Loads of Learned Lumber

Friday, January 18, 2013

Ben Marcus, _The Flame Alphabet_

yet WHEN THIS CAME out about a year ago, and Marcus was interviewed on NPR, I was, I admit, a little worried that he had succumbed to some sort of commercial imperative for suburban-domestic fiction.  But when I finally commenced the book last summer, and the first paragraph describes the narrator packing a bag with "sound abatement fabrics" and "anti-comprehension pills," I thought, well, this is promising, and then soon enough Thompson appeared, and I knew all was well.

The Flame Alphabet stirs into its mix a little of the Burroughsian language-is-a-virus idea, a little of Roth's The Plot Against America, perhaps a little of James's Sacred Fount, a little bit of your workaday post-apocalyptic thriller genus (species: "mysterious plague"), and yes, even a little suburban domestic realism.  But the novel is plumped down squarely in Marcus-World, which, like Nabokov's Antiterra, is recognizably like our world in many ways, bewilderingly different in others.  For instance, there are Jews in The Flame Alphabet, but they worship at holes in the woods, where they listen to radio broadcasts by Rabbi Burke. (We don't learn the cantor's name, but I'm guessing it's O'Flanagan.)

In The Age of Wire and String, Notable American Women, and The Father Costume, the hobbyhorses of parents create perilous obstacle courses for their children, but the polarity reverses in The Flame Alphabet, and parents are being made ill, sometimes fatally, by the utterances of their children. Marcus succeeds in making this both hilarious and terrifying. The novel literalizes the familiar phenomenon that parents feel judged and found wanting by things their children say, and there is an easily recognizable Archie Bunker/Bill Cosby kind of humor in this; it also literalizes the idea that words can injure, central to a lot of arguments, policies, and treatises within academic life in the 1980s and 1990s, and there is a kind of satirical humor in this. At the same time, Marcus draws sufficiently on the resources of realism to make the whole scenario vivid and plausible, so the novel is deeply unnerving.

Grisly ironies abound. Language, the medium that makes society possible, disintegrates society.  In his desperation to save his family, Sam, our narrator, abandons them. Made ill by their children, the adults eventually--here the Shoah echoes become more intense--decide to corral, control, and eventually attach themselves like vampires to the young, sacrificing the human future in order to seize whatever little they can of the evaporating present.

There is a bubble of hope, perhaps, at the end of The Flame Alphabet.  Sam has escaped the grim "research facility" directed by Murphy/LeBov (the novel's most fascinating character, malign as he is), reunited with his daughter, and awaits the return of his wife.  However, language remains toxic, his daughter does not trust him, and his wife is more than likely dead. Even McCarthy's The Road seems like Frank Capra next to such reflections as this:

     Thinking is the first poison, said someone. One often fails to ask this of a crisis, but why was it not worse? Why was the person himself not gutted of thought? Who cares about the word made public, it's the private word that does more lasting damage, person by person. The thinking should have stopped first. The thinking. Perhaps it is next in the long, creeping conquest of this toxicity, another basic human activity that will slowly be taken from us.
     Oh, I fucking hope so.

But my abiding impression is that Ben Marcus has once again created a world that is manifestly a tissue of language, that is utterly fictional and deeply strange, while nonetheless managing to get closer to the aching bone of family emotion than any "realist" going. How does he do it? Dunno, but he's done it again.

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