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Why Ben Marcus for Summer2015? Two Old Answers

So today is June 1st, and so today our four intrepid readers (and anyone else interested –welcome aboard, Guido!) officially dive into the swift currents and oddly toxic water of Ben Marcus’s The Flame Alphabet. Why Ben Marcus? Well, two possible answers come to mind.

One: Our experimental fiction guru Misha Hoekstra, who put his literary ambitions on hold for many years while working and living in Denmark but who is now a literary translator whose work recently appeared in The New Yorker, handed a bunch of us Ben Marcus’s first book The Age of Wire and String (1995) way back when, and I for one found it thrillingly unintelligible. Two: A decade later Ben Marcus became the champion for difficult fiction in an excellent takedown of Jonathan Franzen (not qua writer but qua theorist and defender of literary realism) in Harper’s Magazine, in October 2005.

The essay is titled, “Why Experimental Fiction Threatens to Destroy Publishing, Jonathan Franzen, and Life As We Know It: A Correction,” and you can (re-)read it at the web address below. (Hmm, I may need to re-learn how to do links etc. on this blog.)

The reviews of The Flame Alphabet led me to believe that it was not quite as thrillingly unintelligible –or at any rate, not quite as unintelligible– as The Age of Wire and String, and a preliminary attempt to get through it in April 2014 (about ninety pages of it, and then I hosted a friend, and went to Argentina, and all the rest) reassured me that I could recommend the book without embarrassing myself, and that it is really creepy fun.

BTW, what do I think of Marcus’s argument in the essay? Well, he’s a professor of creative writing at Columbia now, and his books were recommended to us by someone with an MFA from Brown who was hired to teach creative writing, and Big Josh has an MFA too; so it would be interesting to compare his defense (or if you prefer, to compare Franzen’s attack) with the recent (2014) argument by the n+1 people MFA vs. NYC.

(The short story that Misha translated, by Danish writer Dorthe Nors, appeared earlier this month.  Hey, guess whose fiction is in this week’s issue?)

June 1, 2015 - Posted by | C, The Flame Alphabet


  1. I haven’t read MFA vs. NYC… I do, however, treasure William Gaddis. I think J.R. is one of the greatest books of the 20th century, a tragic satire that leaves you ready to cry over the hopeless situation of humanity but along the way contains some incredibly funny slapstick. As for Marcus’s attempt to step into Gaddis’s shoes:

    Comment by Joshua Malbin | June 2, 2015

  2. I’m in. I have neither ax to grind nor dog in the fight w/r/t realism, experimentalism, MFA, or NYC, although I do admit to favoring intelligibility over unintelligibility.

    Comment by Aron F | June 2, 2015

  3. Well, I haven’t obtained my copy yet. I somewhat optimistically thought it would be carried in book stores in Belgium but it would have to be Amazon. So I’m going to read this and enjoy a little bit the unintelligibility and connect for a next time.

    The Anonymous formerly unknown under the Pseudonym Guido.

    Comment by JoB | June 5, 2015

  4. All right, I don’t know when exactly we’re supposed to start commenting, but I’ve finished through the first third and I have a few things to say…

    My frustration with this book to this point really comes first in reaction to its style. This is a book obsessed with telling you how smart it is about language (it’s a poison! it’s a medicine! it’s a theory class!), and yet the language it uses is incredibly foggy and imprecise. Any given sentence can be deciphered if you work at it, yet added together they make it impossible to get a clear picture of anything. Can any of you other readers, for example, picture the hut where the narrator and Claire go to worship, or the listening device they use? A third of the way into the book, do you have a clear image of Claire’s symptoms, as relentlessly as they have been defined in vague terms? Any sense of the characters as people whatsoever? Any idea of the state of the world around them as this plague progresses? Do we know how long it has been going on or how much time has passed since the start of what we are reading?

    There’s no reason for this. Nothing Marcus is trying to do is served by all this hazy writing. I had to go and look it up in several dictionaries before I Googled it and figured out Marcus simply made up the term “smallwork,” a conjunction that conveys nothing to the reader that “work” couldn’t. He never gives a description once when he can do it twice, appositively, and the second description rarely adds anything concrete to the first. It’s a style reeking of self-indulgence.

    In the essay responding to Franzen, Marcus defines himself as an “experimental” writer trying to push the bounds of language. That’s a very High Modernist, heroic conception of writing for a man so interested in playing with poststructuralist ideas of meaning and secrecy, language, and ladida. To me, though, good “difficult” writers still work with forms and still follow rules, merely different ones. They are just as careful and disciplined as more conventional writers, if not more so. In other words, you don’t get to cover for self-indulgence by calling it experimentation.

    Emotionally I guess I had much the same reaction as I do to late-period Henry James: “who the fuck does this guy think he is to ask me to read this?” followed by me throwing the book. On the subway the other day I actually gave the book the bird. I literally sat there holding my middle finger over these sentences: “Acoustical decomposition, the powder left over from sounds. What this proved went unsaid.” COME ON.

    I will try to engage the substance of the book from here on, although since the substance of the book is about language, it might be hard for me not to focus on, you know, the language.

    Comment by Joshua Malbin | June 5, 2015

  5. Hi, Josh. I think this comment would have served better as a separate post than a comment.
    I’d say that mostly the vagueness (about the disease and the religion) is a feature, not a glitch, of Marcus’s prose. If you think that he is being equally uncommunicative about the characterization, or the description of the main characters (I guess I think they’re fine, and perfectly human), then that’s a much more legitimate beef.

    Comment by poc2666 | June 7, 2015

  6. I had to go and look it up in several dictionaries before I Googled it and figured out Marcus simply made up the term “smallwork,” a conjunction that conveys nothing to the reader that “work” couldn’t.

    Josh have you spent any time with The Age of Wire and String? (It’s a dictionary.) Pat’s right, we should have a separate post to talk about what Marcus’s game is, language-wise.

    Comment by Josh K-sky | June 8, 2015

  7. While Big Josh is describing the language as hazy, I’d say it’s pretty precise. And yes, the questions he asks will not get answered, and will grow increasingly distant as we get into this book. Symptoms, the world, characters, all of these are pretty far away and won’t get any closer. I found this thrilling in the first half of the Flame Alphabet, but increasingly difficult in the second half as the whole subject seems to change.
    I had a similar experience while reading The Flame Alphabet that I’ve had with other memorable Modernist works, that I had to let go of certain habits of reading and see what this text had to show me.
    The close but distant questions, thrillingly, are about the body, the mouth, the viscera…
    I know very well the frustration of reading long passages of the lyrical indiscernible – my classmates at UH were very good at it – but TFA didn’t strike me in the same way. I nearly always felt like the “hazy” language offered some actual sense, and all the disparate sense-making hung together so that the novel could stand by all the accretion of its meanings. I felt i could make my way through it.
    I come to this conversation (thanks, Pat) after finishing the book about a year ago, so I’m going to have to run back through it. I’d be happy, as we were required in class, to “return to the text” and talk about some particular page or passage….
    TFA first came to my attention at a reading in Marfa, TX, where Ben Marcus was working on the novel as an artist-in-resident at the Chinati Foundation. My man Chuck and I had just drove 10 hours across the great state of Texas, arriving about an hour early for a dinner reservation, so we just dropped in at the bookstore. Luck would have it they were getting ready for a reading, and when I figured out it was Ben Marcus – whose short fiction, in addition to his article flogging Franzen, had made me a fan – I insisted we stay to listen. It was an early chapter.
    (As an aside – and this is how Marfa works – my college roommate based in Seattle happened to be at the reading that night also. We then hit it off for three days in Marfa. Previously, I’d run into him in 1999 on a sidewalk in Capitol Hill, again by chance… Years later, the next time Chuck and I drove to Marfa, we got to hear, under much the same unplanned circumstances, in the same bookstore, Colson Whitehead read a brilliant set of prepared remarks, discussing in part his work on the forthcoming “The Noble Hustle” which apparently contends the Las Vegas of the early 1990s, very familiar to a number of us.)

    Comment by Hank | June 8, 2015

  8. Josh: Nope.

    Pat: “I’d say that mostly the vagueness (about the disease and the religion) is a feature, not a glitch, of Marcus’s prose.” Can you expand on this? I agree to the extent that I can tell it’s deliberate, I just don’t understand how it’s a justifiable choice. It’s not like the narrator appears to be trying to elide things, he’s just describing them as if you already knew what he was talking about, when of course you don’t, and can’t. (First-person narration always raises the implicit question of to whom the narrator is writing and why, and Marcus seems to have chosen to throw a spotlight on that question for reasons I don’t understand.) Anyway, what purpose do you think is served by the vagueness?

    Comment by Joshua Malbin | June 9, 2015

  9. I’m dying of sunstroke and fatigue: I went to the Bronx Botanical Garden to see the Frida’s Gardens exhibit and it was great in its way but now I am so tired.
    On deliberate vagueness let me free-associate Borges and his friend Bioy reading that other cabal of world-makers, the lexicographers of Uqbar, Orbis Tertius:
    We read the article with some care. The passage recalled by Bioy was perhaps the only surprising one. The rest of it seemed very plausible, quite in keeping with the general tone of the work and (as is natural) a bit boring. Reading it over again, we discovered beneath its rigorous prose a fundamental vagueness. Of the fourteen names which figured in the geographical part, we only recognized three – Khorasan, Armenia, Erzerum – interpolated in the text in an ambiguous way. Of the historical names, only one: the impostor magician Smerdis, invoked more as a metaphor. The note seemed to fix the boundaries of Uqbar, but its nebulous reference points were rivers and craters and mountain ranges of that same region. We read, for example, that the lowlands of Tsai Khaldun and the Axa Delta marked the southern frontier and that on the islands of the delta wild horses procreate. All this, on the first part of page 918. In the historical section (page 920) we learned that as a result of the religious persecutions of the thirteenth century, the orthodox believers sought refuge on these islands, where to this day their obelisks remain and where it is not uncommon to unearth their stone mirrors.
    The whole story is at
    A longer post tomorrow, that I hope will contribute to the conversation about deliberate vagueness and mislabeling.

    Comment by poc2666 | June 10, 2015

  10. “…we discovered beneath it’s rigorous prose a fundamental vagueness.” Borges is a precise writer. He knows that to write about unnamed things demands rigorous prose.

    Comment by Joshua | June 11, 2015

  11. Goddamn autocorrect changed its to it’s. Maybe Marcus tried to write his book on a phone.

    Comment by Joshua | June 11, 2015

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