The curious footprints of Ben Marcus

Ben MarcusThe New Yorker’s “Twenty Under Forty” list was somewhat brilliant in its ability to piss off almost everyone who read it. At best, magazines can usually manage to anger only half their reading public, and even then in a fairly predictable manner. “Twenty Under Forty”—between the people who weren’t included, the people who thought the New Yorker had no taste, and the people who thought such a list just shouldn’t exist in the first place—left nary a stone unturned. The fulminations that list has induced are already nearing the status of legend.

While there are certainly faults in the whole concept’s tendency to list towards the center, the interviews that the New Yorker conducted with its collection of budding talents revealed some interesting minutia.

When asked what writers over forty they admired, some fairly predictable names came up: Edward P. Jones, Denis Johnson, Gabriel Marquez, Lydia Davis—worthy examples all. However, one name that popped up both unexpectedly and in unexpected places was that of Ben Marcus.

Marcus, unlike a vast preponderance of the New Yorker’s “Twenty,” writes mercilessly experimental fiction. He writes fiction so surreal that it can’t even be called “surrealist” and instead has to be referred by his choice moniker of “surreal.”

To get a flavor for it, here’s one of Marcus’ short stories. Bare in mind that this falls much closer to comprehensibility than a majority of his work:

Bird to the North, Act of Wind

Ben Marcus
GOD RIDES bird to the north, act of wind implemented against the stationary position of most oceans. Certain weather is not recognized by the land it is practiced on; funnel clouds necessarily unravel or bank off any crusted terrain, hailstones and other atmospheric shale burn into water before the city receives them, whole temperate zones dissipate over a lake and suck upward. The act of riding procures a medical wind to heal these stagnations. The lark 5 the griffin, and the mallard, all birds of indeterminate temperature and vapor content, function as ignitors of the tide. For a ripple to spool downwind unobstructed, it must be set into force by the proper god riding above, often laced into the fur of a low-flying bird. What happens here is the beating of air into a still surface, the jostle-weave of the bird twisting off the new waves, and the swoop of the weather behind it as the plumage of the carrier ignites and recedes off the god-channeler’s hands, dispatched with a blessing to unfurl and storm above the new-moving ocean.

Okay…yeah.

And Marcus has a developed resumé full of this stuff. He has published two novels (Notable American Women and The Father Costume) as well as a collection of short stories (The Age of Wire and String). All are written in the thought-destroying style displayed above, and nowhere does this conceit waiver in the slightest. A self-confessed disciple of the French experimentalist Alain Robbe-Grillet, Marcus is not just an innovator, but an innovator with a mission.

In a now-famous essay for Harper’s, Marcus blasted Jonathan Franzen for the latter novelist’ sneering take on experimental literature. It was Marcus’ assertion that literature comes from and interacts with the language center of the brain, and that the best literature affects its end by “blazing new neural pathways” in the neighborhood of the frontal cortex. Everything that doesn’t accomplish this is sentimental pap, the mind’s retreat behind the comfortable bulwarks of diegesis.

Needless to say, Marcus has a few opponents.

However, as “Twenty Under Forty” displayed, he is far from absent his share of fans, a group that has some surprising names amongst its number.

Wells Tower, one of the auspicious “Twenty”, has an amazing skill as an author. His debut collection of short fiction (Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned) was a runaway hit, combining Denis Johnson’s enthusiasm for simile with Tobias Wolff’s instinct for story. It’s good stuff, but earth shattering it ain’t—at least not according to Ben Marcus’ exacting standard. What’s surprising is that Tower is a fan of Ben Marcus, and apparently Ben Marcus is a fan of Wells Tower.

Tower was first anthologized in the Anchor Book of New American Short Stories, a collection that Ben Marcus edited, a collection into which he thought it prudent to allow the then-unknown Wells Tower.

It has been rumored that Tower’s acceptance to graduate school at Columbia was the direct result of Marcus’ influence. The fact that Ben Marcus is a professor at that institution implies that they were in all likelihood pals during Tower’s tenure, but the question still remains as to what these incredibly distant stylistic firebrands have to do with each other.

Though Marcus’s rhetorical violence against Jonathan Franzen has led to a general opinion of the divide between these two as being all but insurmountable, I’m not sure Marcus’s real opinions are quite as harsh as those expressed in his surprisingly erudite battle cry. The mutual admiration between Marcus and Towers implies that the width of this stylistic chasm is also far from impossible to cross. Ben Marcus has a far greater patience for stylistic range than his public persona would let on. Also, despite some of his opponents’ claims, he has a variegated readership whose commitment to his experiments is at least as vehement as his own. Even if his style is too oblique to show ready tracks in his disciples’ material, Marcus is at least setting up a subconscious presence in the voice of his generation.

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