Two perspectives on Ben Marcus's
The Flame Alphabet
Ben Marcus, a celebrated young novelist who is an associate professor of literature at Columbia University, has received numerous awards and recognition for his innovative contributions to contemporary literature, including an NEA Fellowship and multiple Pushcart Prizes. He is notorious for a 2005 Harper’s essay, a stern rebuke of—among others—the overly lauded contemporary novelist Jonathan Franzen, in reaction to that author’s comments condemning difficult and experimental fiction as the end of literature. Stated with Marcus’s verbal aplomb and with tongue strategically planted in cheek, he attempted in the essay to reemphasize the primacy of the intellect over the pop cultural simplicity of fiction as a feel good enterprise, and posited that literary fiction might entertain in more complex, and challenging, ways. All of which points to Marcus’s elevated and necessary endeavors in fiction, where he is quietly and successfully doing the work that his contemporary would not dream of imagining.
Broadly a work of science fiction—though one resists limiting Marcus to that genre ghetto—The Flame Alphabet is premised on the epidemic of a language disease in a civilization rattling in its death throes. Specifically, the taunting voices of children make the parents of those children susceptible to a “language toxicity,” which renders them listless and mute, and whose grotesque symptoms include face shrinking and hardening, and eventually, death. Furthermore, to turn the premise to extremes, it is apparent that not only children’s voices kill, but that language in any form, ultimately, kills. The first-person narrator, to his advantage, has inside knowledge and manages resistance to the disease as he develops antibodies that take the form of vapors to be imbibed. Though struggling to develop a cure to the disease, he spends days in hiding, attending to his ailing wife, who is enfeebled in their daughter’s presence. The compelling presentation of this dystopia is narrated in deadpan prose that avoids overt poetry as it delivers sharp observations.
Writing in the high literary tradition, Marcus addresses—alongside Margaret Atwood and Doris Lessing—the existential horror of the overwhelming simultaneity of contemporary life, embodied here in the plague, which parallels the threats of modern technology. In The Flame Alphabet, language signifies the threat of community and the destruction of the family because it fosters conformity in the users of language: “it was a disease of insight, understanding, knowing.” Comprehension implies death, and a compendium of writing ills are enumerated, components to the narrator’s frequent satirical charm. “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. Language is another name for coffin.” In what is largely a novel devoid of sentiment, the apparently inevitable estrangement of children from their parents as they come into their own as verbal beings points to an absurd notion of family expressed in this self-deprecation.
Marcus’s novel takes the form of a quest, reminiscent of Kafka’s The Castle, and the interior journeys undertaken by Beckett’s forlorn existentialists—he even name-checks Beckett characters—as well as mirrors the identity confusion found in those writers’ works. Marcus, with his elaborate inventions, emphasizes the estrangement of the language collapse. The narrator sounds at times like the hyper-vigilant Macmann of Beckett’s Malone Dies, particularly in describing the Rube Goldberg-like apparatuses used to find a cure: “My technique was messier than I expected, incoherent in places, letters dropping off pages, failing to come together, breaking into pieces. Imperfections everywhere. I felt ashamed to see it unclothed like that.” Working with words and their component letters, the narrator constructs alternative scripts, uses obscuring visual devices, even explores dead languages to disguise the comprehensibility of words. Solutions range from The Proofs, an abstract containing the history of the language’s intrinsic toxicity, to an enigmatic “Perkin’s Mouth Guard” and the possible cure in a thirty-word lexicon: “A list of rules so knotted that to follow them would be to say nearly nothing, to never render one’s interior life, to eschew abstraction and discharge a grammar that merely positioned nouns in descending orders of desire.” Kafkaesque snafus, a life’s work reduced to ashes, are constants for the narrator pushed to his limit by the futile bureaucracy. This brings the narrative to the brink of farce, yet maintains its extension of the fiction of Kafka, or Bruno Schulz. Marcus’s might be a more self-conscious and explicit rendering of the realms of these socially isolated, modern stylists.
The reader probes this work and arrives at a paradox: since the premise of the novel (that writing kills the messenger) should make the prospect of first-person narration impossible, how can such a story be told? In itself, this could be the supreme gesture of an experimental novel. The Flame Alphabet, though not overtly formally experimental, adheres to an experimental tradition through a rapacious interrogation of the underpinnings of language’s very premises. The theme underlying this work points to the mystery inherent in the complexity of language. Marcus’s intent is both to question the uses of language, and, within its limits, describe an unfamiliar world.
The Flame Alphabet evinces a postmodern aversion to traditional narrative, yet simultaneously dangling conventional storytelling before the reader. As in his 2002 Notable American Women—a novel of linked episodes set in a surreal alternative world lorded over by a group of women following fictional cult leader Jane Dark—remarkable description leads the reader to recognition and surprise from which irony elicits hilarity. The Flame Alphabet executes stunning lexical flights, yet reaches higher perhaps, and more coherently, in terms of theme, in a work that contains its predecessor’s DNA.Though sharing its bleak landscape, Marcus’s novel serves as something of a counterpoint to the fraught metaphysical and existential emptiness of Cormac McCarthy’s dystopia portrayed in The Road. Lessing’s Sufism, a less well-known mystical infusion of her beliefs into her fiction, parallels Marcus’s uses of an alternative Judaism in The Flame Alphabet, which is treated as an archaic system that does not provide a solution, though it offers its proponents a salve in its seemingly futile rituals. For example, when the narrator reconnoiters to a secret “Jewish hut” in the woods where a listening device is placed over a hole in the ground attached to underground cables, it is to capture transmissions from a charismatic sage whose sermons provide guidance and hope for the survivors of the epidemic.
In another reference to Judaism, the labs of Forsythe, a kind of “Big Brother” organization that insidiously works to find a cure for the disease, mimic the ethos of what can best be called a concentration camp for the afflicted, as when the narrator observes “the decontamination procedures outside in the courtyard, a man curled up under the harsh ministrations of a hose.” It’s not clear who the administrators are, though they are in cahoots with a ubiquitous figure named Le Bov, also known as Murphy. It remains unclear whether Le Bov is an actual person or cabal.
Marcus’s portrayal of a world on the brink of the end of writing and communication, however fantastic a premise, signals an intriguing aspiration towards some new life for the novel. In its sheer ambition, The Flame Alphabet entices the reader with brilliant and measured language as it pokes clever—and welcome—holes in the fabric of the contemporary novel.
Ben Marcus keeps updating his Ben Marcus. The Age of Wire and String presented us with a sprinter author, a quick-heeled maker of mini-cosmogonies, explosions of curiously sentenced ink and light. Notable American Women, out some years later, saw the earlier gestures and geographies stretched, pushed, squeezed, puffed, torqued. Here we had a Ben Marcus who was still taking laps around the language track, but also starting to stare down the gun barrel of narrative, checking out its grooves, getting seriously interested in duration and trajectory. This Marcus had grown more methodical, was a little more judicious with his galloping, and had maybe put on a few non-literal pounds.
The next full-length book (though not a full-length Ben Marcus, as he was its editor and introducer) was The Anchor Book of New American Short Stories. In the introduction to that estimable volume, Marcus gave handsome praise and space to work of all sorts. In it could be found stories linguistically straightforward and situationally bizarre (like those penned by Wells Tower or George Saunders); linguistically straightforward and situationally straightforward (Jumpa Lahiri); linguistically gently bizarre and situationally gently bizarre (Deborah Eisenberg); and linguistically very bizarre and situationally pretty straightforward (Gary Lutz). There were other kinds of stories in there too. Marcus argued that all of it was good in its own way, all of it worthy, all of it had to be accounted for if we were to learn to accommodate a more capacious sense of what early 21st-century realism should mean.
If this was a Ben Marcus in the clutches of a kind of Clintonian, big-tent aesthetics, it was also one who could, not long afterward, nonetheless still fire off a credible rebuttal to Jonathan Franzen’s infamous beware-of-the-Bill-Gaddis-approach essay “Mr. Difficult”—championing traditionalist stories alongside non-traditionalist ones doesn’t mean you can’t stick up for the latter when they come under attack. It is as thoughtful a piece of writing on the value of formally inventive writing as we have recently had. One hopes that someday it and Marcus’s fine introductions to under-appreciated works of experimental fiction like David Ohle’s Motorman and Stanley G. Crawford’s Log of the S.S. Mrs. Unguentine will be gathered and published.
While there is no compelling reason to project this big-tent Ben Marcus back onto the authors of The Age of Wire and String and Notable American Women—he may or may not have always been open to it all—one certainly does think of the Anchor anthology when considering The Flame Alphabet. This is because we see here yet another Ben Marcus, one who writes the kind of fiction much extolled in the anthology’s introduction. Much like Wells Tower and his Vikings or George Saunders and his zombies, The Flame Alphabet tells a strange story straightforwardly. Commenters have remarked elsewhere that it displays a Ben Marcus who, long since done with staring down the gun barrel of story, has in the religious sense found narrative. This has been presented by most of said commenters as a great thing and by some as not so great, but whether it is great or not great, it is definitely interesting. Here we have a writer of lasting merit who is capable of striking change, one who would seems to have come to the same conclusions as, say, many contemporary French writers of fiction who build their dislocated and dislocating worlds out of completely straightforward language.
The Flame Alphabet is about a man living in a world where language has become violently toxic. To hear something is to hurt. To hear too much is to die. “Language happens to be a toxin we are very good at producing, but not so good at absorbing,” is how one character, a sinister charlatan-cum-prophet who has more names than one, puts it. First it’s children (Jewish children, supposedly, initially) who inadvertently then advertently strike down their parents. Then it’s everyone. The man’s daughter, Esther, has a particularly nasty tongue, and so the man flees, leaving behind the language bludgeon his daughter has become. He is taken to a kind of detox center and eventually set to work on finding a cure.
While The Flame Alphabet is longer by some good distance than its narrative rewards warrant, the themes are vintage Marcus (not to mention vintage William Burroughs): language as a container for/enabler of/flawed cure for loss, disconnect, sadness, evil, the unbearable burdens of the world. And there are many passages throughout the novel—descriptions of worship huts (Jews in this alt-America worship together and often have sex in huts with specialized listening apparatus to pull sound out of the deep ground), virus-cure methodology, and the narrator’s elaborate efforts to inject smoke into a red wax ball to set atop his daughter’s birthday cake—that hark back to the earlier Marcus, who took a giddy delight in building precise, clock-stopping descriptions of things that couldn’t quite be.
The difference here is that these moments are built into a non-digressive narrative template that has much more in common with Stephen King’s The Stand or the comic and TV series The Walking Dead or the five billion other apocalyptic fictions that have appeared recently than it does with Tristram Shandy and its heirs. Put otherwise, The Flame Alphabet is full of time. Our narrator does things. These things lead to other things. There are evenly disbursed passages of description, action, and dialogue. There are chapters, chapters that finish with a little lift that leads into the next. There is an internal clock ticking loudly from one end of The Flame Alphabet to the other, and this clock goes tick-tock, not tock-tick, tock-tock, or tick-tick.
In a 2003 article on the work of John Haskell published in The Believer, Marcus wrote:
If something must be overcome, ruined, subverted in order for fiction to stay matterful (yes, maybe the metaphor of progress in literary art is pretentious and tired at this point (there’s time again, aging what was once such a fine idea)), then time would be the thing to beat, the thing fiction seemingly cannot do without, and therefore, to grow or change, must. Time must die.
Marcus clearly didn’t feel obliged in this book to follow his own prescription; here, traditional narrative time is alive and well and that’s probably a good thing, as it helps The Flame Alphabet get at many a sharp, chilling observation about our shared humanity. Still, it is thrilling to think that the author’s project of killing time may yet be alive, that time may be dead and buried by the time we get our hands on his next book. We will just have to wait and see.