For a chat between authors Joshua Cohen and Ben Marcus on the subject of dystopian fiction, we could ask for no more apt backdrop than yesterday’s overcast afternoon, cast against the astral Museum of Jewish Heritage’s panoramic window overlooking New York Harbor. Behind Marcus and Cohen, black helicopters raced laps around floppy hunchbacked seagulls. From this vantage point Ellis Island looked like what Cohen portrays it as in his eight hundred plus page colossus Witz: a dank and dim Guantanamo imprisoning the world’s last remaining Jews – all first born sons – after a mysterious plague. In turn, Marcus’ latest, The Flame Alphabet, is a surreal yarn about a family trying to deal in a world in which the words of children – be they whispered, muttered, uttered, or yelled – have become literally sickening and finally fatal to the adults who hear them. From the moment the book’s protagonist packs “anti-comprehension pills” for a car ride with his daughter, we know we’re in the territory of toxicity and communication breakdown no better charted since DeLillo’s White Noise.
At the session’s introduction the two authors, joined onstage by affable moderator Gabriel Sanders, looked bashful or even scolded, their eyes slung low and shoes shifting against the carpet. Despite being longtime admirers of one another, this was the time Cohen and Marcus had ever met in person. Marcus informed me afterwards that he first encountered his cohort by reading an interview in which Cohen named certain friends of Marcus’ and decreed that he wanted to have sex with their wives.
Heavy is the head that wears the crown, and one would be hard pressed to name two better spokespeople for experimental fiction. Upon hearing Marcus and Cohen speak, it’s clear that they are staggeringly – almost intimidatingly – well read, with heavyweight vocabularies and references that they unleash with velocity, carving the heartiest meat off the topic at hand. On the subject of dystopic fiction, Marcus kicked things off by saying that “the term dystopia might mean more to readers than writers… I’ve started to wonder what books are not dystopic, which ones don’t have a negative view of where we might be heading. Cynically, there seems no market for happy novels, and I’m interested in why we’re attracted to these nightmare stories.”
It was not long after that Cohen made perhaps the day’s most astute point: “Our lives have become the happy endings: we exorcise our guilt about living happy lives by reading unhappy novels.” Such insights are why Cohen, in addition to offering fine fiction, is currently one of America’s best book critics. Both authors ably distinguished themselves from a prevailing wisdom of fiction as tailored clothing that readers try on so as to live briefly in an idealized world. It was Cohen again who noted that the Greek origin of the word “utopia” translates to “no place”.
Marcus at one point brought up Kafka in contrast to the “happy” stylings of Calvino, and I’m reminded now of Kafka’s idea that we need are books that hit us like a most painful misfortune, like the death of someone we loved more than we love ourselves, that make us feel as though we had been banished to the woods… a book must be the ax for the frozen sea within us.” Yet Cohen and Marcus, like Kafka before them, candidly wish to be read by a wide audience despite their challenging prose. Witz and The Flame Alphabet united remind us that in the pursuit of consumer confidence and the twenty-two minute sitcom as cultural conscience, we can still afford to be obtuse if it means we are invigorating. Or, to be sound byte ready for when the revolution comes: saturnine is sexy again.