot about total water fasting. GQ asked if I had something, and I read about this place, the only place in America that does this, called TrueNorth. I wanted to go anyway, but I couldn’t see actually going until somehow going as a reporter made it completely okay.

Once I was there, I got immersed. You see a lot of really, really ill people, and some of them will be helped, and some won’t. It was a fascinating experience, but then you have to turn it into a major magazine piece, which means you’re going to have to leave a lot out. In some sense, I’d like to return to it, but for now, that’s what I’ve done.

Was that the first time you’ve taken on an experience as a reporter?

I think so. I don’t write much magazine stuff like that. I’d like to, but I always have the worst ideas. It doesn’t come naturally to me. I admire people who find a way to do it and who still sound like themselves. I find, and this happens sometimes too when I’m writing a book review, that I revert back to that feeling you have as a student where you think you’re supposed to sound like a professional, and suddenly you forget everything that makes you yourself. You start to create this wooden, dead prose that nobody wants to read.

Did being a reporter color your experience?

I had a great experience. I was worried when I got there that they kept on giving me multiple-hour debriefs on their philosophy and approach, and I kept on saying to them: You guys realize that this is going to be half a sentence? I was worried that they would feel that they were being very reductively or even cheekily decimated in the mainstream press. But I think it’s clear from the piece that I had a very positive experience doing the fast.

You’ve always been interested in pre-verbal experiences, non-verbal experiences. Did the physical pain you’ve been experiencing over the last several years tie into your writing?

Not in any way that I can discuss. Having pain that can’t be medicated is really terrible. When I first went to the hospital, after they determined I wasn’t having a heart attack, I was given morphine. I remember just feeling so relieved. I thought: that’s what they give you when your legs have been blown off, and you’re going to die, but at least you’re not going to die in pain. That was my notion of morphine: something that’s just going to make the pain go away. And it didn’t work. They gave me another shot of morphine a half hour later, and it didn’t work. And the pain was just so intense that I really wanted to jump out a window. I really thought that this is why some people jump out of windows. They’re just in too much pain, and they want it to stop no matter what. You lose all powers of self-preservation.

We went through all these opiates, and I later learned that for certain kinds of nerve pain, opiates just don’t touch it. Once I got into all of that, and found that this pain was going to be very, very hard to treat — your higher faculties kind of get turned off for a while. It was really humbling, and I felt very vulnerable, and it was really confusing. I was never thinking in the back of my mind: “This is going to be awesome for my work!” I was thinking: “I’m not a writer anymore, I’m nothing, I’m essentially just a creature whose nerve endings are really unhappy.”

Ironically, I had already written The Flame Alphabet. It hadn’t come out yet, and ironically I got this affliction while it was being prepared for publication.

The long, sloppy answer is that I don’t know. I do know that that experience has stayed with me, and I hope it never happens again. We’re all expressing our experiences in complicated ways as we write. We think we’re not writing about something essential and secretive to us, and of course we are. I feel pretty respectful of the way that whole system works. I don’t feel the need to understand what gets into my writing and what doesn’t. I don’t feel the need to go to Thailand and collect experiences so I can be a more interesting writer. My system doesn’t really work that way.

I do know, though — and this is true of Heidi [Julavits], my wife, who is a writer as well — that there is a way, that once you start reading a lot about health, about people who have undiagnosed illnesses, it feels pretty bottomless and rich. It feels pretty universal. People who really, like, feel shit and don’t know why.  In some ways, I worry a little that I might just be in that place writing-wise for a while, because it just feels really interesting.

David Burr Gerrard

MORE FROM David Burr Gerrard

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Ben Marcus Full Stop Jonathan Franzen Realist Fiction The Age Of Wire And String