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Find more Works in Progress
“You don’t want to keep repeating yourself,” urges James Marcus on a rainy morning in New York City. He strokes Al, his caterwauling pet. Soon, another howl rings out. “Certainly, I admire many writers who do not repeat themselves,” mumbles Marcus, dolefully regarding his pet. A critic, translator, and memoirist who put Al the cat into his most recent book, Marcus has lately chosen something unredundantly new to write: his maiden novel.
It’s not just any first, but what he calls a “post-9/11 comedy,” which begins with a glimpse of the actor Eddie Murphy, now hugely bulging, somehow triumphing in a sumo-wrestling bout. Yet the path of Marcus while writing was, in his own understatement, “circuitous.” Other understatements also butter his talk. It is apparent that reasonable doubt is a friend of Marcus.
“To be writing your first novel in your late forties is interesting,” he ventures cautiously. “It’s not that I feel like I’m an old man. But I really thought I would be publishing my first novel in my late twenties. I started off wanting to be a fiction writer. So it does pose some interesting questions. ”
Such as, what happened? After receiving an MFA degree in fiction writing some years ago from Columbia University, Marcus continued to write long fiction but also “took a long detour. I wanted to write and be published. And writing nonfiction, in the form of book reviews, for starters, was a much easier route, you know?” His reviews have appeared almost everywhere a review could appear. Last year, he penned a Los Angeles Times column dedicated to rating first novels, meanwhile writing his own. Marcus may have composed less fiction than some novelists, yet he has probably read more novels than most of them.
An especially intense rush of reading overtook him in Seattle, where in 1996 he was hired as a senior editor by Amazon to write and edit online book reviews and related features. He stayed long enough to leave heartened by hefty stock options—“At the peak of the frenzy, my remaining options were worth nine million dollars,” he wrote—but for too long to quit filthy rich: “I continued to wear my underwear with the holes in it, not wanting to identify with the ruling class even on my way to the shower.” More to the point for a writer, Marcus left with a story to tell: the contemporary American epic of online merchandising. In Amazonia: Five Years at the Epicenter of the Dot.com Juggernaut (2004), he told it.
Even so, “My first intention, after I got out of Amazon, was to write a novel” and not a memoir, Marcus says. “But I realized that if I wanted to write a book about my experiences at Amazon, then sooner would be better because I would start forgetting everything.” Rather as a novelist might, in his memoir he handed us a narrator who was different in kind from his old self as a critic. How to describe this new one? As a gallant yet rueful guy of letters, besieged by joyous corporate opportunism. Or: as a man almost ruined, humorously, by mammon. For some who read Amazonia, the ambivalent handshake of that narrator seemed to bode well for once and future storytelling.
To Marcus, it all seemed somewhat less self-evident. In Seattle, his marriage had begun to end, and he’d returned to his native New York in time to experience 9/11 as a midtowner might, both removed from and connected to the action: with a suspension of disbelief that kept on receiving painfully salutary aftershocks. “What I was drawn to was the sense in which, within a few months, there was this enormous wish to have routine reassert itself, and to feel like we were back to ‘normal’—and yet, at the same time, a feeling that we were not. And it was that simultaneous and contradictory set of feelings that I thought was so weird and powerful, and wanted to convey,” Marcus says. “A lot of my novel is funny because this incessant yearning to have things be routine again is the gravitational tug of trivia in life. Which is,” as he notes, “intrinsically comic. It’s also intrinsically sad, because you want so much for things to be normal again, and you want so much to be back in the rut that you might have been impatient with, before: you know, drinking your same cup of coffee every day, going to your same stupid job.”
His novel, like his memoir, “captures the texture and the feeling of a particular historical moment.” But the moment of the novel is strikingly different. The Only News I Know chronicles the fortunes and misfortunes of hack film critic Henry in the year and a half after 9/11. As his marriage with Deborah falls apart, Henry decides to escape his professional and personal cul de sac in NYC by going to cover the war in Iraq. Told from a point of view that alternates, hovering over wife, then husband, then wife, et cetera, the book follows her into a breakdown and back before reaching what Marcus calls, surprisingly untentatively, “a happy ending.”
He began writing the novel “before the slew of 9/11 books. Now a lot of 9/11 novels have come out. I haven’t read any of them because, of course, the last thing I wanted to read was somebody else’s 9/11 novel!” he laughs. His own does not yet have a publisher; he’s planning to trim the manuscript’s 20 chapters by about 10 percent.
He’s also considering what new project to take on. “On the heels of my memoir, writing a book of fiction seemed like a liberating opportunity not to be constrained by the facts. So,” he says with a smile, “I’m probably ready to write another nonfiction book.”
But, regardless, Marcus knows one thing. “The novel I’ve finished now is much better than anything I could have written 20 years ago. That’s one compensation of waiting a long time: you’re smarter and have a richer sense of life than when you were 25.” Pause. “I hope.”
Molly McQuade writes “Works in Progress” and “Outgoing Mail” for Booklist.
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