NEENER, NEENER — Ben Marcus’ The Flame Alphabet at BookCourt
If you enjoy reading Electric Literature, join our mailing list! We’ll send you the best of EL each week, and you’ll be the first to know about upcoming submissions periods and virtual events.
1. The cheery cover art for Ben Marcus’ “lighthearted comedy.” 2. Sam Margevicius, a photographer, was more interested in looking at that dope David Lynch book than at me. I don’t blame him.
What I love most about BookCourt in Cobble Hill, besides it being one of the best all-around bookstores in Brooklyn, is its interior design — the open backroom is expansive enough to hold a large crowd, yet it retains the intimacy of a much smaller room, which doubly renders any reading more penetrating and effective. So as I’m on my way to see Ben Marcus read from his new novel, The Flame Alphabet, having only read interviews with him discussing poisonous language from the mouths of adorable children, I’m getting really excited to go in totally blind and hear him read.
1. The author, Ben Marcus, doin’ his thang. 2. Valerie Lockhart, Events Manager at Brooklyn Bowl and bookseller at BookCourt, with Maryam “Squeaks” Gunja, BookCourt manager, humoring me.
Last night, after the reading, I watched the latest episode of Modern Family. One of the sub-plots of the episode is Lily’s (daughter of Cam and Mitch) affinity for a certain curse word (it starts with “F,” and it isn’t fart). This word crops up at a wedding and the whole wedding audience cracks at the seams with laughter, poisoned by Lily’s unfairly adorable and innocent delivery. This is the basic conceit of The Flame Alphabet — children’s words are literally killing parents, though not with laughter. Adults’ odors are putrid. Fluids are leaking down legs at coughs. Basic behaviors — walking, breathing, blinking — become labored work. Doctors can’t diagnose it. And as Ben Marcus read, “none of the children fell to the plague.” Shit.
During his introduction, Ben Marcus let us know he was happy to be reading to us at BookCourt, before he had to “read to strangers and people I don’t like.” He briefly spoke about the genesis of the book: he was seduced by the idea of someone becoming incapacitated by language. As a writer he was immediately frightened by this, and had to chase it and find out what happens. Things become more complicated when the diseased are parents, those adults who are “genetically programmed to jump in front of a bus” for their kids. Things got heavy and serious right away.
Five minutes deep, and I noticed was how quiet the crowd was: I mean, it was silent. No ruffling pants of legs crossing, no throat clearing, no arm crossing. The most astounding was the lack of sniffles, which was half of the ambient pre-reading soundtrack amidst the din of myriad crowd conversations. That means people let it drip while Marcus read, and for good reason. Marcus’ voice is that rare combination of pleasing shrillness and woolly undertone, the aural equivalent of a much-loved itchy sweater. His delivery was equal parts piercing and inviting. The crowd hung at every sentence detailing the extent of a daughter’s toxic words, at one parent’s debilitation and requisite rumination on the proper remedy. Marcus, too, was equally absorbed. He wasn’t merely reading, he was inhabiting the space of the book. He only looked up as if to make sure he hadn’t teleported out of the room.
The Q&A was short and sweet, but the first and stand out question touched on the dynamic of mediation. If the language is toxic in the mouths of children and once infected, in the mouths of adults, how is the reader supposed to feel? Sick? Marcus joked, “I hope so,” and returned to what he touched on during the introduction. Not only does one lose the tether to language, but through that s/he loses the tether to the child. The linguistic absence highlights the reciprocity between communication and relationships. Before things got too serious, Marcus quipped, “Don’t have kids. They can’t break up with you, and you can’t break up with them.”
Ben Marcus is a fantastic reader and is not one to miss behind a mic. The evening was nothing less than infectious. You can catch him in conversation with John Freeman on Monday, 1/23, at McNally Jackson’s downstairs room at 7pm.
by Ben Marcus