I HAD APPARENTLY BEEN living in one of the towns that was now gone. According to reports, I held my own against one of the younger organizations. I fought well and long. The ending of the report is muddy, with many foreign words and phrases, and an indecipherable series of pictures. There is no clear sense that I survived.
Photographs of my body had circulated, flags had been stitched with secret instructions.
There were instances of my name in the registry—the spelling varied, and my date of birth was frequently listed as unknown. A scroll of hair, probably my own, was taped to the paper. Mention was made of what must have been my house, a vehicle I summoned to cross the water (skirmishes, courtship, evasions—the report is unclear), and the amount of sacking I had contributed to the yearly mountain effort. I ranked slightly above average.
People wrote of seeing me in the morning by the water; several photographs featured me wearing a beard, concealing something in my coat. A Nacht diagram rated me favorably, prior to the revision. The Wixx index claimed I might have perished. I read accounts of myself ostensibly accompanying a family to the market on Saturdays. I may have been their assistant; I may have been their captor. The wording is vague. Some sentences depicted me handling the bread in an aggressive manner, as if searching for something inside it.
It is possible I was collecting samples. I would not rule it out. It would explain the long clear jars I found stored in my clothing that day when I woke. But it would not explain why those jars were empty.
The kind people at Random House sent me a trade paperback of Ben Marcus’s latest collection, Leaving the Sea. The trade paperback comes out in early October.
I actually read the book this summer, and enjoyed it, was frustrated by it, occasionally sickened by it, was enthralled by at least two stories (“The Loyalty Protocol” and “The Moors”), and found one story to be so terribly sad and distressing and horrifying that I hope to never read anything like it again, which is kind of a compliment (“Rollingwood”).
I jammed Leaving the Sea into a riff on stuff I wished I’d written about in the first half of 2014. This is what I wrote:
“Leaving the Sea, Ben Marcus: A weird and (thankfully) uneven collection that begins with New Yorkerish stories of a post-Lish stripe (like darker than Lipsyte stuff) and unravels (thankfully) into sketches and thought experiments and outright bizarre blips. Abjection, abjection, abjection. The final story ‘The Moors’ is a minor masterpiece.”
Read “On Not Growing Up” from the collection at Conjunctions. First paragraphs:
—HOW LONG HAVE YOU been a child?
—Who did you work with?
—Meyerowitz for the first phase: colic, teething, walking, talking. He taught me how to produce false prodigy markers and developmental reversals, to test the power in the room without speaking. I was encouraged to look beyond the tantrum and drastic mood migrations that depended on the environment, and if you know my work you have an idea what resulted. The rest is a hodgepodge, but I don’t advocate linear apprenticeships. A stint in the Bonn Residency. Fellowships at the Cleveland Place, then later a stage at Quebec Center. I entered that Appalachian Trail retreat in 1974, before Krenov revised it, but had to get helicoptered out. Probably my first infant crisis, before I knew to deliberately court interference. The debt to Meyerowitz is huge, obviously, if just for the innocence training. Probably I should have laid off after that, because now it’s all
—Unlearning as Kugler practices it? That radical?
—I skip the hostility to animals. I skip the forced submersion and the chelation flush. That’s proven to be a dead end. But Kugler is a walking contradiction in that respect, isn’t he? He keeps a horse barn.
He does twilight childishness, and now he’s suddenly opposing the Phoenix baby-talk crowd, who I think are not as threatening as he makes out.
—They’re not registered.
When Paul’s flight landed in Cleveland, they were waiting for him. They’d probably arrived early, set up camp right where passengers float off the escalator scanning for family. They must have huddled there watching the arrivals board, hoping in the backs of their minds, and the mushy front parts of their minds, too, yearning with their entire minds, that Paul would do what he usually did—or didn’t—and just not come home.
But this time he’d come, and he’d hoped to arrive alone, to be totally alone until the very last second. The plan was to wash up, to be one of those fat guys at the wall of sinks in the airport bathroom, soaping their underarms, changing shirts. Then he’d get a Starbucks, grab his bag, take a taxi out to the house. That way he could delay the face time with these people. Delay the body time, the time itself, the time, while he built up his nerve, or whatever strategy it was that you employed when bracing yourself for Cleveland. For the people of Cleveland. His people.
They had texted him, though, and now here they were in a lump, pressed so tightly together you could almost have buckshot the three of them down with a single pull. Not that he was a hunter. Dad, Alicia, and Rick. The whole sad gang, minus one. Paul considered walking up to them and holding out his wrists, as if they were going to cuff him and lead him away. You have been sentenced to a week with your family! But they wouldn’t get it, and then, forever more, he’d be the one who had started it, after so many years away, the one who had triggered all the difficulty yet again with his bullshit and games, and why did he need to queer the thing before the thing had even begun, unless, gasp, he wanted to set fire to his whole life
SP: Blood Meridian is another intense book on the syllabus. How does Cormac McCarthy’s distinct, sparse writing style convey the violence of the story he’s telling?
BM: His use of language is completely tied to how you feel when you read it—it certainly seems like the delivery is all. Blood Meridian is among the most rhetorically hyperbolic of McCarthy’s books. In fact, the book that followed, All the Pretty Horses, looked like it was written by a totally different writer. Often we’re looking at work that’s a lot more stylistically mild than Blood Meridian, so what is the emotional effect when language is cycled up the register like that?
He does this recurring thing where some character spits and someone else spits, and someone says something and someone else doesn’t answer, and then he’s like, “Off in this distance, they saw two riders hanging as if by strings, like some pale marionette set adrift in a world long since cooled and died.” He’s constantly serving up the world as this mechanical, contrived, hollow place. Where everybody’s a puppet or a mannequin or skeleton, or everything’s dead or fake, and everything’s manipulated by unseen forces. We’d ask a question in class like, why describe a landscape at all? What is that ever for in fiction? Is it to be pretty? The answers are sort of obvious. At its best, it creates mood, the same way music does in a movie. But McCarthy would use those sometimes bland tools from the writer’s toolkit and make them really bleak, reminding you every time he describes the landscape how empty it is and how pointless everything is.
Illustration for a syllabus by Ben Marcus. (via)
The time was technical summer, a season that had been achieved by nature so many times that a clotted arrangement of birds created splotches of ink called shadows, and whole days passed without gunfire. Shadows were blind spots that everyone shared. Graves were called homes, and apologies known as writing were carved in their surface. Rotten bags were called people. Milk was never sprayed from a fire hose at children until they skittered over the pavement like weevils, but the children wore shields of clothing regardless, and the people who guarded them were often trembling.
From Ben Marcus’s story”Against Attachment,” collected in Leaving the Sea.
1. Let’s start with this: This is for me, this is not for you.
2. The above statement is not a very inviting invitation to the audience, is it? Sorry. Look. I have the Writer’s Block. The blockage. The being-stuckness. Etc.
3. Writer’s block, for me anyway, is not the inability to write. It’s more like some kind of inertia, some kind of anxiety, some little whisper of doom, hopelessness about the futility of shaping feelings into ideas and ideas into words. (That last phrase is, I believe, a paraphrase of Robert Frost’s definition of poetry).
4. Anyway, sometimes it’s best just to write—and write with the intention to make the writing public, to publish it (even on a blog!)—to put something (the publishing, that is) at stake.
6. I’ve read or audited nearly a dozen books this year that I’ve failed to write about on this site. Ostensibly, at some point, writing about books was like, the mission of Biblioklept, which maybe that mission has been swallowed up by some other mission, some non-mission, some other goal or telos or whatever.
7. But you see there are some books I’ve read or audited that I really, really want to write about! (Sorry for this dithering but hey wait why am I apologizing I already said that this is for me this is not for you did I not?).
8. These books are:
Enormous Changes at the Last Minute by Grace Paley
Leaving the Sea by Ben Marcus
Every Day Is for the Thief by Teju Cole
Concrete by Thomas Bernhard
Middle C by William H. Gass
Save Me the Waltz by Zelda Fitzgerald
Goings in Thirteen Sittings by Gordon Lish
Not quite half a dozen books of poetry by Tom Clark
The majority of Donald Barthelme.
9. (I am also reading half a dozen books right now, even though I made a vow years ago not to do that).
10. A common theme to some of the books listed in point 8: The difficulty of words to mean, the toxic power of language, the breakdown of communication.
People have bones so insects won’t flood their limbs and inflate their bodies to normal size. A person who is insect-controlled often sits and drinks tea, though an insect fluid called blood flows quickly beneath her skin. She has an accurate walking style and can converse in one or more languages. She sleeps lying down, and uses a filter called hair to attract her mates. The small people in her house call her “Mom,” and she answers them by collapsing the tension in her face, a surrendering of control that passes for listening. When she pursues an upper-level-difficulty slalom run of housekeeping throughout her house, she has most likely failed to seal her bones from escape with fixatives called clothing. Her actions become commanded for the good of something larger, such as a naked man who resembles her father, although he might be younger and smaller and weaker, as if playing the part of her husband, though not convincingly. Her motion is voice-activated. When he addresses her, she stands on her toes and lets her arms raise up at her sides. She does a forward bend in the morning to be sure her blood pools at the top of her head. If you sliced her arm open, you would hear a faint buzzing. She has one pair of eyes, and they are often tired and red. When she uses her arms to prop up a document of regret known as a book, her bones form an ancient shape, and a brief, flashing signal is sent out through the window into the fields beyond her house, where the hive is.
From Ben Marcus’s story “Origins of the Family.” Collected in Leaving the Sea.
—But can you sketch for me a picture of your ethics?
—I think that fixed moral boundaries are harmful, even if they provide momentary comfort and save lives. I think our ethical duty is to eliminate the behavioral corsets that are cinched over children just as their explosive energy is at its most threatening. Is a tantrum disruptive, or does it point to an emotional tunnel we’re afraid of entering? The doctrines of the tantras involve meditation, mantras, ritual, and explosive behavior. We’re talking about ancient ideas that are elementary and obvious to high schoolers. My ethics? I’d like to shed the strictures of adulthood and make maturity an optional result of a freely lived human life, not the necessary path to power and success, lorded over by depressed, overweight, unimaginative corpses. The twenty most central mantras have their roots in baby talk. No one disputes this anymore. A syntax comprised of these mantras, which should not be confused with NASA’s failed language, can marshal the force of an entire infant society, but— and this is key— this syntax is not capable of instructional phrasings, so nothing can be taught, which keeps maturity and its death mask perfectly at bay.
From Ben Marcus’s story “On Not Growing Up.”
Read it at Conjunctions or in Marcus’s latest collection Leaving the Sea: Stories.
Thomas Bernhard’s first novel Frost is (unless I’m mistaken) his longest, and of the several I’ve now read, the most taxing on the reader—bitter, caustic, depressive, nihilistic.
It’s also terribly funny, the story of a young doctor hell-bent on making a career for himself who heads to the remote village of Weng to spy on Strauch, “the painter,” on behalf of Strauch’s brother, who can presumably further the narrator’s medical career. The painter, long-estranged from his family, his health deteriorating, lives (if it can be called that) in a vile inn at the bottom of a gorge. The painter’s brother dispatches the narrator to report back in the minutest detail: “Watch the way my brother holds his stick, I want a precise description of it.”
A word I learned reading Frost: “knacker.” A knacker is a person who renders, buries, or otherwise disposes of dead animals. The knacker of Weng is one of the main characters of Frost. He’s having an affair with the innkeeper, a symbolically overdetermined plot device (in a basically plotless book) that thematically ties death to hearth. Frost is savagely morbid, its blank white snow the perfect canvas for Bernhard’s bloody strokes. The abject violence of his next novel Gargoyles seems refined in comparison to the brutality of Frost. The painter declares that “the abattoir is the only essentially philosophical venue. The abattoir is the classroom and the lecture hall. The only wisdom is abattoir wisdom!” Frost is an abattoir.
Frost is also a stage play of sorts—like the other Bernhard novels I’ve read, it takes something of its form from the conventions drama: limited sets, just a handful of characters, and dialogue that usually veers into monologue. Through the course of the novels, these monologues (usually delivered by an obsessive, sanity-challenged older man) eventually ventriloquize the ostensible narrator/auditor, a stand-in for the reader’s own consciousness. Bernhard designs, builds, destroys, and then rebuilds these consciousnesses; when the painter of Frost declares that he has mastered “perspectivelessness . . . because I am so full of different perspectives,” he offers us a condensation of Bernhard’s analysis of first-person perspective and its attendant imaginative capacity as simultaneously creative and destructive.
Bernhard is an architect of consciousness more than a narrative storyteller. His project is not to reference the known world, stufﬁng it with fully rounded characters who commence to discover their conflicts with one another, but to erect complex states of mind—usually self-loathing, obsessive ones—and then set about destroying them. Bernhard’s characters are thorough accomplices in their own destruction, and they are bestowed with a language that is dementedly repetitive and besotted with the appurtenances of logical thinking. The devious rationality of Bernhard’s language strives for a severe authority, and it tends to make his characters seem believable, no matter how unhinged their claims. Phrases don’t get repeated so much as needled until they yield graver meanings, with incremental changes introduced as though a deranged scientist were adding and removing substances in the performance of an experiment.
I can’t do better than Marcus, and Frost is too long a performance to try. I will say: Gargoyles or The Loser are probably better starting places for those interested in Bernhard’s work. This suggestion isn’t meant to slight the book at all—but it does read a bit like a first novel, occasionally weighed down by (what I perceive to be) its authors need to say it all, all of it, here and now. Of course, Frost features prose-passages that any first-time novelist would be proud (and probably terrified) to have in their debuts; I’ve featured several on the site already.
But this isn’t really a review of Frost. A proper analysis of Bernhard would take the time to work through his language. I marked so much in Frost, highlighted so many passages that I’m not really sure how to go about synthesizing it.
My initial thought was to dodge it all by making a sarcastic post, a parody of the so-called “listicle,” those non-articles that seek to boil a work down to a digestible (and forgettable) summation of quotes, often with the intention of offering the reader a modicum of self-help (under the pretense of “wisdom”). Something like “Forty Inspiring Quotes from Thomas Bernhard’s Frost” or “Timeless Wisdom from Thomas Bernhard” or some such nonsense. Anyway, the next section, VII, comprises 40 citations from Frost, mostly excellent one-liners too good not to share. I’ve enumerated them and lumped them into one big block quote; they are listed in the order they come in the text. I think that they offer a painful and funny overview of the novel.
- Suddenly I heard the story of a lineman who had been asphyxiated in a snowstorm, which ended: “He never cared about anything.”
- It’s the same disgust I felt when I was a child and had to vomit outside the open doors of the slaughterhouse.
- “Nature is bloody,” he said, “but bloodiest toward her own finest, most remarkable, and choicest gifts. She grinds them down without batting an eyelid.”
- Is it permissible for suicide to be a sort of secret pleasure to a man?
- Something was splendid, and the next thing was brutal, much more brutal than the first had been splendid.
- “You’ll get to meet a whole series of monsters here.”
- “Even dreams die. Everything turns into cold. The imagination, everything.”
- “People who make a new person are taking an extraordinary responsibility upon themselves. All unrealizable. Hopeless. It’s a great crime to create a person, when you know he’ll be unhappy, certainly if there’s any unhappiness about. The unhappiness that exists momentarily is the whole of unhappiness. To produce solitude just because you don’t want to be alone anymore yourself is a crime.”
- People don’t have favorite children, they just have a lot of them.
- I’m sure imagination is an illness. An illness that you don’t catch, merely because you’ve always had it. An illness that is responsible for everything, and particularly everything ridiculous and malignant. Do you understand the imagination? What is imagination?
- “There is a pain center, and from that pain center everything radiates out,” he said; “it’s somewhere in the center of nature. Nature is built up on many centers, but principally on that pain center.”
- “Nothing is progressive, but nothing is less progressive than philosophy. Progress is tripe. Impossible.”
- Helping and mankind, the distance between those two terms.
- Who had the idea of letting people walk around on the planet, or something called a planet, only to put them in a grave, their grave, afterward?
- By and by it comes to your attention: the world around you, nothing but corruption, colossal misrule.
- “How everything has crumbled, how everything has dissolved, how all the reference points have shifted, how all fixity has moved, how nothing exists anymore, how nothing exists, you see, how all the religions and all the irreligions and the protracted absurdities of all forms of worship have turned into nothing, nothing at all, you see, how belief and unbelief no longer exist, how science, modern science, how the stumbling blocks, the millennial courts, have all been thrown out and ushered out and blown out into the air, how all of it is now just so much air … Listen, it’s all air, all concepts are air, all points of reference are air, everything is just air …” And he said: “Frozen air, everything just so much frozen air …”
- What is pain, if not pain?
- “I used to take sleeping pills,” he said, “and slowly boosted the number of pills I took. In the end, they had absolutely no effect on me, and I could have gulped any number of them, and still not have got to sleep. I repeatedly took such high dosages, I should have died. But I only ever vomited them up.”
- Everything torments me now.
- Man is an ideal hell to his fellow men.
- He was just scraps of words and dislocated phrases.
- Things have lost their power to disgust me.
- The human race was the unfruitful thing, “the only unfruitful thing in the whole world. It serves no purpose. It can’t be made into anything. It can’t be eaten. It isn’t a raw material for some process outside itself.”
- “Men like rats, chopped up by street sweepers’ shovels. Too many negotiations with humans have done me in.”
- The ruin of mankind had been a child’s dream.
- The food had been better than for any corpse she could remember.
- “The frost eats everything up,” said the painter, “trees, humans, animals, and whatever is in the trees and the humans and the animals. The blood stalls, and at great speed. You can break apart a frozen human like a piece of stale bread.”
- There were no real humans anymore, just death masks of real humans.
- The nightmarish sweat of fear, that’s the air.
- Truth leads downhill, points downhill, truth is always an abyss.
- The abattoir is the classroom and the lecture hall. The only wisdom is abattoir wisdom!
- You wake up, and you feel molested.
- Everything is barbarous kitsch.
- “And when I saw the grisly chopped-up animals, I had to burst out laughing, I burst out into extraordinary laughter. Do you know what that means? It means horror demands laughter!”
- Various venerable old families would assemble “in a spirit of megalomania, to shoot holes in nature.
- It’s a mistake to count on people.
- Every object I see hurts me.
- ” . . . hopelessness … There is only one way to go, through the snow and ice into despair; past the adultery of reason.”
- “The world is a progressive dimming of light,.”
- The breeding of a human being (thinking most rigorously of himself) is the decision of the father (first and foremost) and of the mother (as well) to sponsor the suicide of their offspring, the child, the sudden premonition “of having created a new suicide.”
So somehow in September, I neglected to write a single book review—not even a riff!—on this blog. Mea culpa, mea culpa. This oversight (not really an oversight) I mayhap blame on the nascent Fall semester. Or perhaps I should pin it on a certain fatigue after working my way through Pynchon’s mammoth beast Against the Day and Bernhard’s caustic Gargoyles at the end of the summer. But I shouldn’t blame the Thomases. No, I’ve been reading too much at once again. Bad habit.
So, what have I been reading?
Thomas Bernhard’s early novel Frost (on my Kindle, in the dark, often not exactly sober). I posted an excerpt of Ben Marcus’s review of the novel earlier, which I think does a nice job of describing Bernhard’s project. I’m really close to the end, but the novel wears me down—I experienced a similar feeling when I doubled up Correction and The Loser—I should’ve taken a break I think. Still, an excellent, funny read.
Donald Barthelme’s Sixty Stories: I don’t know why anyone wouldn’t own this book. There are a lot of negatives in that sentence; let me reword: Sixty Stories is perfect, a trove, a performance of an author doing stuff that no other author can do. I think I read most of this in college and just sort of went “check” next to it and moved on and I’m certain I didn’t get what he was doing like I do now—just amazing stuff.
I’ve already posted a few excerpts from the latest collection of Susan Sontag’s journals and notebooks, As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh. I like this collection more than the last one—there’s almost a curatorial aspect to Sontag, who is perhaps in her intellectual prime near the end of the journals—or, maybe prime is not the right word; rather, it’s like her mind (which we get to access in some sense via her entries) is so finely attuned (and at times perfectly out of tune) with the intellectual milieu of the day. I’ll be posting a full review sometime in the next two weeks.
S.D. Chrostowska’s novel Permission, new from Dalkey Archive, is lovely stuff—and again, it’ll get its own proper review on here once I can muster the strength. Chrostowska does all sorts of things here that shouldn’t work—cite directly from Blanchot, Derrida, et al—but it does work. The novel is Sebaldian, soaked in history and literature, a book about books, writing about writing. Full review forthcoming. Short review: It’s very very good.
I picked up Tom Clark’s Fractured Karma two weeks ago somewhat randomly. My local bookshop had reorganized some shelves, putting all the Black Sparrow titles together. Fractured Karma must have been on top, because I don’t see how else I would’ve picked up a book with the word “karma” in the title. The book opened to this page:
That’s all there is on that page, and something about it—the form, the phrasing—cracked me up. It’s part of a long poem called “He was born blind” about the British comedy actor George Formby. The poem is amazing: I read it there in the store. It reminded me immediately of David Markson’s notecard novels—something about how Clark includes so much reality into his poem. But there’s also this perceptive (if oblique) sense of humor behind it all. I ended up devouring the book, reading the whole thing that weekend. It was one of those holy shit reading moments, frankly. Once I finish typing this I’m going to go pick my kids up and we’re going to go to the bookstore and I’m going to get another Tom Clark book and read it this weekend.
Here’s his poem about The Purple One:
There was a time when I could travel England for weeks on end and remain at my sharpest—when, if anything, the travelling gave me an edge. But now that I am older I become disoriented more easily. So it was that on arriving at the village just after dark I failed to find my bearings at all. I could hardly believe I was in the same village in which not so long ago I had lived and come to exercise such influence.
There was nothing I recognized, and I found myself walking forever around twisting, badly lit streets hemmed in on both sides by the little stone cottages characteristic of the area. The streets often became so narrow I could make no progress without my bag or my elbow scraping one rough wall or another. I persevered nevertheless, stumbling around in the darkness in the hope of coming upon the village square—where I could at least orient myself—or else of encountering one of the villagers. When after a while I had done neither, a weariness came over me, and I decided my best course was just to choose a cottage at random, knock on the door, and hope it would be opened by someone who remembered me.
I stopped by a particularly rickety-looking door, whose upper beam was so low that I could see I would have to crouch right down to enter. A dim light was leaking out around the door’s edges, and I could hear voices and laughter. I knocked loudly to insure that the occupants would hear me over their talk. But just then someone behind me said, “Hello.”
Bernhard is an architect of consciousness more than a narrative storyteller. His project is not to reference the known world, stuffing it with fully rounded characters who commence to discover their conflicts with one another, but to erect complex states of mind-usually self-loathing, obsessive ones-and then set about destroying them. Bernhard’s characters are thorough accomplices in their own destruction, and they are bestowed with a language that is dementedly repetitive and besotted with the appurtenances of logical thinking. The devious rationality of Bernhard’s language strives for a severe authority, and it tends to make his characters seem believable, no matter how unhinged their claims. Phrases don’t get repeated so much as needled until they yield graver meanings, with incremental changes introduced as though a deranged scientist were adding and removing substances in the performance of an experiment. “You wake up, and you feel molested,” Strauch says:
In fact: the hideous thing. You open your chest of drawers :a further molestation. Washing and dressing are molestations. Having to get dressed! Having to eat breakfast! When you go out on the street you are subject to the gravest possible molestations. You are unable to shield yourself. You lay about yourself, but it’s no use. The blows you dole out are returned a hundred fold. What are streets, anyway? Wendings of molestation, up and down. Squares? Bundled together molestations.
Without a story to drive it, Frost builds not through unfolding events but by telemarking around Strauch’s bitter cosmology while the narrator follows him through the woods, fattening himself on the rage of his new mentor. A chart of Strauch’s worldview would produce a splotchy Rorschach of points and counterpoints, contradictions, reversals, and the occasional backflip, none of which could really hold up to a logician’s scrutiny, which adds to his mystery. Strauch, a failed artist who only painted in total darkness, is opposed to nearly everything, and lest you think he’s a humanist at the core, with a fondness for the arts (that classic virtue of the misanthrope), he claims that “artists are the sons and daughters of loathsomeness, of paradisiac shamelessness, the original sons and daughters of lewdness; artists, painters, writers and musicians are the compulsive masturbators on the planet.”
From Ben Marcus’s 2011 essay “Misery Loves Nothing,” first published in Harper’s and available in full for free at Marcus’s site. I’m about halfway through Bernhard’s early novel Frost, a book that is very dark, bitter, intriguing, and funny. Very very funny.
Some folks I know and whose taste I trust told me about Jason Schwartz, whose new novel (“novel” is not the right word) John the Posthumous is forthcoming from OR Books (the final cover art, which you can see via OR’s site, is much nicer than the reader copy above).
The book bears blurbs from Sam Lipsyte and Ben Marcus and Gordon Lish—so that should be enough for you. (It was enough to pique me).
What is it about? Violence. Cuckoldry. Murder. Satan. Ritual. Animals. Beds. Etc. I don’t know. I’m a little over half way through, and I keep rereading it compulsively, rereading the sentences. Schwartz’s prose approaches a dark, poetic logic of substitutions and omissions that is probably best left unexplicated, but I’ll do a write up after the Fourth of July anyway. Here’s Lish’s praise (a short story in itself):
And two samples from the book (context is unimportant; or, rather everything—that is, the context of the entire book, in that the book is its own idiom, if you follow (or don’t)):
On a dark winter morning at the Müllerhaus men’s hostel, Julian Bledstein reached for his Dopp kit. At home, he could medicate himself blindfolded, but here, across the ocean, it wasn’t so easy. The room stank, and more than one young man was snoring. The beds in the old gymnasium were singles, which didn’t keep certain of the guests from coupling when the lights went out. Sometimes Julian could hear them going at it, fornicating as if with silencers on. He studied the sounds when he couldn’t sleep, picturing the worst: animals strapped to breathing machines, children smothered under blankets. In the morning he could never tell just who had been making love. The men dressed and left for the day, avoiding eye contact, mesmerized in the glow of their cell phones.
Julian held his breath and squeezed the syringe, draining untold dollars’ worth of questionable medicine into the flesh of his thigh. He clipped a bag holding the last of his money to the metal underside of his bed. His father’s hard-earned money. Not enough euros left. Not nearly enough. He’d have to make a call, poor-mouth into the phone until his father’s wallet spit out more bills.
1. I don’t know.
I spent most of this day—Sunday that is—swamping out my garden shed, recently rat-infested. Big wood rats, or river rats as we sometimes call them here, some of us.
This meant sterilizing the whole deal, spraying a bleach solution, wearing appropriate eye and nose and mouth protection, because getting older and having kids I now seem to care about my oh-so-important sensory organs more than I did in my twenties. This meant removing rat feces and a few dead rats. Just fucking gross, really.
I don’t know.
2. Point 1 has almost nothing to do with Ben Marcus’s novel The Flame Alphabet. It’s just that I told myself I’d finally write about it here, after finishing it a few weeks ago and all. The farther out it gets, the harder it is to write about.
3. But really, there is some kind of corollary between my rat business and The Flame Alphabet: Both were repellent experiences. Now, to be fair, the rat purging dealie was wholly repellent and in no way intriguing, whereas Marcus’s book was simultaneously attractive and repellent. The novel’s ugliness hit me hard sometimes, and the final chapters were a sludgy slog.
4. Maybe you’re just like, Hey, c’mon, cut it out with the rats, nobody came here for that, get with the program, tell us the plot:
So, language becomes toxic. First in kids, who hold an immunity of some kind, but the toxicity spreads to all elements of language and just kills people and makes them sick &c. In this mix our (reliably unreliable) narrator Sam kinda sorta tries to protect/save/help his family, wife Claire and daughter Esther. He undertakes home experiments, his “smallwork,” and keeps up the old time religion of the forest Jews (you’ll have to read the book for clues to this mysticism; I am too exhausted from rat-swamping to further explicate).
Society falls apart, sort of. (This is one of the major maybe-problems with The Flame Alphabet: There’s this hideous apocalypse underway but there also seems to be authority somewhere, external to the narrative, a government or scientific cadre or just really a they who keep the system moving, bread baking, electricity crackling &c).
There’s our narrator’s nemesis LeBov (the name undoubtedly borrowed from William Labov, who you learned about in your linguistics classes, I’m sure).
Midway through the novel our feckless hero starts new smallwork for Labov. LeBov is my favorite character—whenever he shows up the novel is alchemically invigorated.
Other stuff happens.
5. Really though, The Flame Alphabet is an apocalypse novel, filled with mounds of salt and despair and isolation and probably madness, rarely energized by action, but hardly ponderous.
6. (Here’s a paltry criticism for me to critically make: I wish The Flame Alphabet was shorter. Like significantly shorter. Maybe a novella. Maybe a long short story).
7. Finishing the novel, I sketched out a list, which hey why not just cut and paste here:
- Joseph Cornell’s boxes.
- Much of J.G. Ballard, especially the stuff in the ’70s and ’80s.
- The Residents.
- The films of the Brothers Quay.
- Charles Burns’s stuff.
- Wm. Burroughs, or the idea of Wm. Burroughs.
- Joseph Beuys and his goddamn fat and felt.
This is the stuff that The Flame Alphabet reminded me of—this and David Cronenberg’s films, which Jesus, how did they not make the list?
8. I mean, really, I think Ben Marcus has given us a sort of lost Cronenberg film here. Maybe what the book most reminded me of, language plot aside, was Cronenberg’s underrated icky 1999 effort eXistenZ, a film that seems to take place in several worlds at once (including the imaginations of the protagonist and the viewer).
9. Actually, comparing Marcus’s novel to a film is stupid.
Really, I think what The Flame Alphabet most resembles—its best parts, I mean—are directions to some kind of far-out art installation.
Which may be a way of saying The Flame Alphabet is best—or really, I like The Flame Alphabet best—when it recalls Ben Marcus’s older, more “experimental” stuff.
10. To wit:
The practice of language smoking originates in Bolivia but quickly travels north. In Mexico City it is perfected. Words and sentences tested by a delegate in a smoke-filled tube, at the end of which is stationed a sacrificial listener called, for unknown reasons, the bell.
The bell’s brain, when he dies, is pulled and separated into loaves. The loaves are tagged and named. Only drawings survive.
11. Or maybe you want some textual evidence of TFA’s Cronenbergian contours:
Ruptured mattresses littered the floor, sleeping bags with the bottoms kicked through. A brittle pillow bore the facial welt of the last patient who slept here. A man’s work shirt had been chewed, swallowed, spit up in a glaze of bile.
Mesh baggies of hair hung from the ceiling, repelling flies. Possibly the hair attracted them instead.
12. Or a Joseph Beuys moment. Our narrator in his language lab:
To test this I created white text on white paper, gray on gray, froze water into text-like shapes and allowed it to melt on select surfaces—slate, wood, felt—which it scarred so gently, you’d need a magnifying glass to spot the writing.
13. And a passage that showcases our narrator’s smallwork as an act of love (of sorts):
On Esther’s final birthday in our house I went to the kitchen to get to work on the cake. There wasn’t much food left in the cupboard, just some pancake mix and a blend of baking powders I’d dumped into a bag. From the meaty, mineral smell I figured this would give a lift to the cake, at least if I got the batter down to room temperature and shocked it into a hot oven so it might have some spring.
For liquids I had an egg and some buttermilk, the custardy sludge from the bottom of the carton.
I could boil the buttermilk to kill off bacteria, then flash freeze it before dumping it into the batter. The egg, too, would need flame, because it was likely spoiled by now.
I broke it into a pan, stifled a gag, then whisked it over a simmer until it frothed up, sputtered, and grew clear again. Mostly it did not congeal. The hardened parts were easy to flick out. When the pan cooled I slid it into the freezer, went to work on sifting the powders.
For sugar I reduced the last of the orange juice until it thickened into a syrup, then whipped in a thread of honey. This would have to do, because I needed the last of the sugar for frosting. I liked to feather it on lightly, then comb it up while hardening it with the medical cold blower, as if the cake had a fright wig.
The frosting I colored silver with a bead of food-grade aluminum.
14. These are all great fragments. Let’s keep going:
15. Desire—need—predicates language:
Presumably if you wanted nothing, you’d have no occasion to speak.
16. And Beckett:
“Failures have their place in our work,” he admitted, after hearing me out. “I’ve had my flirtations with failure. There is a small allure there. I commend you for seeking out failure so aggressively. But this idea people have of failing on purpose, failing better? Look at who says that. Just look at them. Look at them very carefully.”
17. Failure: Failure to imagine (better):
The linguist held forth, smugly dismissing an idea that had recently come into its own. It interested me that the linguist’s inability to imagine something constituted a sound rejection of its possibility.
We kept believing it couldn’t get any worse, as if our imaginations held sway in the natural world. We should have known that whatever we couldn’t imagine was exactly what was coming next.
19. I think I’ve shared a nice slice of Marcus’s prose. Dude can sling it. Seriously. I think he’s a great writer. I just wish more was stripped away from The Flame Alphabet. Feels overtly novelly at times—I mean, yes, it’s a novel, but this seems to be its biggest weakness: Marcus’s concessions to the form.
20. ( Let me parenthetically insert here what might be my biggest problem with The Flame Alphabet: I felt the ghost of Sam Lipsyte working under its contours. And I love Lipsyte’s stuff, seriously—but I often felt like Marcus was copping Lipsyte’s syntax, rhythms etc. as a means to a more, I dunno, normal narrative.
And while I’m here, in these parentheses, maybe I should direct you to a good and proper and real review. David Winters does a marvelous job at The Millions. And he brings up the Lipsyte thing that I just brought up, but he does a better job parsing the two styles than I.
21. The biggest tussle I had with TFA though is undoubtedly my agon (look how I make myself protagonist!) with its confounding reading rules.
The novel’s overtly parricidal/infantical scope, its estranging metaphors of language and extinctions, its remote anxieties of parenting—all of these pop up like red flags.
I wanted to—no, I set out to–-deny the book as an allegory. I sought to resist metaphor, symbolism, analogy. But it’s hard, you know?
22. “Mythology is the lowest temptation,” our narrator tells us at one point.
And then Marcus wedges fairy tales and fables into the mixology.
23. And then our narrator:
I grew so alert to its obvious meanings that they sickened me, leading me to secondary, ironic intentions, disguises of rhetoric I would not normally notice. But soon these, too, felt fraudulent and then I returned to the literal meanings, which had gained more force now that I’d spurned them. That, however, did not last, and by the end the words had shucked their meaning entirely and evolved into a language of groaning, beyond interpretation. Or susceptible to the most obvious interpretation of all.
Language! Language! The problem of language!
24. And hence, what I take to be the book’s thesis, a two-sentence manifesto:
Explanations of any kind, in fact, were simply extinct.
Among the many rhetorical modes that had perished.
25. Does The Flame Alphabet enact its own holocaust, its own perishing; does it self-immolate? I don’t think so—although maybe that’s not what it sets out to do, maybe that’s just what I think it should do. I see a stronger book writhing there under the language, eager to consume some of the unnecessary pages, paragraphs, sentences, words. A book that would consume itself. (This is a silly metaphysical conceit; please move on).
26. So maybe I’ve knocked on the book a bit, rated it low even, you may perceive, dear reader: Let me be clear then: The Flame Alphabet is the sort of burning ugly vibrant affecting blazing grueling confounding bizarre novels that we need more of. It’s stronger than most of the contemporary stuff out there, definitely the stuff coming from the major houses. And if I seem to pick at it, it’s only because I see in it concessions to a so-called reading public; I wished to see Marcus pull publishing and readers closer to him.
I won’t forget cleaning the dead rats from the shed anytime soon; neither will I forget reading The Flame Alphabet.