Under the Covers: A conversation with Ben Marcus

March 6, 2014

Ben Marcus was a philosophy major at NYU grappling with Wittgenstein and Hegel, planning on continuing his studies at the graduate level. Somewhere in between, he found his calling in writing fiction. Marcus, 46,  published his first book of short stories, the delightfully knotty The Age of Wire and String, at age 24, to wide critical acclaim.

He has gone on to publish four books of short stories and two novels, picking up a Guggenheim Fellowship and numerous writing awards along the way. His most recent book of short stories, Leaving the Sea, was published in January (“What have you done?” is my favorite story of the bunch). Marcus answered student questions this past Tuesday at the Lannan seminar.

Ben Marcus on our mortality:

There’s something … more honest about those feelings … that we’re not going to be alive for very long, that we’re treated to oblivion. I don’t know about you, maybe we’ll survive forever. I’m not going to be alive for very long—just the fact of that and the weight of that. The endless presence of that fact is unbearable. It’s just essentially unbearable, so we do all lot not to think about it. I like a lot of my entertainment not to remind me of the fact that I’m going to die soon.

On why reading about the inevitability of death is joyful:

But somehow, with writing what I like the most is the opposite, is the kind that puts me in direct not confrontation, but proximity to something that is deeply, unassailably true. I think it’s a great power of writing to … approach a kind of real honesty about our experience. I guess to me there’s something really joyful about writing that feels as though it’s not looking away, shying away. It’s not glossing over, being evasive about the basic fact of our existence. But on the other hand you can’t just write ‘Oh, holy shit, we’re going to die!’

On the development of his writing style:

I used to… put one word after another and notice the effect. Well, that makes me feel nothing, so I’m going to throw it away. But, oh, that actually is starting to stir something up … That often involved a pretty laborious, congested complicated kind of language. And everyone just said this is unreadable I have no idea what you’re talking about. That was a real surprise to me, I thought this was like a thriller.

On his word-surgery in The Age of Wire and String:

I felt as though I had been writing with a kind of magnifying glass and tweezers and I was doing microscopic surgery on the air and I was stitching the most gorgeous little weirdo thing and then I was spray shining them. And then I was like, injecting life and batting them up into the air and I was making these gorgeous little spectacles.

On his transformation of writing styles:

I wanted to sort of sever all ties to that for awhile and see who I was and what I cared about and what kind of writing I would do. For instance, before I wrote The Flame Alphabet I wouldn’t have written a sentence like “He got in his car and went to work…”

On the loss of wonder:

I’m forty-six, and all my sense of surprise and wonder has pretty much been killed off. I remember once, just looking at a tree and being sort of decimated by fact of it. … Every object in the world is completely uncanny and almost unbearable. I find that perspective pretty elusive, hard to get to.

On mythology as a cure:

Mythologizing with language, in other words, disfiguring things and taking animals apart and exchanging one limb from another and making a kind of beautiful disorder out of the thing we live in allows us to feel afresh that crazy beauty and strangeness of the world. [I have] a real love and appreciation… for mythology. I think language is enormously powerful in that respect.

On the “rookie mode” of world literature:

The kinds of things you can do with [language], I don’t think we’ve really scratched the surface. I think literature is still sort of in a rookie mode in it’s career with the kinds of things it can do to us. I think it still hasn’t really been tapped.

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