Ben Marcus: The Flame Alphabet
In Ben Marcus’ searing, apocalyptic novel The Flame Alphabet it is the toxicity of language itself that brings about the end.
Review by Eric Lindley
Ben Marcus. Image Source: Skylight Books
Ben Marcus wrote this book, which is to say he either typed it into a computer or used a stylus, pen or pencil to scratch pigment into a page or roll of paper – the tools available to us humans at our particular anchor in time.* He did this in roughly a year, after developing the concept: a man – through his own somewhat distorted lens on reality – relates his recent experiences in a world wherein language, spoken and written, is discovered to harm its producers and recipients. I will try not to ruin it for you, but the inhabitants of this world eventually determine that the formation of meaning itself – the moment of insight, in which the gestalt of the lexeme coalesces in the mind of the listener/reader – is the problem; i.e. when you understand a word, you become sick: and more words, more understanding makes you sicker.
The toxicity of comprehension itself, which renders harmful nearly any communication between people, is an elegant literalization of some of the more figurative consequences of meaning-making. I refer to the perennial anxieties of the establishment and reproduction of meaning that have filled philosophers and critics with excitement and dread as distantly as human history has surviving records – at least for those of us who like to interpret ancient artifacts in this way. This reification guts words and phrases of their communicative power and integrates them into systems of exchange that rely on a currency of socio-political control. The consequence is that language, with all its potential to build understanding and cooperation, becomes a weapon, used and abused by those at all levels of more directly observable stations of power, as well as those who are not empowered in any other way. More than a typical weapon, though, it becomes an unfocused, misunderstood, and generally uncontrollable weapon that encroaches upon the most casual or benignly utile speech, and locks it into a web of injury and subjugation.
Something that starts small, in pinpricks across human society, and intensifies as it spreads: a disease.
A more positive analogy can be drawn to the process of Marcus, the writer, who in creating the work found himself experimenting with a form that will doubtlessly be perceived as far less “experimental” than much of his preceding writing: that is, broadly comprehensible contemporary fiction. Marcus found himself completing full-circle concepts and narrative events that in earlier work would have been more shielded or omitted entirely, so that the reader would have had to do the work to complete these events and concepts with materials available in bits and pieces or, in the absence of even that, with materials of their own imagining.**
In stark contrast to the encyclopedic long-form work Age of Wire and String, and the novel, Notable American Women which – deliberately, in my mind – undercut its own dramatic arc with gorgeous and frightening linguistic and narrative construction, in The Flame Alphabet Marcus creates a consistent narrator who relates a linear plot filled with fully-drawn characters in a coherently rendered setting. The world may operate by slightly different rules, and the characters may exhibit traits that resemble horrifying augmentations of the narrator’s anxieties – and indeed, typical familial anxieties – but it’s clear that Marcus is composing something close to a proper, contemporary novel. He even admits that some readers might find it suspenseful at times – an aside in which I read an endearing mix of bashful pride.
He does all this in the service of a book that is at times gripping – I found my face contorted in disgust, suspense, and horror as I read it in the NYC subway, once missing a stop I was so immersed, and eventually, after days of reading the book whenever I had a free moment, having to finish it on the street, tucked under the shade of scaffolding, when I just couldn’t wait any longer.
I should note, though, that moments of overt strategy do poke through: self-conscious foreshadowing of the kind that makes Ishiguro novels sometimes feel like essays – in the most wonderful possible way – appears and invokes the notion that indeed Marcus is manufacturing the story, manufacturing suspense. The story is no less suspenseful or effective as a result, but rather, like the best descriptive language in the book, this foreshadowing manages to make the reader aware of the tools of artifice at the same time that the power of that artifice is heightened, drawing the critical eye into sharper focus, just as the joy – or more often terror – of the characters described becomes more vivid, and more embodied.
An alarmed and adamantly self-proclaimed “experimental” writer – if indeed those do exist – might accuse Marcus of enacting the problematic of the novel; he has shaped and clarified his most recent writing into works that might be absorbed into the currency of contemporary literature, and toes a dangerous line in doing so. His writing might be emptied of communicative power and simply tossed around as a symbol, a reference to “experimental” writing, or even simply presented as something to aspire to without regard to the theoretical and historical forces at play in creating such a work.
Even if this happens, however – as it often does with any great work in the position to be read by a large number of people – the novel itself guards against such a trend: it exposes some of its own construction, causing a push and pull between immersion and criticality; it enacts the dangerous metaphor of reification as a driving force in its plot, which if it is read through something approaching my particular lens, encourages a considered criticality that is not immune to but at least strives away from simple, symbolic exchange; it uses a kind of rich, oblique metaphor that – though I have no proof or even any anecdotal evidence of this – feels to me like it encourages a powerful mix of empathy and intuitive semantic analysis in the mind of the reader.
As a result, the seeds of a heightened criticality of writing are contained in the novel, and have the potential to spread. Even if the work does get swallowed in the stream***, if it is asked to participate in the epidemic of reification, it may catalyze something of a cure, an antidote.
* I apologize – the book lends itself to a particularly panoramic, evolutionary perspective.
**This, I feel, is a central question in art, as insight is managed in time, and either given immediately, stored up and delivered to the reader/viewer all at once, released gradually over time, or left in varying amounts for the reader to bridge. “Experimental” art seems to be work that withholds insight to whomever is experiencing the piece, whether it be in the work itself or the context in which it’s presented. “Experimental” is most often a label given to work by someone shut out of interpretation by the lack of tools available to them, or those constructing work they understand will shut some readers out.
*** I should say that I am an avid reader and supporter of contemporary writing. By no means does my characterization of the often-empty symbolic exchange inherent in mass-consumption of literature (or any media or product) diminish my appreciation for the beauty and criticality of such work. Literature in particular operates on a number of levels, many of which have the power to change entire cultures for the better, regardless of – and sometimes even due to – their status as cultural signifiers.
I heard Ben Marcus say before a reading that he wanted to explore a story where a character was stripped of all the things it loved, and that impulse led him to write this novel, where a man loses his wife and daughter. I forget exactly if he talked about losing language, as well, but that too seems to be a part of this fantasy of loss and pain. With his other work, I’ve been interested in his imagination of family members harming one another, and of the sense of loss – profound, existential loss – that pervades the reading, in the depiction of a physical world in disintegration. Marcus doesn’t so much expose the psychological undercurrents of the family – though he does do this, and does it well – as he does explore the worst possible motivations for the damage that family members do to one another. So, what? Why? What do we take away from writing that is in part a fantasy of pain and willful injury?
We have to grapple not only with the question of how we deal with this exposure of our latent, usually unconsummated tendency to harm one another, but also with the emphatically consummated readerly desire to explore descriptions of events that are more horrifying than they are in reality. There are many approaches to explaining this, but I like to think – if magically – of Marcus as an essential figure in our evolution, working to ensure the survival of our species by providing rehearsals of loss, of failure, of battling the dark possibilities of family and language, in order to either help us avert what is to come, or at the very least, prepare us for the future.*
Eric Lindley (AKA Careful) is one of America’s living makers-of-things. You can find his work in Fence, Joyland, and many other places, with a cursory google search.
This review first appeared at HTML Giant