The Flame Alphabet
By Ben Marcus
Knopf, 289 pages, $25.95
In the world that Ben Marcus renders, the writing of a novel would be a fatal act of violence—to the reader and author alike. It’s an irony that likely won’t dawn on a reader of The Flame Alphabet until well into the dark surrealist novel’s second section, so used to reading and reliant we are on language to apprehend story and ideas. The novel’s framework is a Contagion-style epidemic story where life-as-we-know-it is suddenly torn apart by an unforeseen toxin, forcing the narrator Sam to recast his relationship to his wife Claire, daughter Esther, his religion, society, science and ultimately himself. Like every great dystopia or disaster story, the threat is something laughably pedestrian, a seemingly innocuous facet of humanity turned noxious when it exceeds human control. In this case, it may be the very thing that makes us human that poisons us: language itself. As Sam’s small upstate town grows silent and Marcus’ prose grows more devastating by the chapter, the reader can’t help but wonder how each go on with their task of communication and how, reflexively, we can’t help but go on reading.
For years, Marcus, who teaches in the creative writing program at Columbia University, carried great distinction but little renown for his work in “experimental” fiction, a genre defined by little more than the attention it pays to language and form rather than plot. His 1995 debut The Age of Wire and String is a manifesto of sorts, rendering our moment of history in short encyclopedic entries for some vaguely futuristic or alien culture. Concepts like sleep, food and weather are described as material items, their function explained in a surreal scientific shorthand, thereby scrambling the relationship between words and the items they signify.
Marcus extends this exercise into The Flame Alphabet but couches these challenging and occasionally off-putting distortions within an incredibly accessible storyline. “The crushing” first afflicts Sam in the presence of his adolescent daughter and seems to literalize the disconnect and unintended hurt that most parents must feel as their child begins to assert her independence. It hits Claire the hardest, lays her up with nausea and inertia. Thus begins Sam’s dutiful effort to cure his wife and himself by cracking the mystery of this language disease, which grows more debilitating by the page. He stays up late at night creating potions and ointments, vapors and baths, attempting through chemistry to heal a plague of representational thought. For temporary solace, Sam and Claire retreat to a secret hut in the woods where they cower in a hole and listen to Rabbi Burke’s mystical Jewish sermons on a machine called the Moses Mouth. The message is of concealment, nondisclosure. “Language acts as an acid over its message,” Marcus writes, summarizing the philosophy of the “forest Jews.” “If you no longer care about an idea or feeling, then put it into language. That will certainly be the last of it, a fitting end.” This Kabbalah-esque undercurrent makes the novel, at times, seem a likely candidate for film treatment by Pi auteur Darren Aronofsky.
Suffering from the crushing, and unable to sleep, Sam takes a walk one night and meets Murphy, a fast-talking character who introduces him to the writings of LeBov, a controversial researcher who seems to be making breakthroughs at a lab in Rochester. So begins a complicated and disorienting relationship with the charismatic philistine, leading Sam out of the quarantined town, where children run feral and adults live in silence, and into the role of a Clockwork Orange-style language tester at the Rochester compound.
The name Murphy is almost certainly a reference to Samuel Beckett, to whom The Flame Alphabet is deeply indebted. Beckett’s paradoxical admission from The Unnamable, “I can’t go on, I’ll go on,” seems to be Sam’s futile motivation, insisting on solving an unsolvable conundrum, writing what can’t be written. Yet, Marcus, speaking through Sam’s memoirist documentation of the events, charts the problem back further, naming “Hippocrates, Avicenna, a long list of experts who knew without really knowing that our strongest pollution was verbal.”
Indeed, the problem Marcus addresses is not new. Far from “experimental,” the novel addresses the same “human condition” that any work worth its ink purports to, just in exceedingly direct epistemological terms. Language is a tool for both drawing what is separate from us closer and pushing what is not us further away. It is the best handle on duality that we know, but isolates us from the thing we describe by the very effort of trying to understand it. In this way, The Flame Alphabet is a kind of Frankenstein story, an almost Biblical allegory for the tiny apocalypse we enact every time we let this human invention run amok of our relationships with others, and most horrifyingly, ourselves. In the esteemed tradition of writers who distrust the very medium they deal in, Marcus tries to imagine what is left when that primordial tension is allowed to run its full course.