marcus

Ben Marcus

Acclaimed Novelist

Readings & Lecture Topics

  • The Future of the Short Story


“Ben Marcus is the rarest kind of writer: a necessary one. It’s become impossible to imagine the literary world-the world itself-without his daring, mind-bending and heartbreaking writing.” -Jonathan Safran Foer

“Marcus is a writer of prodigious talent”-NY Times Book Review

One of the rising stars of American letters, Ben Marcus has become known for his wildly imaginative, often experimental, and deeply psychological novels and short stories. His highly lauded 2012 novel The Flame Alphabet (Knopf, 2012), which Portland Press Herald called “lavishly written and haunting to behold,”follows the lives of Sam and Claire as they try to escape from a world in which children’s speech-even that of their own loving daughter-has become lethal. His second novel, Notable American Women, is told primarily by a narrator who shares the author’s name, and whose father asks “How can one word from Ben Marcus’s rotten, filthy heart be trusted?”His first collection of stories, Leaving the Sea, was released by Knopf in 2014.

Marcus’ writing has been widely acclaimed by critics and writers alike-he’s the recipient of three Pushcart Prizes, a Whiting Writers Award, a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Morton Dauwen Zabel Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He was also awarded a fiction fellowship from Brown University, where he taught for several years before joining the faculty at Columbia, where he currently teaches. His stories and essays have appeared in Harper’s, the New Yorker, the Paris Review, the Believer, the New York Times, Salon, McSweeney’s, the Village Voice, BOMB, Poetry, and Time Magazine. He is the editor of the Anchor Book of New American Short Stories, and for several years was the fiction editor of Fence.


Ben Marcus is the author of The Flame AlphabetNotable American Women, and, most recently, Leaving the Sea. His stories and essays have appeared in Harper’s, the New Yorker, the Paris Review, the Believer, the New York Times, Salon, McSweeney’s, the Village Voice, BOMB, Poetry, and Time Magazine. He is the recipient of three Pushcart Prizes, a Whiting Writers Award, a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Morton Dauwen Zabel Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.


LEAVING THE SEA (Stories, 2014)
From one of the most innovative and vital writers of his generation, an extraordinary collection of stories that showcases his gifts-and his range-as never before. In the title story, told in a single breathtaking sentence, we watch as the narrator’s marriage and his sanity unravel, drawing him to the brink of suicide. As the collection progresses, we move from more traditional narratives into the experimental work that has made Ben Marcus a groundbreaking master of the short form. In these otherworldly landscapes, characters resort to extreme survival strategies to navigate the terrors of adulthood. In these piercing, brilliantly observed investigations into human vulnerability and failure, it is often the most absurd and alien predicaments that capture the deepest truths. Surreal and tender, terrifying and life-affirming, Leaving the Sea is the work of an utterly unique writer at the height of his powers.

THE FLAME ALPHABET (Novel, 2012)

“To people who just want to read a good yarn and who think Ben Marcus is too weird for them, I’d say: Think again . . . The novel can operate on multiple registers: as metaphor, sociology, conventional thriller, and, at bottom, discourse on parenthood and family that is freakishly sad and incredibly good.”
 -Book Forum

In The Flame Alphabet, the most maniacally gifted writer of our generation delivers a work of heartbreak and horror, a novel about how far we will go, and the sorrows we will endure, in order to protect our families. A terrible epidemic has struck the country and the sound of children’s speech has become lethal. Radio transmissions from strange sources indicate that people are going into hiding. All Sam and Claire need to do is look around the neighborhood: In the park, parents wither beneath the powerful screams of their children. With Claire nearing collapse, it seems their only means of survival is to flee from their daughter, Esther, who laughs at her parents’ sickness, unaware that in just a few years she, too, will be susceptible to the language toxicity. But Sam and Claire find it isn’t so easy to leave the daughter they still love, even as they waste away from her malevolent speech. On the eve of their departure, Claire mysteriously disappears; and Sam, determined to find a cure for this new toxic language, presses on alone into a world beyond recognition.


WATCHING MYSTERIES WITH MY MOTHER (excerpt)

When I think of her sometimes forgetting her medicine, forgetting to eat much more than a rice cake, neglecting to drink water, I must wonder if my mother could live longer if only she tried. Servants in the kitchen, especially the daftest ones who appear idiotic in the first act, end up being the most devious. Look out for the stupid ones, my mother will shout, whenever we watch a mystery. She wags a finger at me and smiles. I try to get her to drink water and she says the water tastes awful. She feels she’s drinking water that someone soaked their teeth in, even if I have only just drawn the water from the tap. It tastes like a stranger’s mouth, she’ll yell. As if the water would be acceptable if only it tasted like the mouth of someone she knew.