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‘Is man no more than this?’ Ben Marcus on the ‘blasted heath’

April 7, 2014 | by Faber Social

Tags: Short Stories, ben marcus

In a lucid essay published eight years ago in Harpers Magazine, Ben Marcus refers to his literary forbear, the legendary Austrian misanthrope, Thomas Bernhard as ‘an architect of consciousness, rather than a storyteller.’ Anyone who has followed Marcus’s career on the bruised and battered edges of American literature over the past decade and a half will recognise the description. From The Age of Wire and String through Notable American Women and 2012’s masterpiece, The Flame Alphabet, Marcus’s fiction has traversed an avant-garde high-wire of unnerving intensity.

It is a world that would be familiar to aficionados of vintage David Lynch and a sensibility that has led to the demented vistas in Blake Butler’s horror fiction (a writer sadly without a publisher here; and yes, I have tried) but it is the Three Bs one is constantly reminded of: Beckett, Burroughs, and most consistently, Bernhard. With his two most recent books, most particularly these stories, Marcus takes his rightful place alongside these deities of Disgust.

It is a hazardous game comparing contemporary talents to canonised masters. I remember citing Nabokov in a blurb about Heather McGowan’s  incendiary debut, Schooling some years ago and being chastised by a senior colleague. But each Marcus publication strengthens the argument and he is unquestionably a true literary innovator, schooled in the dark and mysterious arts practiced by Beckett, Burroughs and Bernhard.

Contemporary literary fiction is riddled with dystopian dilettantes. Marcus avoids these formulaic trappings. Indeed he seemingly has no interest in them. This is the literature of anxiety, trauma and perversion shot through with dark and destabilising humour. To reference Marcus on Bernhard again, these stories engage with ‘the sheer affront of life itself’; ‘the people who populate it are crushed into grotesque shapes, colliding with a brutal landscape that seems carved out of a cruel fairytale.’

The book starts off conventionally enough, and the first of 6 ‘chapters’ which arrange the stories thematically and stylistically, wrong-foots you into thinking this might prove to be Marcus’s most straightforward book to date.  An early story, I Can Say Many Nice Things, imagines a creative writing workshop set on a cruise-liner with one of the students mysteriously absent.  I couldn’t help but think of the great whole left in the landscape of American literature by the suicide of David Foster Wallace – clearly an enormous influence on Marcus – and perhaps his greatest and most sympathetic essay set in the same environment, ‘A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again’. Indeed in that essay, and against his more cynical instincts, Wallace found himself drawn towards saying ‘many nice things’ about the lost and sometimes pitiful ‘shipmates’ who had signed up for this Caribbean nightmare.

Marcus, like Wallace, especially in Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, which remains the benchmark collection for American fiction in the late ‘90s, is constantly drawn towards entropy. It exerts a pull like a literary plughole. And the movement in this book, as the seemingly ‘normal’ opening stories give way to stranger and more unsettling landscapes, is towards a world readers of The Flame Alphabet will recognise. Language has become toxic: rain is ‘obituary water’, solitude is a ‘math problem’ and in a peculiarly ambiguous anti-metaphor, roads are ‘not called devil carpets’. In The Father Costume, one of the most virtuoso stories here which is also set at sea – a place beyond naming; a constantly shifting terrain, the narrator says:

I could not read fabric. I had a language problem. My brother spoke a language called Forecast. It consisted of sounds he barked into a leather box. When my father wrapped my brother’s hands in cotton waffling, my brother could tap out a low-altitude language on the floor, short thuds of speech that my father held his listening jar to.

It’s a bizarre image of communication that recalls Wallace Stevens’s Anecdote of a Jar:

I placed a jar in Tennessee, 
And round it was, upon a hill. 
It made the slovenly wilderness 
Surround that hill.

Like Stevens, especially in his final poems, these stories search for definition and a new articulacy through symbols and totemic items. The final three ‘chapters’ represent an accumulation of occult detail and reference as narrative becomes less important and the search for ‘meaning’ more fractured.

Marcus’s orientation is always back towards language but he is no post-structuralist and this is why we constantly feel there is (there must be) a way out of these nihilistic cul-de-sacs. Increasingly these stories (again like The Flame Alphabet) gather around the nuclear family, or shattered versions of that unit:

There’s nothing worse than watching your parents, who are defenceless, get hurt in some way.

Like his near contemporary David Vann, a lot of these stories are about fathers and sons, a theme which has been the source of much literary tension in American literature over the past three centuries. Core relationships (being a son, being a parent, being a husband) and intimacy are in need of restoration if we are to find any larger purpose. Without this the world is suspended, an absurdity. We find a brilliantly imaginative articulation of this in what for me is the strongest story in this remarkable collection, First Love:

Commitment, on the other hand, is an abbreviation of the inability to move, which is why couples often become heavy together, stiff and slow-moving, eating pounds of food to ensure each other’s immobility. Feeding a lover is like making her swallow an anchor. This is why getting married is described as swallowing iron. Marrying is never referred to as ‘casting off’, although sometimes the phrase ‘taking on a passenger’ is used.

Reading these stories forced me to think about why I read if not for narrative itself. What kind of reader am I? Marcus, through his sheer intelligence and crooked conjuring with language and meaning, believes like the greatest of artists that we must fight our way through the darkness to discover this. For discovering what kind of reader you are, may well suggest what kind of person you are. And this in turn, could lead to a broader Enlightenment, something which was lost in literature around 1922 in the Modernist scrabble. Marcus is a gloriously accomplished Modernist. His ennui always leads to epiphany. The sadness, alienation, grief and dysfunction in these stories ultimately reminded me we are not alone. Not with fiction this good, at least.