“Language is a drug”: Ben Marcus’s Paean to the Contemporary American Short Story
by Ben Marcus
[Editor’s note: the following is the introduction to New American Stories, an anthology of contemporary American short stories edited by Ben Marcus. The anthology will be published by Vintage on July 21st.]
There is a game I play with my young son. He shuts his eyes while I sneak to the shadows with my weapon. On the dark side of a bookcase, concealed by a doorway, I stand and wait. I stifle my breathing, and the game begins.
My son does his best to avoid capture, even though he circles my hideout, risking the worst. He cannot yet play this game silently. He advertises his location with badly muffled squeals. He sprints through rooms, taking the corners too fast. He’ll stumble, wipe out, right himself, and charge again. I always hear him coming. Maybe he wants to be captured just as much as he dreads it, but you can hear the conflict thumping inside him. He produces frightening sounds, a pure bullet of feeling. How does one body hold so much? What will I do when he grows up and learns to conceal this feeling, or, worse, when the feeling stops rising up so strongly in the first place?
My son can’t be sure where or when the ambush is coming. But it always does. When he tears past me I roar from his blind spot, ensnaring him in a blanket. Down he goes, kicking and laughing, a thrashing little figure under cloth. I close the bundle, cinch it in my fist, and drag it from room to room.
My son is five now, as easy to lift as a pillow. I hoist him over my head, teeter on one leg for suspense, then plunge him onto the couch. He bounces high, still tucked inside the blanket. I hold on tight and swing until we’re spinning. His little voice drifts up from far away. Inside his trap he is in heaven, or so it sounds. I swing him and drag him and toss him until I’m ready to collapse. When I let him go he is red and sweaty and wild. Usually he glares at me. Why did I stop? What is wrong with me? He begs, begs, for us to play again. It’s all he wants to do. He promises not to peek, and I steal off to hide again.
My son would not put it this way, because he knows better than to try to dissect his own pleasure. But he is asking to be amazed and afraid in this situation we’ve contrived. He cannot really come to harm — the boy is so small that it is child’s play to keep him safe — but by surrendering control, submitting himself to the darkness, to the fast passage inside a careening world, he can take himself to the bursting point. He is looking to suddenly feel a great many things, and to feel them intensely, inside this fictional crisis. And I can’t blame him, because, more and more, I would like that very same thing.
When I want to be ambushed, captured, thrust into a strange and vivid world, and tossed aloft until I cannot stand it, until everything is at stake and life feels almost unbearably vivid, I do something simple. I read short stories. When I was young I read fiction because nothing much happened to me. As a reader I could fight a war, lose a father, be pushed from a bridge with a noose over my neck. I could grow up and grow old, turn angry and sad. I could love and hate and harm and get away with it. In stories I had children of my own, got divorced, worried, wondered, rode shotgun inside intellects far swifter than mine. My earliest reading was not just a romance with what was possible, but a romance with what was not. If something was never likely to happen in real life, I was doubly committed to live it in fiction. I think back to when I have had the most intense feelings, and most often those moments resulted not from cruising through a so-called real world of bodies and things, collecting actual experiences. Those feelings arose out of something invisible yet strangely more powerful: the language of others. Language has made some of the most durable feeling this world has seen. Not the functional kind of language we bleat at each other out in the world when we want something, or need to declare or deny something. Not the quotidian language that showers down everywhere around us to block us from our true thoughts. I’m thinking of the much more unusual and spell-like language of fiction, which generally does not occur out loud: razored, miraculously placed, set like stones into staggeringly complex patterns so that, somehow, life, or something more distilled and intense, more consistently moving, gets made.
I have been reading stories for forty-two years and I still find it astonishing that, by staring at skeletal marks on paper or a screen, we can invite such cyclones of feeling into our bodies. It is a kind of miracle. Our skin is never pierced and yet stories break the barrier and infect us regardless. We study these marks, move our finger along them, and they transmit worlds. If we could paint what happens between the page and our face, the signal channel saturated with color and shape, the imagery would be so tangled that the picture would blacken into pure noise, a dark architecture of everything that matters.
A story is simply a sequence of language that produces a chemical reaction in our bodies. When it’s done well, it causes sorrow, elation, awe, fascination. It makes us believe in what’s not there, but it also pours color over what is, so that we can feel and see the world anew. It fashions people, makes us care for them, then ladles them with conflict and disappointment. It erects towns, then razes them. A story switches on some unfathomably sophisticated machine inside us and we see, gloriously, what is not possible.
And yet language is a prickly delivery system. It requires attention, effort. It does not produce reliable results across the population. The same text that makes one person weep makes another blink with indifference or spit with contempt. By reading more, and more variously, we decimate our immunity, increase our vulnerability to this substance, but our private wiring does something profoundly subjective to this material that would seem unique from body to body. Language turns out to be the most unruly of medicines, the most unknowable, and yet, provided we collaborate with it, still among the most powerful.
Language is a drug, but a short story cannot be smoked. You can’t inject it. Stories don’t come bottled as a cream. You cannot have a story massaged into you by a bearish old man. You have to stare down a story until it wobbles, yields, then catapults into your face. And yet, as squirrely as they are to capture, stories are the ideal deranger. If they are well made, and you submit to them, they go in clean. Stories deliver their chemical disruption without the ashy hangover, the blacking out, the poison. They trigger pleasure, fear, fascination, love, confusion, desire, repulsion. Drugs get flushed from our systems, but not the best stories. Once they take hold, you couldn’t scrape them out with a knife. While working on this book, I started to think of a it as a medicine chest, filled with beguiling, volatile material, designed by the most gifted technicians. The potent story writers, to me, are the ones who deploy language as a kind of contraband, pumping it into us until we collapse on the floor, writhing, overwhelmed with feeling.
Imagine trying to assert the importance of water. Food. Love. The company of others. Shelter. There are some things that we need so innately that it feels awkward and difficult to explain why. To this list of crucial things, without which we might perish, I would add stories. A short story works to remind us that if we are not sometimes baffled and amazed and undone by the world around us, rendered speechless and stunned, perhaps we are not paying close enough attention.
In high school I made mix tapes for girls. The term for this now would be playlist. You can create one with a few clicks, and no one much cares. Back then a mix tape was an act of love, a plea, a Hail Mary, an aphrodisiac. In other words, it was an anthology, published in a limited edition of one copy. Then it was surrendered to an audience of one, a girl not even guaranteed to listen to it, because sometimes it must have seemed like it was made by a stalker, a creep, a card-carrying freak. To make a mix tape, before computers, you needed a mule cart, a bag of hair, and a padded suit. It seemed to take a whole year to produce, and I wasn’t even one of those kids who decorated the case with snakeskin and neon markers. I just dumped songs from one tape to another, pulling from the vast catalog of seventeen albums and twenty-four cassettes that I owned. And when I handed it off to some poor girl, she might regard it as a grim example of my biology, dropping it like medical waste into her bag. The tape needed to perform the charm and seduction that, with my own body and words, I could not. Not that I didn’t try. I wrote plenty of poetry in a literary tradition that never took off: the wrong words in the wrong order. And even though I hoped some handcrafted poems would reveal me as a person worth shucking one’s clothing for, my verse was embarrassing, far too easy to understand. I had yet to realize how easy it is to dismiss what comes to us with no thought, no struggle. If there is nothing left to think about, we stop thinking. I did not understand that my poetry needed to at least seem eligible for further reflection. It had no time-release feature, as do the stories in this anthology, to crack open in the body days later, bleeding out inside us until we start to glow. Obviousness was a clear turnoff. My poetry shut people down, maybe invited death into the home. I’m sure my fondness for rhyme didn’t help, either.
I also made a classic mistake. I confused the description of feelings with the creation of them. I wanted to cause feeling in others, but all I did was assert, somewhat grandiosely, that I had feelings myself. This is an unpleasant thing to announce. I had a lot to learn.
So I retreated from creation to curation. As with the stories in this anthology, I chose music that somehow, in ways I could not understand, came spring-loaded with insights about me, a youth from nowhere who knew no one, who had said and done precisely nothing that mattered. The songs I liked already intuited what I thought and felt, deep within my well-guarded interior. No doubt this wasn’t particularly difficult, because I had not thought and felt all that much yet. But this feeling — of being known, understood, seen, accounted for — seemed in urgent need of passing along. The songs, as fiction would later, worked a kind of excavation, breaking down resistance to reveal a territory that I otherwise did not have access to, fears and desires and mixed or half- formed feelings that had been hidden. When a song surfaced this stuff, I felt destroyed and remade, gifted with a new body, a weapon, a helmet. We don’t just have our feelings. Our feelings have us, and change us, and the endorphins triggered by this kind of change became compulsory. If a piece of noise, or later a string of words, could perform this kind of archaeology, I hoped to undergo such surgery as often as I could, and I looked for others who could enter the very same operating room. Life without it no longer seemed like life. To listen was to grow one’s inner self, to become more of a person, to see and feel more possibility. A sweet medication for solitude? Sounds as ointment for some impossible sorrow? Maybe, but those were the minor spoils up against the feeling of purifying one’s oxygen and sharpening the very air so that all I saw and felt leapt to a nearly unbearable resolution. It’s one reason we read, listen, and look at things made with exquisite skill. I’m sure I also thought that I would somehow get credit for these stirring songs — the sad and introspective ones, the punchy and danceable ones, the oddball ones that came out of nowhere with beeps and glitches and clicks. Certainly I thought that I’d be seen differently after the girl had listened to the tape. If she liked these songs, and if she felt similarly discovered by them, she would, if not disrobe, at least see I was no caveman. Or, more likely, she’d copy the tape and pass it on to whomever she wanted to impress, whoever was, for her, someone she wanted to show her true self to.
This anthology aims to present the range of what American short-story writers have been capable of in the last ten years or so, not as a museum piece but as a sampler of behaviors and feelings we can very nearly have only through reading. A sourcebook of required emotions. For months I collected books, stories, links, and names. I asked writers, readers, editors, friends, and strangers to alert me to strong stories, favorite writers. Who should I read? Who am I missing out on? What is the most memorable story you’ve read in the last ten years? What story has shaken you?
The range of work I encountered was staggering. I have sometimes wished for a bookstore organized not by genre but by feeling. You could shop by mood, by emotional complexity, by the amount of energy and attention that might be required. There’d be a special section for the kind of literature that holds your face to the fire. Until there is such a bookstore, we have anthologies.
Had I worked strictly from my passions, collecting the most intense and beautiful and memorable work I could find, stories exhibiting the highest degree of artistic mastery, this book would have grown so huge that you would have needed to carry it in a wagon.
I sought stylistic and formal variety in the stories not to be fair, but because there seem to be endless ways, in fiction, to make the world come alive, to reckon with our time, to fearlessly reveal what’s in front of us. To look to the past, to posit the future. To lean on language and bend and try to break it. To preserve and refine tradition, or to struggle otherwise. If writers can’t genuinely make it new, they probably can’t convincingly make it old, either. They are helpless but to make it now. But who we are now is impossible to fix, and impossible to generalize about. The minor labels that would scar our writers — realist and experimentalist would be the obvious ones — seem like someone else’s nicknames, sounds we use to call off a dog. We say these words out loud and we feel the instant shame of having told a lie in a language we hardly even speak.
The idea was to put together a book that shows just what the short story can do. Had I chosen thirty-two stories that showcase the exact same methods and make love to the same traditions, that would be too many hammer blows to the face, when a single one will do. Each story here is a different weapon, built to custom specifications. Let’s get bloodied and killed in thirty-two different ways.
Inside this book you’ll find language smooth and seamless, jagged and mean. The kind of language you use and hear every day, and the kind you never thought possible. If these stories were paintings, one might depict the human figure in angry detail while another might puncture the figure until it spills over its frame, leaking color down the wall.
Therefore there are stories of the past. Stories of the future. Stories set in some gummy mixture of the two. Stories rocketing inside a character’s head. Stories casting out into the world. Stories that burn out inside a few seconds. Stories that blanket a lifetime. Stories set here, stories set abroad. Stories set in some unsettling elsewhere. Speaking of which: stories that could happen, stories that couldn’t, stories that did, stories that didn’t. Stories that confirm our beliefs or assault them. Stories that hurt the mind. Stories that ate a poem. Stories that refute the dictionary. Stories pretty, strange, or plain. Stories so monstrously intimate I was often scared to reread them.
What resulted started to feel like a kind of Whole Earth Catalog. Not of things and goods, but of the strategies, in language, to attack our tendency — my own, anyway — to feel too little. I wanted to bring together stories I would not care to live without, a kind of atlas, or chemical pathway, to the sort of language-induced feelings that, to me, are no longer optional. The names of the moods and states and spirits these stories provoke, like the names of animals, or the names of people, are woefully inadequate.
When I could not shake a story, was kept up at night by it, and days or weeks later began to confuse the story with my own life, there was a sign that the story had taken seed. As I read, the stories I sided with were the ones that began to own me. They won’t relax their hold, and the more I read them the more this arrangement seems secure. I kept the stories that won’t unhand me. If I could forget a story then I suppose I did. And yet even then, the stories I forgot formed their own pile, where I revisited them each at least once, believing the defect to be mine.
In my reading I found stories that make us forget our troubles, and stories that rub our faces in them. The first kind of story relieves us of the burden of some basic truths: We are made of flesh, it often hurts to be alive, and we are in a constant state of decay. If we lived in relentless contemplation of these facts, we would burst. Some of us already have. Pleasure arises when we forget our fears. Relief, an illusory break from time. A break from ourselves. Such stories provided entertainment but left no residue. When I examined myself for evidence of them days or weeks later, I could find none. A respite from some basic emotional reality — the central predicament of being a finite, feeling thing — came to seem too much like a vacation I hadn’t earned. And didn’t really want.
A deeper pleasure arguably comes when our fears are admitted, revealed in full color, enlarged and even strengthened, in the world of language. It was this kind of story I favored, a story not in flight from something elemental and inescapable — we are going away soon. Meanwhile, what is worth noticing, what is crucial to feel and think before we do? Why is it pleasurable, deeply so, to read sorrowful, dark, often difficult stories? What need is being satisfied? It’s challenging to answer this without sounding like a glutton for end-times entertainment. When a story achieves a degree of moral honesty, not in its specific plot or its claims, not in its subject matter, necessarily, but in some of its deeper materials, its methods, language, style, and mood, in the emotional space it carves out within us, the result is eerily comforting, like being wrapped in a blanket and hurtled through space. In the end it is far more disturbing when our entertainment denies our fears, our mounting suspicions, estranging us with a version of the world that is too safe and easy to be real. A story seemed to find its place here when it did not look away from what was coming.