Eugene Marten’s Pyrotechnics

Eugene Marten answers the door to his building in Harlem in his socks, wearing blue jeans and blue dress shirt, untucked and unbuttoned to the middle of his chest. With his head perfectly shaved, Mr. Marten, the 51-year-old author of the novel Firework, looks like Marlon Brando in Apocalypse Now, only with friendly blue eyes. At the end of a long hallway is his apartment, dimly lit even in the middle of an August afternoon, an oriental rug in the living room and two slim windows on the wall facing north. An air conditioner rattles. I take a seat on a big red couch.

“I haven’t done many interviews,” Mr. Marten says, cautious at first. He is hunched over in his chair, leaning close to the couch. I mention something about his writing being “Kafkaesque,” adding that the word is insufficient, like an understatement.

“O.K.,” he says-worried-eyes darting around the room. “I don’t feel that too much. I don’t feel that’s where I’m coming from.”

But he warms up and grows comfortable. Meeting him reminds me of reading his novel: somewhat jarring at first-compelling no less-and then you’re sucked in completely. Disbelief is suspended. Set at the time of the 1992 L.A. riots (the fiery images on the TV screen lend the story a sort of background noise), Firework, Mr. Marten’s third novel, follows Jelonnek, a state employee working in a forms warehouse, standing guard over all the official paperwork that a person would potentially have to fill out for whatever occasion (“Calendar of Wages Paid,” “Application for Tanning Facility Permit”).

‘In a way, the novel has always been dead. You’re always flogging a dead horse. But, you know, you want to bring the horse to life. That’s the miracle of it.’

Guzzling beer and bored, he leaves town wordlessly the day after his brother’s wedding and drives across the country, from his nameless city “back east” (probably Cleveland) to a nameless city out west (probably Portland). He brings with him a toothless, gaunt, crack-addicted prostitute named Littlebit and her daughter, Miss D. Jelonnek prefers to pop an old tape of a football game into the VCR than watch the footage of the riots. Littlebit lives in a crackhouse, getting her fix when she can. They try to make an escape together. Like an even more melancholy Nathanael West, Mr. Marten suggests all escapes routes-even successful ones-only lead back to the beginning.

Mr. Marten began writing his novel in 1992. “I had a couple of drafts-a number of pages,” he says. “I became frustrated with it. I felt trapped by it and basically destroyed the manuscript and thought that was it. For about eight years. It was killing me. But it insisted on coming back.”

Raised in Cleveland, Mr. Marten spent most of his life there until the early ’90s, when he left with his wife and two children for Portland on a whim. They drove across the country to get there. It was a similar impulse that brought them to New York City four years ago.

“I wasn’t unhappy where I was living, but we decided we were just going to give notice and up and leave,” he says, his voice a combination of all the places he has lived: Midwestern drawl with West Coast breeziness, some New York venom thrown on top.

We first meet Jelonnek attempting to solicit a prostitute. He is booked by the police for “impeding the flow” and “for not wearing a seatbelt,” put in a paddy wagon and taken to the Justice Center. It is a clever way for an author to introduce his readers to all the quirks of his main character: exposed in a moment of great vulnerability by the same superstructure that he is a part of. Within the opening pages, we see Jelonnek piss on the floor of his cell and try with all his might to not shit in the overflowing prison toilet. Mr. Marten has the ability to tell a person’s life story with a single, fragmented sentence, while still not giving anything away. Jelonnek returns to his apartment from the Justice Center and “he couldn’t find the stereo, then other things; a lamp, the hassock, small things. Clean spots shone on surfaces like gaps in his life.” Ten pages in and Jelonnek is too intimate to not feel familiar, an old friend hard on his luck.

The opening is itself a metonym for Mr. Marten’s narrative construction. The reader, like Jelonnek, is constantly thrown into abrupt shifts in the trajectory, left to fend for himself. If the violence-both physical and psychological-Mr. Marten inflicts on his characters makes for a nail-biting reading experience, it also situates Firework as a novel that demands to be read. Characters are beaten at gunpoint, nearly consumed by flames; they beg, steal and use in a haze of beer foam and blackened tin foil.

They suffer for the sake of the book, it seems. It is a road novel that puts its plot and characters through a kind of autolysis, eventually collapsing under the violence the story has introduced. Firework feels like a novel that took almost two decades to write, a novel that was written to be finished, each sentence an illumination, pushing the characters and plot toward its chilling completion. Jelonnek “stood under more stars than he’d ever ignored in his life,” Mr. Marten writes, where lesser authors would resort to clichés about the beauty of the night sky.

The style of Firework is frantic, as if composed in the moments between waking and sleep, written in spite of context and history while life continued relentlessly around it. This is the case with the L.A. riots resting on the periphery of the story, a working class man’s personal Armageddon taking precedence over the world’s own meltdown happening around him.

Then again, like all writers, Mr. Marten has an individual context of his own that he must write around.

“I’m a printer,” he says proudly. “Digital. State-of-the-art things. Xerox has this big digital press. It’s sort of a specialized thing to be able to operate. I’ve had all kinds of jobs, but printing is something I always return to. I’ve done every aspect of it. I’ve worked on newspapers, I’ve sat and stapled something manually for hours.” He begins counting on his fingers: “Brochures, business cards, postcards.”

He is up at 5 every morning to write. He has to be in the printing shop in Long Island City by 9.

“You want to see where I write?” He asks.

He takes me to his bedroom. There are stacks of books on the floor across from the bed. Freud’s Totem and Taboo is resting on top of one pile, Richard III beneath it. A thick hardcover dictionary and thesaurus sit on the desk. There is a small slit of a window, facing south. Another dimly lit room, its darkness before dawn difficult to imagine.

“Hopefully, the coffee’s in the pot,” he says, pushing his eyebrows together. “So I just go in and press the button. Sometimes I’ll forget to do this the night before. That’s kind of a big deal as far as the ritual goes.”

He writes on subway rides, annotating the morning’s work, preparing for the next morning, extra productive because of the motion of the train and the presence of his “unintended audience.”

Mr. Marten writes with the uninhibited zeal of someone who makes novels because he wants to.

“There are times when I wonder about the value of it, about the written word,” Mr. Marten says, now leaning back in his chair, his legs crossed. “There are times when I worry that the form seems kind of stuck or stagnant. All I can do is try to keep up my end of it. I always think when you hear the novel is dead-in a way, it’s always been dead. You’re always flogging a dead horse. But, you kn
ow, you want to bring the horse to life. That’s the miracle of it. When you read something extraordinary, it feels miraculous.”

mmiller@observer.com

Eugene Marten’s Pyrotechnics