a review of Ben Marcus' The Flame Alphabet and more!

By Nathan Gale

The Flame Alphabet erupts like a tale straight from the Old Testament. Set in a suburban community of “Forrest Jews” in upstate New York, our protagonist Sam, and his wife Clair and their daughter Esther, a family of Forrest Jews, (I just wanted to write that because it sounds neat) are beset by a plague that is spread through children’s voices. The plague causes adults to wither and shrivel, dying of sores, blackouts, diarrhea and vomiting. Like all healthy tweens Esther is resentful of her parents for merely being alive, and abuses them with the sound of her voice, nearly killing her own mother.

Maybe when Esther came home she crawled into bed only to find her mother’s dry body under the sheets. The rank-smelling hair, the bruised neck. Perhaps the mouth guard that her mother used to keep her from gnashing into the exposed nerve pulp of her teeth, perhaps this mouth guard had come unseated and was hanging from her mother’s lips like a piece of meat. It caused her to climb up on her mother and assume a feral crouch, opening her throat for the pure injury to pour out.
Her sadism is possibly the most disturbing moment in the book. It’s as if out of spite and curiosity she’s giving parent-killing a whirl. At first the plague is specific to the Jewish population (shades of the holocaust), but as the novel continues the language pathogen is spread from the remotest trace of a word, from babbling babies to the most sophisticated political commentary. This shifts the novel from what we thought was an allegory about anti-Semitism to one much more like the despairing dystopias of contemporary Science Fiction.

Sam spends months trying to locate a vaccine for the virus, while the world around him devolves into a post-apocalyptic, zombie flick with a dash of Nazi Kristallnacht thrown in for good measure. The first part of the novel is full of Kafkaesque paranoia and mystery, which keeps us asking, where did the illness originate? Are Jewish children the source of the virus and all this death? But as the book goes on these questions dissipate and we soon forget about the virus’s origin and with that the possible guilt of those most easy to blame, Jewish children. It’s a provocative move on top of a provocative move: first, it suggests to the reader that Jewish Children are the blame for a plague; then, second, Marcus seems to tell the reader that it doesn’t matter. Some critics see Marcus’s lack of narrative follow through as a serious flaw, but I think it creates a complexity that makes you dig for answers. That’s the difference between the novels of Jonathan Franzen and Marcus: you aren’t told how to feel or what to think. You want answers? Find them yourself!

As bands of school children roam the streets screaming biological warfare against any adult left standing, Sam meets a couple of mad scientists/religious zealots named Lebov and Murphy, who incidentally are the same person. Or not? In turn they act as the evil villain in the novel. Eventually we learn that one of the Lebovs runs a quarantined research lab called “Forsythe”, luring in hopeful parents with children’s photographs then performing fatal tests on them.

At this point in The Flame Alphabet, about halfway through, Sam ceases to be a real character and becomes a conduit for Marcus to introduce themes, images and metaphors about language. In place of conventional narrative, we’re now in the realm of theory and ideas. While the potency and violence of the images piles up, the genre thriller at the heart of the novel -- Sam’s quest for his family -- all but disappears, along with our attention. As he drifts through “Forsythe” having “salted” mute sex with men and women alike (don’t ask, I can’t explain) everything starts to feel driven by poetic caprice rather than narrative logic. Throughout the latter half of the novel we get sentences like this: “It is said that the 22 Hebrew letters, if laid flat and joined properly…would describe the cardiovascular plan of the human body. And not only that. That was child’s play.” By itself this is a beautiful line, but it both serves no narrative purpose and is difficult to connect to in any emotional way.

If one reviews The Flame Alphabet as just another sci-fi thriller, ultimately it will be a gentle let down. But we have to remember what kind of genius we are dealing with here, and ask different questions, ones that aren’t specifically about reader interest and narrative continuity and drive. The Flame Alphabet is quite a successful foray into experimental writing. The problem here is that because Marcus writes the novel with such conventional gusto, it is hard not to judge it as it appears on the page. In his New York Times review, J. Robert Lennon offers a similar criticism: “Unfortunately, Marcus’s borrowings from conventional narrative create an expectation of structural coherence that the book then declines to deliver."

Marcus’s previous novels, The Age of Wire and String and Notable American Women have always functioned like language poems, dripping with the grad school culture from which they were born. They abandon narrative and plot and instead derive feeling from syntax and diction. With The Flame Alphabet Marcus sets out to baffle critics and cynics alike by fitting in. The textbook narrative and streamlined characterization seems to be the most experimental part of the novel. The fact that it’s centered around a narrative is experimental for Marcus, who states in an interview with New York Magazine: “Sometimes I can start to use strangeness as a crutch…it actually seems the strangest thing not to be strange.” What we get is a novel where experimental language is not limited to anti-narrative forms, but rather fused with the same conventional narratives we would expect from a novel by Franzen or Dan Brown.

Whether this new novel is Marcus playing games with “mediocrity” or is his first foray into a writing style that says to doubting critics, “I’m a big boy now,” lacks a definitive answer. While The Flame Alphabet dishes out a kinky portion of Lynchian comedy and unconventional narrative strategies, it also seems to court respect and acclaim from bigwig critics at places like the New York Times and London’s The Guardian, who are just as baffled as they were by his previous work. Because of the formulaic narrative that ties this grotesque nightmare together, it allows the critics to pick apart this new novel like any memoir by Bill Clinton.

When asked what the novel was about in an interview with New York Magazine, Marcus stated: “The power of family to both love and destroy you.” Sam’s desperate quest to save his family is ultimately undone by the very people that he seeks to save, his family. It’s as simple as that. Sam, Clair and Ester feel like real people, not disfigured syntax or fragmented prose, and in a way that’s the problem. Marcus is traversing potentially potent and revolutionary ground: the question will be can he find some sort of balance and feeling in his peculiar mix of aesthetic needs and distortions?

©Nathan Gale & CCA Arts Review

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