Two-Man Book Club: Ben Marcus

I’m in a two-man book club with my athletic and morally upstanding friend, Jake. Last weekend we convened at his apartment in Los Feliz. He sat on an Ikea couch with a white cover that he’d recently cleaned. I sat on a wooden chair. We discussed The Flame Alphabet, the new novel by Ben Marcus.

TOM: You seem to be recovering nicely.

JAKE: I read the book and then I went jogging. The Flame Alphabet is difficult. Jogging was my only choice.

TOM: So you took it personally.

JAKE: The book’s an assault.

TOM: On what?

JAKE: Our tolerance for suffering. Our willingness to watch everything we believe in get molested.

TOM: You mean the innocence of children, and the presumption that we love them unconditionally…

JAKE: And it’s not just that we believe in those things. It’s that we have to believe in them. Without those beliefs, we’re cast into a terrible nightmare…

TOM: The nightmare that Marcus illustrates…

Jake does, in fact, look healthy. He’s recently shorn his head and shaved his beard, in order, he said, to prepare for summer, and his skin has a warm, late-spring pre-bronzeness to it. He’s wearing a navy blue hoodie, blue and white basketball shorts, and elaborate, webbed running shoes.

The book is about the deathly illness of language. The illness begins its rampage in the mouths of children and eventually spreads to communication of any sort, written, verbal, or otherwise. The characters in The Flame Alphabet don’t know how to cure this illness, but they try, with difficult-to-read-about methods, like extracting “Child’s Play” in concentration camp-esque labs and quarantines.

TOM: So you read the book, and you felt sick, but then you finished, and went for a jog, and had a smoothie, and now you feel fine?

JAKE: Before I went for a jog, and before I had the smoothie, I hugged my wife and told her I loved her, and then I called my mother and told her I loved her too. And then I ran farther than I usually do, all the way to the observatory at the top of Griffith Park, and I looked out over Los Angeles, which sometimes gets fashioned as a pit of hell all its own, and I realized that, looking out over our city, a sea of gray and haze, the golden light streaming down in search of windows reflective enough to restore it, that whatever hellfire people attribute to this place is modest compared to what we find in Marcus.

TOM: You’re saying that curing problems is easy, and that anybody can do it so long as they have running shoes.

JAKE: I didn’t say that.

Jake leans forward on his white couch to face me. I’m in a wooden chair, across the coffee table. His body seems like nothing but limbs, but he’s not bony. His knees, bent right towards me, exposed on account of his shorts, look pliable rather than harsh, like he’s one of those wooden dolls students sketch in art class.

TOM: Is discussing the book reviving the symptoms you experienced while reading it?

JAKE: Is that question a threat?

Now, Tom attempts to inflict himself on Jake with language.

TOM: When my dog got hit by a car, when I was ten, I wasn’t sad. Because my mom was such a negligent and terrible dog owner, I felt as if the dog were better off, well, dead.

JAKE: That dog, if I correctly recall the last time you forced this confession on me, wasn’t allowed in the house, and rather, was kept in the garage, which connected to the “run” your mom built for it outside, on that strip of grass by your driveway, behind the cheap, chicken wire fence.

TOM: Yes.

JAKE: That’s a bad life for a dog, and it doesn’t reflect too well on your mother either. But I suppose the true poison is the implication that, at age ten, if you’d really had a heart, you would’ve been able to take care of that dog yourself.

TOM: Yes.

JAKE: Many dog stories from American history feature children far younger than ten.

TOM: I’ll admit that, by age ten, I was probably already guilty.

JAKE: Like Esther…

The book focuses on a father, a mother, and a daughter, Esther, whose voice means horrible physical consequences for both of her parents. The father and the mother cope with their toxic daughter in their own ways, until the three get separated, at which time the story follows the father to a lab, where he’s tasked with devising a new form of communication.  

JAKE: By the way, referring to chicken wire in your dog memory doesn’t grant you special powers via proximity to Ben Marcus. You can’t just refer to wire and expect to poach off his take of things.

Marcus’s first novel is The Age of Wire and String. Both his subsequent novels refer to wire frequently.

TOM: Do you think that Marcus refers to wire because it’s the artery of a new nature? Like, trees have roots, and humans have veins, and all this new stuff nobody’s willing to call “nature” yet has wires. Meaning, people are in denial that things with wire are as true, or real, a part of our world as things with roots and things with veins? Is our world comprised of equal parts roots, veins, wire, and string?

JAKE: Not mathematically, no.

TOM: But, in the vague sort of way we permit in casual conversation?

JAKE: By vague conversational standards, absolutely, the world has four parts: roots, veins, wire, and string.

TOM: Are you feeling sick at all yet?

JAKE: I suppose I could conceivably feel a pang of sadness on your behalf, about the dog thing there, though I thought when you attempted to sicken me that you’d tell me something more direct, like, for example, that you secretly dislike me. Frankly, the dog thing wasn’t too hard to take. So I suppose I can muster, if I really focus for a second, a pang of deeply qualified sadness for you. But as soon as you say something cheery, it’ll go away, because we’re friends, but I haven’t banked my emotional well-being on you, because I have a family, including my wife.

TOM: Is the sadness that you’re determined to fend off an illness?

JAKE: Maybe…

TOM: Is the cheeriness that defuses said sadness also an illness?

JAKE: Maybe…

TOM: Is my memory of the dog behind the chicken wire also an illness, insofar as the dog cursed me and my family at the time, but also, insofar as I can’t forget it, despite the intervention of twenty years during which events far more sinister have made their way through both my history and yours, including September 11th, George W. Bush, and the deaths of a handful of our family members, including those who were far too young to go?

JAKE: Maybe…

TOM: Are there parts of your wife that, if released, might sicken you?


TOM: Do you feel obligated to say that?


TOM: Are you being honest with me?

JAKE: Let’s change the subject…

Jake once told me that he’s too “Zen” for anger.

JAKE: Let’s assail The Flame Alphabet’s narrator, Esther’s father, Sam.

TOM: Ok.

JAKE: Sam isn’t creative enough. He busies himself with “small work” rather than the true task of restoring his family. He ought to have been able to find a way, or at least, to have killed himself trying.

“Small work” is Marcus’s term.

TOM: Can we be generous? The guy’s reduced to hollow mush. He listens to holes in the ground for the sound of rabbis. He sticks wire in his mouth so that he might conduct sound on his own. He’s not even an echo chamber. He’s like an echo chamber gone sour. He’s like an echo chamber overrun with interference, and that interference is silence, or even, absence. In conditions like these, his wife and daughter can barely reverberate. His family’s like buckshot rattling around a gargantuan coffee can. It’s hard to make his thoughts of them stick, but for that we can blame the language problem, not the man.

JAKE: But at least Sam could be humane.

TOM: But it’s exactly our humanity that’s under siege. And besides, his family does stick, in the end. They’re all that sticks. They’re all that he can possibly fight for, even if you say he won’t fight enough.

Jake and I hit a jam. He thought that even if Sam couldn’t have done more, he could’ve been less resigned to his fate. Sam could’ve, as it were, gotten down on his knees and burst into tears.

JAKE: What else do book club conversations need to touch down on?

TOM: Have we said whether or not we liked it? Have we issued a proper decree?

JAKE: I hated reading it. The suffering was too much to take. The nature of the suffering was too gruesome. The experiments, the wire, the faces gone blank, the world robbed of love, everyone tapping each other by the coffee cart for expressionless sex. I was nervous to read it before bed. I felt colonized. The book took over my insides. It escaped the page and tattooed itself on the inside of my skin, on the backs of my eyelids, and forced me to consider, “Is there a chance that this is how life really is? Can this book be true?” And I was powerless against that. I cannot close my eyes to writing on the insides of my lids. I didn’t want to watch a father resign himself to the demise of his daughter into a killer, his wife into writhing mush. But I was forced to acknowledge what of this language problem was true, because, I think, un-ironically, of the author’s own language. Do you think of Marcus as voice-driven?

TOM: Yes.

JAKE: His language is both sober and rattling. Rattling because it’s sober. It’s a sober breach of every rule of instinct and decency. It operates within Marcus’s world exclusively, the one he mapped in The Age of Wire and String. His voice stripped me of escape routes, but so did the plot. The plot robs its actors of options and robbed me of options as well. It’s like The Plague where you’re fucked both ways, but perversely glad to be fucked, because getting that reamed brings you close to the root of a foundational problem, and here at this root, you feel a new sort of consciousness, a true one, a basic one, a consciousness of the place where your brain, heart, and sexual organs work together in harmony, before they fray, where they’re still one, the place where foundational problems like language emerge from. So now that I’m done, and outside the book’s pages, and free to crowd out its memory with my own viscous, optimistic interference, I’m free to admit that it’s brilliant, and free, with a glint uncharacteristic of my morally upstanding ways, to implore everyone I know to check it out.

TOM: You’ve stolen that glint from me. That’s the criminal glint. I didn’t care when my dog died. If that glint’s not mine, then I don’t have anything. You get the Zen glow, I get the criminal glint. That’s our arrangement. That’s how it’s always been.

JAKE: I stole that glint from the book.

TOM: Possibly…

JAKE: But you can’t be sure. It’s not like you’ve remembered our conversation verbatim…

TOM: Well… that would be difficult.

JAKE: It seems as if you were trying to remember our conversation, but then, you couldn’t, so you let yourself go, somewhere right around when I issued my decree, right around where your memory gave out, you let in some imagination, and gave my voice some color and flesh…

TOM: Does this upset you?

JAKE: I suppose I’d rather not be colonized. And I suppose that if I’m going to be colonized, I’d rather it be at the hands of Ben Marcus than you, because he’s pretty famous. But now that I’m done with the book, and feeling practiced at turning my voice over, I suppose I’m amenable to giving you a shot for a while. But Tom—make good use of my voice. Get it to work for you. Don’t just let it toot like a trumpet. Have me say something. Try not to abuse me. And bear in mind that as soon as you stop typing, I’ll be a man again, on my recently cleaned couch cover, so try to be smart about where you stop.

Tom Dibblee is Trop’s editor. His fiction has appeared in Glimmer Train and his nonfiction has appeared in Pacific Standard, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and the Point. He lives in Los Angeles.