AMONG THE many exciting authors making their way to Galway for next month’s Cúirt International Festival of Literature, is the much-praised American fiction writer Ben Marcus.
His work has been described as “startlingly inventive” by Robert Coover, and “literature that makes sense of our age and will be read in ages to come,” by The Scotsman.
Marcus’s most recent work is the dystopian novel The Flame Alphabet. A terrible epidemic has struck, making the sound of children’s speech lethal to adults, causing them to gradually sicken and die. For the couple at the centre of the story, Sam and Claire, it seems their only means of survival is to flee from their teenage daughter, Esther.
However they find it is not so easy to leave the daughter they still love, even as they waste away from her malevolent speech. Then, on the eve of their planned departure, Claire mysteriously disappears, and Sam, determined to find a cure for this new toxic language, presses on alone into a world beyond recognition.
The Flame Alphabet invites the question: What is left of civilisation when we lose the ability to communicate with those we love? Both morally engaging and wickedly entertaining, it is a gripping page-turner as strange as it is moving.
Ben Marcus was born in Chicago in 1967 into an American-Jewish/Irish-Catholic family. His father Michael was a mathematician and his mother, Jane Connor Marcus, is a prominent feminist critic and academic. His other works of fiction include The Age of Wire and String and Notable American Women. He is an associate professor at Columbia University where he teaches creative writing.
A Jewish and
Marcus’s Jewish background is one of the informing presences in Flame Alphabet; the language virus first occurs among Jewish children, and in the novel we encounter esoteric Jewish sects. The ‘flame alphabet’ itself is a phrase which refers to the Torah, the word of God written in fire.
At the start of our interview I ask Marcus did he also draw any influences from his Irish background.
“My mother was raised Catholic but left the church by the time she had children so I don’t think I was influenced by anything especially Catholic,” he replies. “But I always felt very connected to Irish writers like Flann O’Brien and Beckett, they were always very dear to me. The Third Policeman is one of my favourite books, I can re-read it over and over again.”
While the novel vividly describes the anguish of parent child relationships being sundered by the strange language virus, it also sharply re-creates the typical tensions of daily dialogue between a surly teen and her exasperated parents, and then heightens those tensions.
“I suppose I did do that,” he says. “I think I’m a little scared of dramatic complacency and a situation only interests me when it becomes very fraught, very loaded, and complicated and problematic. The family dynamic is a kind of magnification of things I’ve felt or experienced and it seems to me that when the family was on the stage, sparks had to fly.”
If those heightened tensions are what propel the novel into the realm of horror or the dystopian, they can also be blackly funny. I ask Marcus does he get comic pleasure out of writing those scenes.
“I do,” he replies. “I get a comic satisfaction out of the really horrific stuff too, not in a smug way, but I find very dark upsetting things, when they occur in literature, to have a comedy to them, and when I’m writing I try to reach that place in myself where I’m laughing uneasily.”
In the past, Marcus’s fiction has drawn on the language and styles of non-literary sources like textbooks and catalogues for its effects. He describes the attraction of such material.
“I like to try and recognise the literary possibilities of non-literary texts. I do like to read all kinds of things. I sometimes feel fated to write what I’ve read, to repeat the cadences of the prose I’ve most recently been reading.
“I think that to some degrees writers are reproducing the syntax and patterns and structures that they perhaps most admire, so there was a time when I consciously tried to read lots of things because I wanted to expand my possibilities for when I was writing.
“I’ve discovered that reading a great novel doesn’t exactly arm me to try to write fiction whereas sometimes reading a medical textbook or work of science can trigger the kinds of things that I need to have triggered in order to immerse myself in a new piece of fiction.”
Would he say his mother’s status as a noted feminist critic has had any bearing on his writing?
“I’m not a good detective at seeing how all my influences have come in and gone back out again but I’ve certainly been affected by my mother’s work,” Marcus replies. “The main influence was that she, along with my father, just thrust books at me constantly when I was growing up and they both absolutely loved literature and that was a great way to grow up.”
Ben Marcus reads, with novelist Keith Ridgeway, at the Town Hall on Friday April 26 at 6.30pm. Tickets are available from the Town Hall on 091 - 569777 and www.tht.ie The Flame Alphabet is published by Granta Books.