Ben Marcus’s The Flame Alphabet is newish in trade paperback from the nice people at Vintage. I’ve been wanting to read it after absorbing Marcus’s The Age of Wire and String last year. I hear that The Flame Alphabet is more conventional than that earlier work, although a breakfast-menu-as-novel would be more conventional, really. Anyway, this one is up on deck, so no blurbage this time.
In place of the normal blurb I offer with these “book acquired” posts, here’s Marcus on David Markson (from “The Genre Artist,” published in a 2003 issue of The Believer):
. . . when, for example, David Markson, an expository novelist who fired the starting gun for fictions of information and proved that pure exposition can be alarmingly moving, who purposefully tells instead of shows, is dismissed in The New York Times for failing to provide a story in his novel Reader’s Block, no discussion follows about why, exactly, fiction must have one (at 150 words in the book review, how could any discussion follow?). Nor do we learn what a story might have looked like in such an exquisitely felt book that, to summarize, catalogs the various ways historical figures have hated whole races of people and/or died by their own hands. (Yes, you should read this book.)
Markson should have presumably, under the fiction-must-have-a-story criteria, zeroed in on one of his hundreds of characters and gone deep, doing that good old-time psychological work, the person-making stuff, dramatizing how such an interesting fellow had gone on to hate Jews and/or kill himself. Markson should have used more words like “then.” He should have sequenced. He seems to have forgotten that literature is supposedly a time-based art.
Markson’s amnesia is one of the happy accidents of the last decade of fiction writing. By eschewing a fetishistic, conventional interest in character, or a dutiful allegiance to moment creation, to occurrence itself, Markson accomplishes what a story, slogging through time and obedient to momentum, arguably could not: a commanding, obsessive portrait of single behaviors throughout history, a catalog of atrocity that overwhelms through relentless example. In truth, it’s a novel that can be read as an essay, but unlike most essays, it’s lyrically shrewd, poetry in the form of history, and it’s brave enough to provide creepy, gaping holes where we normally might encounter context (the burden of the conventional essayist).
I went to the bookstore to pick up a graduation present and then spent too much time wandering the stacks. While looking for Mat Johnson’s Pym, I found a first printing paperback of Denis Johnson’s The Stars at Noon and had to have it—haven’t read it yet, and it makes a nice sister for my copy of Angels—but honestly, I’m just in love with these 1980s Vintage Contemporary editions with awful, awful covers.
Malcolm Lowry’s last novel, the posthumously published October Ferry to Gabriola. Kind of a hideous cover.
I was looking for something by David Markson (no dice) when I came across The Age of Wire and String by Ben Marcus; I’ve been meaning to check out Marcus’s stuff, and a few minutes with the volume sold me—short vignettes, sort of like Lydia Davis or DFW or Dennis Cooper or William Burroughs (but probably not; I’m just using these as a short hand reference).
Intercourse with resuscitated wife for particular number of days, superstitious act designed to insure safe operation of household machinery. Electricity mourns the absence of the energy from (wife) within the household’s walls by stalling its flow to the outlets. As such, an improvised friction need to take the place of electricity, to goad the natural currents back to their proper levels. This is achieved with the dead wife. She must be found, revived, and then penetrated until heat fills the room, until the toaster is shooting bread onto the floor, until she is smiling beneath you with black teeth and grabbing your bottom. Then the vacuum rides by and no one is pushing it, it is on full steam. Days flip past in chunks of fake light, and the intercourse is placed in the back of the mind. But it is always there, that moving into a static-ridden corpse that once spoke familiar messages in the morning when the sun was new.
― From Ben Marcus’s collection The Age of Wire and String