Our First, and Only, Book Trailer Review
With Sephora Markson Hartz and Jesse Tisch
Editors Sephora Markson Hartz and Jesse Tisch discuss important and trivial Jewish topics.
Jesse Tisch: Let’s face it: book reviews are a dime-a-dozen. But who out there is reviewing trailers for books? Hmmm?
Answer: we are. Today we inaugurate, and then conclude, our series of book trailer reviews. And we start with the trailer for Ben Marcus’s new novel, The Flame Alphabet. So tell me, Seph: What did you think?
Sephora Markson Hartz: Wait, does that mean this is our only one? Or that you were so dismayed by how incoherent and weird this trailer was that you are absolutely turned off from ever doing another review again? Because as I watched it, my question was: Isn’t the trailer supposed to say something about the book? If this one did, I had a hard time finding the message.
JT: In my notes, I wrote the words “animated,” “dear god,” and “like something out of an epidemiologist’s nightmare.” But “incoherent” is a bit harsh. “Weird”? Certainly.
SMH: Now I’m saying “dear god,” and it’s because we finally agree on something! Incredible!
JT: I should stipulate that I’m not anti- book trailers. First, they’re practically de rigueur nowadays. And I thought the trailer for Gary Shteyngart’s latest book was hilarious. In one scene, he addresses his MFA class at Columbia, telling them about how to behave at a Paris Review party.
SMH: Yeah, but Gary Shteyngart’s trailer for Super Sad True Love Story actually made the book — and its author — seem clever and funny. The trailer for Ben Marcus’s book makes me want to do one of two things: run, or slit my wrists.
JT: Funny, I jotted words “morbid fantasia” in my notes. Why don’t you summarize the plot, insofar as it exists.
SMH: Well, I admit there’s a bit of speculation going on here, because even though I read the book, that wasn’t much better. Here’s my best shot: A disease, or virus, is afflicting Jewish parents. That’s right. Jewish parents seem to be getting some kind of comeuppance, and the expert conclusion is that the virus is spawned by their children’s speech.
JT: Doesn’t that violate one of the commandments?
SMH: I think that may be part of the point. The book is utterly transgressive, from Marcus’s experimental language, to the subject itself. I mean, the book begins with the its main protagonists — a mother and father — abandoning their daughter — and feeling a sense of relief, a sense of hope. Doesn’t that violate some essential tenet of parenthood? To cherish, love, and protect one’s children?
JT: As a single person, I can only venture a guess: No. But then again, two of my favorite authors —Geoff Dyer and Lucy Ellmann —both defend childlessness. It’s not a popular cause. But just think of all the books those two brilliant Brits wouldn’t have had the time to write if they’d been busy raising children.
SMH: Well, I don’t think Marcus is making an argument for abandoning parenthood altogether. In fact, in an interview with Harper’s he said just the opposite: That the book was written this way precisely because, as a father of three, he can’t ever imagine cherishing anyone more than he does his kids. And that’s why he had to make kids evil in this book —as a challenge.
JT: Some writers set deadlines. Some have words counts.
SMH: Ben Marcus challenges himself by imagining the things he finds most disturbing.
JT: And how does he pull that off in the book? Did you have the same reaction to the novel as you did to the trailer?
SMH: Not exactly. In the book, the horrors are more staggered, and so not as nightmarish.
JT: So the trailer is just a very compressed version of the book. Like a haiku.
SMH: A haiku of horrors, yes.
JT: So shall we conclude? Any last thoughts on the book’s verbal tricks (Marcus is known for doing trippy, inventive things with language).
SMH: Yes, he is, isn’t he? And trippy would be the word to describe his writing — usually. For this one, though, he seemed to take a slightly different approach. The writing itself was more or less straightforward. If the book is “trippy,” it’s got more to do with the outlandishness of its plot. It really is just like something you’d imagine on a bad acid trip. (Not that I speak from experience.)
JT: I think you’ve just written the blurb for the softcover. “Like a bad acid trip”–S. Markson Hartz.
SMH: I look forward to getting my royalty check in the mail.
JT: Not sure that’s how it works, but nevermind. It’s been fun chatting.