Arts & Culture

Novelist explores toxic language

By
Contributing Writer
Friday, March 2, 2012

“You’re about to hear language as it has not been spoken before,” said Robert Coover, visiting professor of literary arts, as he introduced novelist Ben Marcus to a packed audience at the McCormack Family Theater Thursday.

Marcus is the author of several novels, including “The Age of Wire and String” and “Notable American Women,” and he has received three Pushcart Prizes for the best of small presses.

His reading was part of the Writers on Writing Reading Series sponsored by the Department of Literary Arts.

Marcus read from his most recent book, “The Flame Alphabet,” which contemplates family, communication and the end of language. The novel, Marcus said, is “about a toxic language that comes from children and makes adults sick.”

The story revolves around a family. “The last thing they want to believe,” Marcus says of parents Sam and Claire, is that their daughter is part of the language disease. Nevertheless, as the adults begin to deteriorate, they must come to terms with the poison “in the child’s mouth.”

Marcus read selected excerpts from throughout the novel, speaking with a commanding — and occasionally derisive — deadpan tone.

The post-apocalyptic undertones of the work surfaced in descriptions of parents abandoning their children, maps being shown for child evacuations and desolate men standing in the middle of the street.

“You’d see one of the sad fathers standing alone in the road, examining one of these maps, which depicted a future that did not include him,” Marcus read.

“The Flame Alphabet” questions our societal ties to language, our relationships to our children and the nature of a world in which communication may be lost forever.

“An autopsy,” Marcus read, “was called on the whole living planet.”

The reading was followed by a question-and-answer forum in which Marcus addressed the nature of his writing, inspiration for “The Flame Alphabet” and his general distaste for naming characters.

“I don’t just feel like I’m in a factory producing strangeness,” Marcus said of his work. He noted that his novels must explore some kind of uncomfortable territory in order for him to “still care about writing.”

Pushing into family interactions and domestic scenes like those depicted in “The Flame Alphabet,” helps to ensure that Marcus’ work is more than just “conceptually driven,” he said.

Students of LITR0210A: “Fiction Writing II,” who read “The Flame Alphabet” in the course, noted Marcus’s words of wisdom on the subject of writing. “If you read enough, you’ll find that you haven’t made anything up,” Marcus said, eliciting laughter from the audience.

The Writers on Writing Reading Series is a chance for undergraduates in the course LITR1200: “Writers on Writing” to hear from — and interact with — authors whose work they have read in class. Marcus is the fourth writer to participate in the spring 2012 series.