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“What is it called when the landscape mirrors the condition of the poor fucks who live in it?“
Ben Marcus is not a novelist but he is trying to be. The Age of Wire and String, his first published work, was a work of outsider genius, a quasi-manifesto on life culture but not a work of narrative. Since then, it has been seventeen years since and Marcus has learnt a lot in terms of balance. The Flame Alphabet represents his clearest attempt to write a novel and, for the most part, he succeeds.
In the 1950s, the term “nuclear family” became a buzz phrase in America, dictating an ideal and a healthy system of familial economy. It represented hope in a future without war, poverty and social devastation: an American dream. Then fast forward some sixty years to a world that has gone through numerous wars, economic depression and reenergised ethnic friction, and most importantly, where “the family” has failed.
This is The Flame Alphabet‘s world, where “[l]anguage is another name for coffin”. At first, it is the language of children that is toxic to their parents (though the children themselves are immune to its effects), but then all kinds of communication soon become poisonous to the body and soul of all adults, including the children when they grow up. The first case of this strange plague is reported in a sect of Jews (the historical scapegoats, who else?) who are forced to worship secretly in forest huts built over “Jew holes”—literally holes in the earth that serve as a sort of transmission system for communication. Sam, the gloomy narrator who seems to take detached joy in informing the reader how awful life has become, and his wife Claire are both members of these Forest Jews; in this forest they had conceived their daughter Esther. In the wake of their crippling illness, Sam and Claire attempt to flee from their New York home, trying to find the heart to leave Esther behind to save themselves—no easy choice. Eventually Sam, determined to find a cure for this epidemic, has to leave to travel to the mysterious scientist LeBov’s headquarters to begin to create a new, untainted language: “We’ve trafficked in an inexact language that must be translated anew.”
It is unfair, however, to describe this work just in terms of what is on the page: beyond it there are strong reflections on Judaism, academia, politics, parenthood and connectivity (or the lack of)—the connection between humans is almost always denied. In Marcus’ novel, people exist in a closed off state and life becomes like Sam’s hut in the forest, “an entirely covert method of devotion.”
The first 80 pages contain some of the most stunningly urgent prose you will ever read. Marcus seems to have had fun with this cross-germinated work, and the opening half is alive with a wonderful balance between concept and story. Sam tries to deal with his responsibilities as a parent, even as his own body breaks down with each word knifed from the mouth of his daughter. Marcus is a master of metaphors and allegories, and the whole novel can be read as a reflection of the author’s own progress into fatherhood.
At the same time, the novel as a whole suffers precisely because of its brilliance. The second half of the novel dips; the careful balance established in the early half is broken. Story makes way for the experimentation, which is trying in its repetition and stagnates the work. The Flame Alphabet covers the same issues again and again, using the same imagery and scenes. It begins to feed on itself, each consecutive page feeling somehow less substantial than the last.
The novel’s borrowing of the thriller form also creates an expectation in the uninitiated reader which Marcus clearly had no intention of paying off. By the end of the novel, one cannot help but feel that Marcus could have made this already notable book into a truly brilliant one by sacrificing the middle ground, instead of trying to be both anti-novel and thriller. The aphorism at the centre of the novel is at constant battle with the genre it is pretending to be part of. Moreover, though infrequent, lazy thriller fillers dilute the work: “The plot thickens,” LeBov tells Sam, who replies almost self-referentially at this point, “the plot sucks.”
Despite this, Marcus’s prose barely wavers in its quality. There are sections of descriptive writing comprised, you can tell, with gleeful specificity by the narrator. However, the more Sam describes, and the closer he gets to his own meaning, the further we recede from reality:
“I shaped letters with yarn, hieroglyphs with yarn, arranged yarn in the minimal splatter of contemporary shorthand. With a tweezers I laid down a vertical script of yarn, hung yarn from wire so it draped just so, and with jets of air blew the yarn into letter shapes as it swayed. Or so I surmised, for I did not look at the device myself. With yarn I wrote full sentences in the Coptic alphabet, the Indus script, Linear A and B, all proven toxic already, all capable, in blocks and paragraphs, to generate sickness – micro coma, paralysis – in the reader, but then I tugged each end of the yarn on these sentences until the words lulled long. I tugged on the yarn and documented each stage until the yarn was pulled so taut, it stood out in a straight line and could never be mistaken for language.”
And so on, in all its metaphorical glory.
Published 7 June 2012. Available in hardback and ebook from Granta Books.
Thank you to Granta for providing a review copy.