Cold Little Bird

A short story, published in The New Yorker, on October 19, 2015

“This happened. Kids tested their attachments. They tried to push you away to see just how much it would take to really lose you. As a parent, you took the blow, even sharpened the knife yourself before handing it to the little fiends, who stepped right up and plunged. Or so Martin had heard.”

Read the story at The New Yorker.


The Grow-Light Blues

A short story, published in The New Yorker on June 8, 2015.

“Tonight’s party was in one of those long, skinny city apartments you’re supposed to verbally fellate with praise. It was like walking into a tiny, dismal doghouse, a real doghouse, and then kissing the furred ass of the dog who lived there, who was super annoyed to have you clogging up his tiny room. You were allowed to stay as long as you kept using your tongue.”

Read the story at The New Yorker.

The Grow-Light Blues

The Dark Arts

A short story, published in The New Yorker on May 20, 2013.

“It was meant to be a romantic medical-tourist getaway, a young invalid and his lady friend sampling the experimental medicine of the Rhine. But they’d fought in France, and he’d come to Düsseldorf ahead of her. Now he waited not so hopefully, not so patiently—dragging himself between the hostel, the train station, and the Internet café, checking vainly for messages from Hayley—while seeking treatment at the clinic up on the hill.”

Read the whole story at The New Yorker.

The Dark Arts



Notes from the Hospital

“In the year of I Can’t Breathe, a hospital occurred on Randall’s Island. The building was fashioned, rather quaintly, of matter. Bricks, windows, smoke. The occasional human being stained the site, summoned from the holding pen. The hospital used flesh tradi- tionally — draped over the anguished little need machines we call people. Space was pushed through rooms, to keep them from collapsing, or so it seemed. In truth, no one understood how such a spectacle could remain stable. Religion and science broadcast a distant wisdom, no different from birdcalls, and actual birds policed a space the size of the whole world.”

Download the entire story:

Notes from the Hospital

Dear David Markson

[Note: Twelve years ago, Albert Mobilio of Bookforum asked me to interview David Markson.  These are the questions I sent. Unfortunately the interview was never completed.]


David Markson


Dear David Markson,

Thanks for taking the time to respond to these questions.  If any seem uninteresting to you, please disregard them and I’ll send others.   As you can see from recent issues of Bookforum, the interviews are published in a straight Q&A format, with a short introductory paragraph.  I am a serious admirer of your work—I think it is brave, devastating, and original.  This is what I will try to communicate in my short intro and questions.  I hope that we can construct an interesting conversation together.  If you need to call me, please try xxx-xxx-xxxx.


Ben Marcus


There’s an intriguing shift from Wittgenstein’s Mistress to Reader’s Block.  Reader’s Block contains almost no setting, and no real time-based narrative.  In one sense, this might be described as a shift from dramatization to exposition, which is curious, because in some low-lying writing cultures, exposition is supposedly deadly, inert territory.  Yet you have replaced scenes—the typical currency of fiction—w/ anecdotes of historical facts, and you’ve stopped vying for verisimiltude, in the conventional sense.  Exposition has become the means for a new kind of drama.  How did this become appealing to you as a form for fiction?


During the heyday of metafiction in the sixties, writers like Barth and Coover were practicing a craft-conscious form of narrative, drawing our attention to the way the piece of fiction was made.  Thirty years later, in Reader’s Block and This is Not a Novel, and now in Vanishing Point, you seem to have done something entirely new with what was once known as metafiction, which had long since been abandoned by writers who found it too cerebral and dry, limited in emotional range.  How is that, for you, a self-conscious literary mode seemed the best way to yield so devastating a result?  Metafiction would have seemed like one of the least likely places to encounter such an emotional book.


What are the interesting problems that occur for you while writing a novel?


Does the word experimental mean anything to you?  How do you locate yourself in the contemporary fiction culture?  Is originality something you value and consciously pursue?  And, if so, what are the risks for you?


The title of your book, Reader’s Block, draws attention to the fact that a reader can fail at something too.  The book evokes something not so frequently discussed: readerly ability, willingness, motivation.  While it would seem dangerous to become nostalgic for a time when reading was a skill and not just the opening of a slack orifice, it does create a challenge for an artist who happens to work with language.  Is being demanding a function, or a necessary result, of writing artistically?  If the actual ability to read and decipher a sentence is diminishing, does that concern you as a writer?  And do you have a particular relationship, at least in theory, to readers?


In This is Not a Novel, do you believe the claim of your title?  Are you proposing a new genre of fiction, or are you more interested in the irony, the way a potent fiction can be concealed in something we might otherwise view as fact-based?


Vanishing Point takes the expository, informational urge further than any of your previous books.  It is almost entirely an assemblage of historical facts, lyricised into chilling, miniature statistics.  Does this approach, as a compositional strategy, present any problems for you?  I was wondering how you construed momentum, a traditional, valued attribute of the novel.  You nevertheless achieve a tremendous, almost crushing feeling of closure.  How have you conceived the order of your material, and when is it that you are finished?


Vanishing Point has almost entirely escaped its metafictional context, exemplified by references to a character called Author, who is writing a book.  Could a novel work for you that is purely a collection of stylized historical anecdotes?  How crucial to you are the references to Author?

9.  Could you discuss how you use grammar to turn simple facts into loaded elements of your novels.  It strikes me that, through style, you find the dramatic core of a statement that, if phrased differently, might seem compeletly intert.

Watching Mysteries with My Mother

This is the first Single Sentence Animation from Recommended Reading, Electric Literature’s new weekly fiction magazine.

Edwin Rostron animates a sentence from “Watching Mysteries With My Mother” by Ben Marcus. Music by Supreme Vagabond Craftsman.

The sentence: “We speak of having one foot in the grave, but we do not speak of having both feet and both legs and then one’s entire torso, arms, and head in the grave, inside a coffin, which is covered in dirt, upon which is planted a pretty little stone.”

Single Sentence Animations are creative collaborations. The writer selects a favorite sentence from his or her work and the animator creates a short film in response.

The Flame Alphabet Book Tour

Ben Marcus


April 18
Ithaca College, 7:30 p.m.
Clark Lounge, Campus Center
Ithaca, NY 14850
Map (Campus Center)


May 16
Lannan Foundation, at Lensic Performing Arts Center, 7:00 p.m.
Interviewing Lydia Davis
Lensic Performing Arts Center
211 W. San Francisco St.
Santa Fe, NM 87501





Jan 12
KGB Bar, 7:00 p.m.
with Jim Shepard & Ben Lerner
85 East 4th Street (Between 2nd & 3rd Aves.)

New York, NY 10003


Jan 17
Philadelphia Free Library, 7:30 p.m.
with Shalom Auslander
1901 Vine Street
Philadelphia, PA 19103


Jan 19
BookCourt (The Flame Alphabet Release Party), 7:00 p.m.
163 Court Street (Between Dean & Pacific St.)
Brooklyn, NY 11201


Jan 23
McNally Jackson, 7:00 p.m.
with John Freeman, of Granta
52 Prince Street (between Lafayette & Mulberry)
New York, NY 10012


Jan 24
BookPeople, 7:00 p.m.
603 North Lamar Blvd.
Austin, TX 78703


Jan 25
Tattered Cover, 7:30 p.m.
2526 East Colfax Avenue
Denver, CO 80206


Jan 26
University Bookstore, 7:00 p.m.
2322 2nd Avenue
Seattle, WA 98121


Jan 27
Powell’s Books, 7:30 p.m.
1005 West Burnside Street
Portland, OR 97209


Jan 31
City Lights, 7:00 p.m.
261 Columbus Avenue
San Francisco, CA 94133


Feb 1
Hammer Museum, 7:00 p.m.
with Samantha Hunt
10899 Wilshire Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90024


Feb 2
Skylight Books, 7:30 p.m.
1818 Vermont Avenue
Los Angeles, CA 90027


Feb 7
The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, 6:00 p.m.
with Sam Lipsyte
37 S. Wabash Ave., Suite 1220
Chicago, IL 60603


Feb 9
Prairie Lights Books, 7:00 p.m.
Co-sponsored by the Writer’s Workshop
15 S. Dubuque St.
Iowa City, IA 52240


Feb 13
Franklin Park Bar & Beer Garden, 8:00 p.m.
Franklin Park Reading Series
618 St. Johns Place (Between Franklin & Classon Aves.)
Brooklyn, NY 11238


Feb 16
The Sky Room at the New Museum, 6:30 p.m.
Bookforum Reading
The New Museum
235 Bowery (Between Prince & Stanton)
New York, NY 10002


Feb 21
The College of New Jersey, 4:00 p.m.
2000 Pennington Road
Ewing, NJ 08628


Feb 26

JCC of San Francisco, 1 p.m.
Jewish BookFest Panel with Adam Levin (Hot Pink), moderated by Dan Schifrin of the Contemporary Jewish Museum
3200 California Street
San Francisco, CA 94118


March 1
Brown University, 2:30 p.m.
McCormack Family Theater
70 Brown St.
Providence, RI 02912


March 4

Museum of Jewish Heritage, 2:30 p.m.
In conversation with Joshua Cohen
36 Battery Place
New York, NY 10004


March 8
St. Francis College, 4:30 p.m.
Maroney Theater
180 Remsen Street (Between Clinton and Court St.)
Brooklyn, NY 11201


March 12
Housing Works, 7:00 p.m.
With Diane Williams and Deb Olin Unferth
126 Crosby Street
New York, NY


March 19
Greenlight Bookstore7:30 pm
In conversation with Ryan Britt
686 Fulton Street
Brooklyn, New York 11217


March 21
Syracuse University, 5:30 p.m.
Huntington Beard Crouse Hall, Gifford Auditorium
Syracuse, NY 13244


March 27
Spoken Interludes, at Riverview, 7:30 p.m.
One Warburton Avenue
Hastings-on-Hudson, NY 10706

The Flame Alphabet

Published by Knopf on January 17, 2012.

Pre-order here:
AmazonBarnes & NobleiBookstoreIndieBoundMcNally JacksonPowell’s

Early comments:

“Language kills in Marcus’s audacious new work of fiction, a richly allusive look at a world transformed by a new form of illness . . . Biblical in its Old Testament sense of wrath, Marcus’s novel twists America’s quotidian existence into something recognizable yet wholly alien to our experience.”
Publishers Weekly (Starred review and Pick of the week)

“Echoes of Ballard’s insanely sane narrators, echoes of Kafka’s terrible gift for metaphor, echoes of David Lynch, William Burroughs, Robert Walser, Bruno Schulz and Mary Shelley: a world of echoes and re-echoes—I mean ourworld—out of which the sanely insane genius of Ben Marcus somehow manages to wrest something new and unheard of.  And yet as I read The Flame Alphabet, late into the night, feverishly turning the pages, I felt myself, increasingly, in the presence of the classic.”
—Michael Chabon

The Flame Alphabet drags the contemporary novel—kicking, screaming, and foaming at the mouth—back towards the track it should be following. Ben Marcus makes language as toxic as it is seductive— a virus that comes from  much closer to home than we suspected.”
—Tom McCarthy

“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

KGBPhiladelphiaBook CourtMcNally JacksonAustin,DenverSeattlePortlandSan FranciscoLos Angeles – UCLA HammerLos Angeles – SkylightChicago, Iowa, Syracuse,Ithaca… Complete List of Events


The Father Costume


from p. 48

“It was a small night.  Many people must have died for lack of space.  The weather was tuned to a shrink setting.  The air was swollen.  Beneath us, the waves slapped at the hull in a plain, repetitive code.  If I tried, I could just make out small, sharp words in the code, English words as if formed by a man with a beak for a mouth, singing through a cotton screen.  He was another man I didn’t want to know.  I found it was better not to listen.  They were not words I very much cared to hear.  But as I slid around inside my oversized costume, the world grew quiet again and soon I could sleep, a darkness over my body as thick and final as one of the very first wools.”


The Father Costume was published by Artspace Books with images by Matthew Ritchie.  Here is a recent review.




Advice from Pooh Corner


Deleted from an early draft of The Flame Alphabet.


In bed that night we came as close as we ever had to discussing what we’d heard from Rabbi Burke.  Claire was quiet, directing her energy on getting me to speak first.  I waited her out.  The illness had gifted me with unrivalled patience.  Being patient was just a matter of not caring, and not caring could possibly be connected to something medical.  Symptoms so broad and diffuse encouraged the justification of any behavior.  Anything Claire wanted to say to me she could say without an invitation or outright courtship.  I wasn’t going to beg to hear more of our sorrow.  Or maybe I was, but not so easily.

I leaned over to flip out the light and the darkness felt exquisite on my face.  This was perhaps the most unrivalled moment in all of family life, the switching off of the bedroom lamp.  All obligation ceases.  Hiding, if one so desires, becomes suddenly possible for the first time all day.

The chief virtue of darkness is that people tend to leave you alone.  You can finally go unnoticed.

Beside me Claire huffed, and I rolled over, assumed the pose.

“You’re just going to go to sleep?” she finally said.

“No, of course not,” I said.

I wanted to sound kind, but apparently I did not want it badly enough, so I spelled it out for her, whispering from my side of the bed.

“First I’m going to wait here for you to dump your misery on me, which will no doubt place some kind of blame at my feet, and then I’m going to have trouble falling asleep because I feel a little more like shit than I did before this conversation started.”

She took the upper hand.  “Don’t blame me for how you feel.”

“Ok.  Thanks for the guidance.  Any more advice from Pooh Corner?”

“Yeah, actually,” Claire said.  “Don’t be the asshole who’s already decided on this,” Claire said.

“Ok.  Thanks for the warning.  Consider me hugely undecided.  For all time and forever.”