IntraView #3: James Marcus

James Marcus-axe grinding

As a professional critic, translator, editor, and author of a published memoir, as well as the proprietor of the popular and well-respected “House of Mirth” literary blog, James Marcus is an amphibian between the sea creatures of so-called lit-blogging and the land mammals of “print”. As the author of Amazonia: Five Years at the Epicenter of the Dot-Com Juggernaut, Marcus collected (as far as I know) an unbroken string of glowing reviews, and remains a book-world figure with few,  if any, detractors. The universal respect that Marcus enjoys is as attributable to his courtly, old world diffidence as it is to the sanity and intelligence of his literary tastes and opinions. Mr. Marcus is currently shopping a manuscript to better agents and publishing houses in the U.S.A. and it’s this novel of his that I wanted to talk about…


SA:  The manuscript of your novel, The Only News I Know, which you were generous enough to let me read last year, opens with this:

“Aside from a faint smell in the air, like a spent bonfire with mysterious chemical overtones–the perfume of things that weren’t meant to burn–and aside from the universal expressions of grief, anxiety, and rage you saw on the faces of the pedestrians, it was a normal day in November.”

As gracefully understated as this first sentence is, it alerts us to the possibility that we’re in the presence of a so-called post-9/11 novel. However, despite the fact that “9/11” as an event influences the tone and sprinkles ashes over the characters and the backdrop, the narrative establishes itself very quickly as the story of a particular marriage at risk, detailing with gentle precision each troubled half of the union between the characters Henry and Deborah. Do you consider TONIK to be a “post-9/11” novel, or is the label problematic for you?

JM: At this point I suppose every novel is a post-9/11 novel. And when I first began this book, back in 2004, I was very interested in conveying that post-9/11 texture of life: continuous fright superimposed on dull, null normalcy. But I wanted to write about a floundering marriage, too. And about movies, children, ambition, science, sex, mosquitoes, death, and so forth. There are certainly a great many historical particulars trapped in the amber of this manuscript, and for the people who relish that stuff, it’s great–like reading Victor Hugo to learn about the sewers of Paris. Bad marriage is more of a timeless subject. So the label doesn’t mean much, is what I’m trying to say, unless it helps to sell the book. It’s a marketing tool more than anything else.

SA: Whether it’s marketed as a “9/11” book or not, I’d say that TONIK more properly belongs in a distinguished line of dysfunctional-marriage novels from the American postwar period.

Bellow, Mailer, Updike, Roth, Burroughs (obliquely) all contributed notably to the genre, which may well have been inaugurated by Paul Bowles’s “The Sheltering Sky”, in which a couple of urbane travellers are destroyed by their cultural hubris and an inability (both between themselves and with the world) to communicate. In most of the examples of the genre I can think of (because most of the ones I’ve read have been written by male authors), the wounded marriage is something for the male protagonist to set himself against; the impediment that the male must overcome in order to become himself.

In TONIK, you treat Deborah’s point of view with much more sympathy than that…I can remember commenting to you when I first read it, in fact, that I thought you were being hard, at times, on Henry. Deborah seems to be the stronger, rounder character with the serious issues (including Henry himself) to overcome on the path to a fuller flowering of her Self, and this strikes me as very unusual in a novel from a male writer. And not a bad thing at all.

Is it a generational shift that accounts for this difference? And did you set out to redress the matter of, say, Philip Roth’s purportedly “cardboard” female characters (even Updike has been accused of being a greater poet of the anatomical female than the psychological version of same)? And does this mean that women can expect better treatment by male novelists in the future? (laugh)

JM: Well, that’s a very nice, very flattering genealogy, which I doubt I can live up to. Off the top of my head, I can hardly think of a single novel about happily married people. I know they must exist–wait, there’s always Wallace Stenger’s Crossing to Safety, where the marital success rate is at least fifty percent–but I suppose writers are drawn to the marathon quality of a bad marriage. It goes on for years, with two inches lost for every one gained, and often the grievances on both sides are completely understandable. Beyond good and evil, in other words: just an epic of low-intensity suffering. (Sometimes high-intensity as well.) 

Anyway, I’m glad that Deborah’s POV is as persuasive as Henry’s. In some sense I was looking to Richard Stern’s wonderful Other Men’s Daughters, where the wife gets much less time in the center ring but is never dismissed as the irrational albatross around the hero’s neck. Her pain is very real, and I wanted Deborah’s to be real as well. I think you’re right, she is more likely to accomplish something with her life than Henry is. He’s most comfortable in a holding pattern. On the other hand, some readers–including my ex-agent–found Deborah almost repellently cold and unfeeling, which still puzzles me. As for my role as a harbinger of the female-friendly male novelist, that’s a very heavy mantle. I’d better shrug it off. 

SA: While your first book, Amazonia, was a memoir, you seem to take great pains to detach TONIK’s Henry from any possibly autobiographical “evidence” (though only a close friend or family member could make that observation with any real confidence, of course). Does it irritate you when readers look for “clues” to your own attitudes or personal details in your fiction? Are novelists justified, do you think, in being, as a whole, touchy about this kind of textual mind-reading?

JM: Since Amazonia was about me, I wanted Henry to be somebody else. Not bookish, not ambitious, not a Jew, not even particularly smart. Of course this is harder to do than it sounds. I’m sure Updike had the same plan in mind when he created Bech–to come up with an anti-Updike of sorts–but all of the cringing anxiety and comical failure seemed to emanate from some strange, compartmentalized pocket of his own personality. It was a brilliant piece of ventriloquism, sure, but nobody really believes it’s the dummy who’s doing the talking. Needless to say, this is an exalted comparison. If any reader wants to look for clues about me in my fiction, I’ll be very flattered. 

SA: But do you feel (more as a critic than a novelist, possibly) that knowing something of the writer’s biography is important to an understanding of the text?

JM: Oh, sure. I love to get the biographical data, than mash it together with the books themselves in a way that would make Cleanth Brooks spin in his grave. But a great text will always survive without the biographical data. Or should, anyway. 

SA: TONIK does not strike me as one of those novels that revealed itself to the writer as the pages accumulated (á la the work of Haruki Murakami or Michael Ondaadtje). Was the book carefully outlined and colorfully storyboarded before you attempted the first page of actual prose? And how painstaking and time-consumptive was the research that went into the impressive job of making Deborah’s job (researcher, ironically) so convincing?

JM: I made a very rough outline of about 20 chapters, then plunged in. Certain things did reveal themselves as I went along–even fundamental facts, like Henry’s stint writing obituaries before he graduated to the Valhalla of film reviewing. But I purposely left the outline rough, not wanting to steamroll any spontaneous impulses along the way. On the other hand, I did tons of reading in order to describe Deborah’s work. I had a head start, because my father does the same sort of research, and I’ve been hearing about thrombosis at the dinner table since I was a kid–in fact, there was even a little professional cenacle called the Clot Club that used to meet at our house. But I did read a bunch of papers and journals and took careful, uncomprehending notes. 

SA: You mention your father doing the same sort of research as Deborah…are there elements of your father in Deborah’s makeup? Or does he make a cameo appearance in Deborah’s lab?

JM: I don’t think Deborah is much like my father, except perhaps in her deep devotion to hematological lock-picking. Nor does he make a cameo appearance in the book. But if it weren’t for my youthful visits to the lab–where my father used to put a penny on a block of dry ice, then tell his children that “Abe Lincoln was talking” when the contracting copper began to squeak–I never would have written about this material. Deborah is less like him, more like me. Or as Italo Svevo once put it: the book “is an autobiography, but not my own.”

SA: There’s evidence in Amazonia and TONIK both that you’ve mastered a personable voice that’s lightly weighted with book-soaked erudition; equal parts wide-eyed compassion and world-weary grief. It’s a curiously post-American melange…is this down to being a New Yorker, or has your work as a translator of Italian texts influenced your sensibility as an English-language author? Or did the sensibility precede (and lead to) the Italian?

JM: I’ve always read lots of non-American books, and maybe being a New Yorker makes you less parochial (although many people would argue exactly the opposite.) It’s also true that Italians almost never sound American. I never really thought about this before, but writers like Primo Levi or Leonardo Sciascia or Natalia Ginzburg have a sort of classic reticence, a long view of things, that we itchier Americans tend not to cultivate. So maybe the time I’ve spent in their company has had some effect on me. Or maybe I’m just the way I am. Like, you know, Popeye. 

SA: I was extremely moved reading this passage:

It was an education, living with another person. She had never done it before. There were a million lessons to be learned. Some were purely physical. Deborah adored the way Henry puffed out his cheeks when he shaved, she adored the French curve of his collarbone and his nervous, articulated laughter: ha ha ha, like a cartoon character. He had pink earlobes, a flat belly, a stealth cowlick that appeared only during the week after he got a haircut. His breath smelled like cold milk. She observed these traits, catalogued them in her head. Love made you into a connoisseur of the details, the freakish facts, a Darwin in the Galápagos, where everything was so new and beautiful and singular. No two lovers were exactly alike. There was only one Henry in the world-when he died, he would be as extinct as the Great Auk-and he was hers.

Can you remember writing it? How long did you work on it? Can you run us through the composition of it (any sentences you chopped out or worried over; nouns you replaced, and so forth), if it didn’t come out in one miraculous blurt?

JM:  I wish I could be more helpful here. I’m very glad you were moved by that paragraph, or by any paragraph in the book. I’m sure I wrote it here, in my disheveled office, and that only thing I can say is that in scanning it, the really important words or phrases just pop right out: education, French curve, articulated, stealth, cold milk, connoisseur, Galapagos, singular, lovers, extinct, Great Auk, hers. The rest is–I was was going to say window dressing, but that’s not right–the rest is there to aid and abet.  

SA: Your first book, “Amazonia: Five Years at the Epicenter of the Dot-Com Juggernaut” was a well-received memoir. Was the process of writing and shopping a novel after that success a matter of building on fresh experience and continuing with the momentum, or was it a matter of starting from “square one”? Is every book a case of learning to walk again? Are you exhausted or invigorated by the nuts and bolts realities of bringing a book from the imagination to its spot on commercial shelf space?

JM: To my surprise, the process of writing a novel didn’t feel all that different. Maybe that’s because Amazonia was a very novelistic piece of nonfiction–I almost thought of subtitling it A Novel With Facts. Of course having one published book under my belt gave me extra confidence when it came to embarking on a second one. But shopping a novel has been a very different, somewhat dispiriting process. At the moment, literary fiction is not regarded as commercial dynamite: quite the opposite. So the quiet charms of this current book have yet to work their voodoo on the right editor.  I’m streamlining the manuscript, cutting to the chase a little faster, and I think that will help. I’m sure the book will be published. But it’s been a bumpier road than I anticipated.

SA: Are there special writers (or specific books) that sparked your earliest dreams of being a writer? If so, are there any you loved in those formative years which continue to inspire, instruct and amaze you?

JM: Just the usual stuff: Johnny Tremain, Beckett, J.F. Powers, the Rabbit books, Flaubert, The Dream Songs, Jane Smiley’s Ordinary Love & Good Will, everything by Flann O’Brien, Nabokov (always with a grain of salt), Tristram Shandy, Primo Levi, everything by Penelope Fitzgerald, Yeats, the two Roths (Joseph and Philip), Ian Frazier, Janet Malcolm, Mandelstam, Dickens, Rilke, Albert Murray, Aldo Buzzi, everything by Redmond O’Hanlon, Emerson, Whitman, Edith Wharton, and the late, great Eric Newby. Those are the things I take down and reread bits of. My earliest fixation was science fiction, and I’m sure the urbane ghost of Robert Heinlein hovers over everything word I write. Why hasn’t anybody made a movie of Stranger In A Strange Land?    

SA: Can you recall for us your best or most memorable moment as a professional writer? 

JM: Finishing a book, any book, is a highly memorable moment. I wrote the last paragraph of this novel at the Mercantile Library on 47th Street, tearing up with relief and gratitude. Getting to the end is a triumph. The other triumph (for me, anyway) is connecting the book with the outside world. That’s part of why I always love readings: for a moment the book comes out of solitary confinement and has a public life. (The other reason I love readings is that I desperately crave attention. Hence my chosen career.)