Ethics of Listening When Visiting Areas
That Contain Him, or:
The Cloudage of Ben Marcuses

by Lance Olsen

Editor’s Note: The following talk was given at the 2012 &Now Festival held at the Université de la Sorbonne in Paris June 6-10, 2012.


Asked to speak this afternoon about Ben Marcus’s impossibility precincts, his words that become object complications on a page, his sentences that act as ontological metalepses reminding us with every syllable of their author and authoredness, I realized I had already heard enough of my own words and insights on the subject. So I decided I wanted what I said to be composed of the words and insights of others. I therefore emailed thirty fiction writers, poets, and critics, and requested that they speak in my place. The following is what they felt they had to say through my mouth.


It’s all about vision. The Marcus vision is dark. It is clear and shot through with its special Marcus pessimistic energy, but, as we all know, pessimism is secret code for wild hope and idealism.1 I’ve learned how acutely meaning depends on syntax, and how nimble and able the mind of a reader is when diction has made a rash departure.2 Once, in workshop, Ben instructed us all to bury our food in the backyard for safekeeping.3 If humans are in reality hosts for the virus that is language, Ben, then are you as a writer enslaved? Language made me ask this.4 Paragraphs that surprise you like nests mice make near a warm engine.5 If Marcus is conducting experiments, he’s conducting them out of view, and then unveiling the results as a fait accompli, like an Edison or Tesla or some other secular magician emerging from a laboratory. Marcus’s work, with its powerful kinship to the visual arts and music and perhaps even pharmacology, should less be copyrighted than patented.6 For some, this will, undoubtedly, come as bad news: Ben Marcus’s The Flame Alphabet is a science fiction novel.7 I once almost got to meet Ben Marcus. I was standing in line to get my book signed after a reading at Powell’s and there was a guy in front of me who was coughing—a lot—like really hacking it up—and I got paranoid and had an anxiety attack and fled. So I wrote “Ben Marcus” in my best not-mine handwriting with a Sharpee in my own book. I felt Ben would approve.8 “A story? No, no stories. Never again”: this is Maurice Blanchot’s interdiction and prescription in French letters. On the North American side of the pond, Ben Marcus is the writer who makes the same challenge.9 The Marcus of The Age of Wire and String is a sprinter, a quick-heeled maker of mini-cosmogonies, explosions of curiously sentenced ink and light.10 Ben Marcus and Sam Lypsyte are standing by the table at Bob Coover’s house on Olive Street in Providence, twin cherubs, each eating cheese, each wearing tee-shirts. Or was it Rue du Fromage and them each eating olives?11 Discovering the infuriatingly original writing of Ben Marcus was like washing ashore on a new continent, one that some empire or other had very deliberately hidden. Deeply personal, ontologically sound, syntactically unsettling, that language seems to me now like one of the first: striving toward the most essential and intimate communication, more true in its beautiful noise than any pure and civil lyric.12 From Ben, I’ve learned that the reader’s expectation should never be the writer’s goal.13 Something I have learned from Ben Marcus’s writing generally, and most specifically from his latest novel, has to do with the toxicity of language. Once we start fooling around with it, we can be hurt by it. Once we notice that we speak words, the words are given a power over us which writing is, can be, an attempt to control or even to obliterate. We use words to obliterate words before they obliterate us. In The Flame Alphabet it seems that children are a danger to parents, but behind all the events and plots and incidents, I have the strong sense that Ben Marcus is afraid of words, and for good reason.14 In the mid-1990s, you expressed hostility to the poetry in and around L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E. Did that reflect your opinion at the time? If so, as someone who is often credited with being an advocate for “innovative literature,” why?15 I met Ben Marcus at Skylight Books. I got shy and didn’t introduce myself. My question for him is: What advice do you have for people who are shy?16 Language is a fuzzy math.17 Jewish culture is being appropriated by the masses. The Flame Alphabet doesn’t represent Judaism in any traditional sense but instead extends the mysticism. The Flame Alphabet is an extraordinary account of the danger of language. As reader, I have been poisoned along with the characters.18 Ben Marcus worries a lot.19 I remember Ben Marcus’s having told me something he did in class during (I think) the first week of his first semester of teaching fiction-writing full time, at some university in (I think) Virginia. He asked his students to bring to the next class session a printout of whichever piece of fiction of theirs they considered to be their very finest. At the next session, he solemnly collected the manuscripts, then immediately dispatched them to the wastebasket. (Or maybe he ripped them to pieces before he trashed them—I forget.)20 I’ve always enjoyed Ben’s dark humor, but I feel like critics (and sometimes fans) overlook it or maybe, just maybe, feel like if you acknowledge the humor, it makes his work seem less literary.21 By their very nature emotions tend to make us all inarticulate. Ben Marcus speaks intriguingly about the process in the description of a series of lectures he gave at Columbia University in the spring of 2002. He wanted, in the lectures, to analyze how “emotion is attempted and transmitted in fiction.” Emotional effects—rapture, sympathy, desire, empathy, fascination, grief—will be considered as techniques of language, enabled or muted by narrative context, acoustics, vocabulary choice, and our own predispositions. How can a sentence, a phrase, a paragraph cause us to feel things . . . What are emotions for, what benefit do we get from having them, what do they accomplish?22 I love that Marcus taught a class on sad books. That such a smart and erudite person goes to the core and just calls them sad books. I find that immensely relieving.23 Ben Marcus’s fiction is the rule of nouns. If a logical positivist invented the world, we might describe it just so. Because reality has become a substantive, action feels repressed. It recurs rather than happening, like a buried memory or desire establishing conditions for the known. Everything material feels haunted. Objects lead a double life. In a Marcus fiction, the plot, dominion of verbs, is missing. Form is what is left behind.24 When I read Marcus’s work, I think of that game at the fair where a man puts a marble beneath one of three cups then moves them around very quickly and scrambles them. I think of Little Red Riding Hood where the cup that says “grandmother” contains the marble “wolf.”25 Marcus’s books differ from experimental writing of previous generations in the United States: his ambition, while large, is realized in patterns, recurrences, and recombinations, not in the promulgation of “grand world-thoughts” that had been, for the critic Georges Brandes, the key feature of prior world-fictions composed in times of monumental technological constructions and competing ideologies . . . . The generation of Gaddis, Pynchon, and Coover still recognized that universality, even as they worked simultaneously to dismantle ideologies and literary traditions alike. By contrast, the work of Marcus and his peers in print and on screens, is more about writing under constraint. While embracing expressive freedoms in their vocabulary and syntax, formally such works reflect a growing sense that limits have been reached, materially and ecologically, in the rationalist technological project.26 Ben Marcus’s writing is the stage of language where you open your mouth but nothing comes out and everything is both still possible and inconceivable.27 Lost catalogs. New catechisms. An arsonist’s guide. Ben Marcus gives us an archivist’s roadmap of fiction’s volatile future.28 Ben, how can you be three steps ahead and always sneaking up behind me at the same time?29 He kept saying, “I’m not really sure how it works.”30 I do not know Ben Marcus, but he once carried my suitcase. He said very few words. He wore an apologetic expression that went unexplained.31


1 Deb Olin Unferth.
2 Noy Holland.
3 Affinity Konar.
4 Richard Peabody.
5 William Gass.
6 Jonathan Lethem.
7 Pawel Frelik.
8 Lidia Yuknavitch.
9 Dimitri Anastasopoulos.
10 Laird Hunt.
11 Michael Joyce.
12 Michael Mejia.
13 Lily Hoang.
14 Bin Ramke.
15 Charles Bernstein.
16 Amelia Gray.
17 John Madera.
18 David Shields.
19 Lynne Tillman.
20 Gary Lutz.
21 Kevin Sampsell.
22 Brian Kiteley.
23 Aimee Bender.
24 R. M. Berry.
25 Alissa Nutting.
26 Joseph Tabbi.
27 Lidia Yuknavitch.
28 Christina Milletti.
29 Thalia Field.
30 Rob Stephenson.
31 Kate Bernheimer.



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