The Flame Alphabet by Ben Marcus. Knopf, 304 PP. $24.95.
With his second novel, The Flame Alphabet, Ben Marcus has diverged from the path he trod while becoming one of America’s best-known experimental fiction writers. He’s written a plague fantasy told in first-person by a middle-aged, Jewish husband and father living in the suburbs. It is cold and coherent in its execution, with one narrator and a clear plot, and reading it is a crushing sort of experience. It’s a deliberate shift for Marcus into both traditional storytelling and humorless despondency, one he seems to have chosen with care.
It is wholly unlike The Age of Wire and String, Marcus’ first book. There, forty-some darkly absurd short stories form a guidebook to an apocalyptic ur-America, where soil, air, cloth, and food seem to have strange religious significance. Marcus’s second book and first novel, Notable American Women, featured real and fake blurbs, mixing quotes from George Saunders with one from “Ben’s father.” The Flame Alphabet shows none of the sort of fun that characterized the first two books. It is such a dramatic turn for Marcus and such a remorseless tragedy that if it had been published with a self-referential blurb, it could only have been an earnest warning from the author: “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.”
The book begins with the narrator, known only as Sam, getting in the car with his wife, Claire to leave behind their daughter forever. An unreal plague is destroying human communication, and in turn, American society. “It was early December. Year of the sewn-up mouth,” Sam tells us. The plague is first understood to be “language toxicity” found in the speech of Jewish children, although it later affects all adults who hear or read children’s language. Eventually, all efforts to communicate cause adults intense suffering, as the body undergoes “Language death, when the body is saturated.” Sam comes to see words as “a long, slow venom,” and says “that this poison flowed from Jewish children alone, at least at first, we had no reason to think. That suffering would find us in even more novel ways, we had probably always suspected.”
As Sam and Claire endure symptoms akin to radiation sickness, his bitterness devolves into caustic humor.“Maybe this was the quiet before the really fucking quiet,” he says. Sam and Claire are quickly and implausibly separated. Sam drives north alone through New York State and winds up at an institution called Forsythe, where he is forced to search for a cure under the watch of the book’s villain, an anti-Semite named LeBov. Later, away from the facility, Sam muses alone about his wish to have his family back together.
In looking for an explanation for a book like this from Marcus, one that lacks his previous quirks, formal brilliance, and expansive humor, the most plausible conclusion is that he wrote it in order to establish the early history of the world in which his other books are set, to explain the plague that destroyed America and brought about that strange, Dust Bowl era.
One key flaw is that Marcus spends far too much time in the first half of the book cataloguing Sam and Claire’s immense physical suffering without showing how they feel about it. There are scores of sentences like: “In the waiting room neighbors stared at their pee-soaked laps, hacked into fistfuls of cloth. Some went shirtless from pain,” and “Something streamed down my legs when I coughed . . .” Sam’s narration grows ever more obtuse, as if he must toughen up to survive, and his motives and true feelings are given short shrift. The lack of focus on Sam’s feelings creates immense distance between him and the reader, a distance that feels at best like stubbornness on Marcus’s part, at worst an unwillingness to do the kind of work required when presenting a traditional story about a loving and devoted family man. Occasionally Sam insists he’s acting out of love for his family, but his actions and thoughts shift so suddenly—later cheating on his wife, no mention of his daughter for long stretches—that his devotion seems too shallow to even been excused as an ironic pose.
From there the book becomes a jumble. In the second half Sam is shown as fatally isolated, a persecuted man testing letters in search of an alphabet that will save humanity and restore his family to him. Human trials kill hundreds at the Forsythe facility during “speech fever treatments.” Marcus includes historical research and interesting experiments—quotes from Ovid, an alphabet made of ice, Rebus writing—yet it amounts to nothing in this strange world reminiscent of an art installation, or a Burroughs-esque dreamscape, with bird-size moths, soldiers wearing foam helmets to keep out sound, and coils of wire placed in human mouths. Some small hope comes from a “new Hebrew lettering paradigm,” then fades, as it must, apparently in line with the book’s locked trajectory.
At every turn Marcus puts Sam’s thoughts on the darkest path possible, the only justification for this gloom being that this book is meant to explain the plague that wiped out America. Marcus mercilessly grinds his narrator into the ground, literally: isolation and numbness are the only ways left for Sam to survive in such a nightmare place. Marcus’ vision follows old tropes about apocalypse and feel very similar to those Michel Houellebecq uses in his novel The Possibility of an Island, which also relies on terse language driven by nihilistic self-loathing. But where Houellebecq’s characters feel real, Sam’s story doesn’t sound like that of a living character. It’s a tough-guy pose driven by a desire to believe, or to make us believe, he saw it as his job as a man to assume blame for the plague that ended life as we knew it.
At times Marcus’s language is given some air through quick, short chapters that deliver the blow-by-blow of Sam’s cheerless existence. The sentences feel like hard-won prose for Marcus. In a scene before Sam and Claire are separated they are at home in their terribly afflicted state, dripping pus and with blackened gums. Claire, in a rare moment of strength, rolls over to see if Sam wants to have sex. Sam describes her as, “Seeking, it would seem, someone to leak on.” This is disciplined disgust, as unyielding to sentimentality as Houellebecq, but without the rants or manic highs. There might be grim beauty in passages like this one, except that the book is one long dark passage:
Sitting with my wife, whose disgust pulsed over me, I laughed to myself over these assessments, thoughts of a final or irresolvable darkness. . . . The side effects of fighting, the side effects of knowing nothing, the side effects of being done with it and somehow, for no reason I could detect, still alive. One uses one’s deathbed energy to project meaning where none can be found. How does the species possibly benefit from such an action?
Marcus also places Sam in a world rife with anti-Semitism, much of his despair attributable to his fear of persecution. In fact Sam and Claire worship underground: they are “Reconstructionist Jews following a program modified by Mordecai Kaplan,” who practice a “covert method of devotion.” This involves worship by a man and his wife in a small hut over “a Jew hole” in the woods, where an orange cable comes up through the ground. By using a fleshy mechanical “listener” device, or “Moses mouth,” Sam can tap into sermons that are broadcast through the wire by rabbis. A rabbi Sam listens to via the orange cable encourages Jews to embrace blame for the plague. “An incredible opportunity has arisen,” Rabbi Burke says. “We have the chance to take the blame for something extraordinary, an incomprehensible affliction.” These messages trigger thoughts of a greater purpose for Sam. “In blame is a chance to step into responsibility, to make of our bodies absorbent parcels for the accusations of others. . . . He insisted that blame can have no literal meaning; there really is no such thing when you love the Name, our term for Hashem.”
The visions Sam presents are like some of the worst anti-Semitic stereotypes come to life, with Sam propping himself up as the receptacle of all hatred toward Jews. “We had, it seemed to me, succeeded perfectly at being misunderstood,” he says. “Again and again our huts were surveilled, seized, burned, for fear that the Jew was drinking something too important out of these holes, drinking directly from God’s mind, eating a pure alphabet that he alone could stomach. There were the fearful rumors. Such an apparatus, if true, was too good for Jews alone.” This fantastic take on the poisonous idea that Jews tap into secret knowledge they keep from the Gentile world becomes part of the plot later when LeBov tortures Jews at the Forsythe lab, forcing them to search for a cure by tapping into the mysterious underground orange cable together.
Gradually in The Flame Alphabet after so many narrative choices that drop Sam down darker and darker holes, the novel starts to feel false. Marcus’s forebears—among them Burroughs, Houellebecq, Beckett—balance painful absurdity, obscene cruelty, and hyperviolence with the human urge to overcome terror by laughing sometimes, even if the laughter was only in despair. Marcus’s first two books had that kind of balance, making them feel more truthful, but Sam’s resolute despondency feels false. After Sam’s life and everyone else’s have been ruined and the world is a sickened mess, he even goes so far as to wonder why “was it not worse? Why was the person himself not gutted of thought?” Sam’s gloom after years of living alone becomes empty and contrived; it banishes all humor, hope, or notions of salvation. In The Flame Alphabet it feels as if every time Marcus was required to make a narrative choice, he opted for gloom.
Matthew Jakubowski is a freelance writer and a member of the National Book Critics Circle. He lives in Philadelphia.
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