Posts tagged ‘Flame Alphabet’

March 11, 2013

I Try to Review Ben Marcus’s Novel The Flame Alphabet

by Edwin Turner
Bulgarian Child Eating a Rat, Salvador Dali

Bulgarian Child Eating a Rat, Salvador Dali

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:

Okay:

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.

La Grande Roue Orthochromatique…, Max Ernst

La Grande Roue Orthochromatique…, Max Ernst

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:

    1. Joseph Cornell’s boxes.
    2. Much of J.G. Ballard, especially the stuff in the ’70s and ’80s.
    3. The Residents.
    4. The films of the Brothers Quay.
    5. Charles Burns’s stuff.
    6. Wm. Burroughs, or the idea of Wm. Burroughs.
    7. 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.

The Pack, Joseph Beuys

The Pack, Joseph Beuys

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.

Hotel Eden, Joseph Cornell

Hotel Eden, Joseph Cornell

18. And:

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 AlphabetFeels 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.

Oh, and there’s also this chapter where Marcus totally imitates/pays homage to David Markson).

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).

Two Rats, Vincent van Gogh

Two Rats, Vincent van Gogh

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. 

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February 20, 2013

Ben Marcus Doing His David Markson Impression

by Biblioklept

In his early writings, Thoreau called the alphabet the saddest song. Later in life he would renounce this position and say it produced only dissonant music.

Letters, Montaigne said, are a necessary evil.

But are they? asked Blake, years later. I shall write of the world without them.

I would grow mold on the language, said Pasteur. Except nothing can grow on that cold, dead surface.

Of words Teresa of Avila said, I did not live to erase them all.

They make me sick, said Luther. Yours and yours and yours. Even sometimes my own.

If it can be said, then I am not interested, wrote Schopenhauer.

When told to explain himself, a criminal in Arthur’s court simply pointed at the large embroidered alphabet that hung above the king.

Poets need a new instrument, said Shelley.

If I could take something from the world, said Nietzsche, and take with it even the memory of that thing, so that the world might carry on ever forward with not even the possibility that thing could exist again, it would be the language that sits rotting inside my mouth.

I am a writer, said Picasso. I make my own letters.

Shall I destroy this now, or shall I wait for you to leave the room, said his patron to Kadmos, the reputed inventor of the alphabet.

Kadmos is a fraud, said Wheaton. Said Nestor. Said William James.

Do not read this, warned Plutarch.

Do not read this, warned Cicero.

Do not read this, begged Ovid.

If you value your life. Bleed a man, and with that vile release spell out his name in the sand, prescribed Hippocrates.

No alphabet but in things, said Williams.

Correction. No alphabet at all.

The entirety of Chapter 35 of Ben Marcus’s novel The Flame Alphabet. It’s a departure of style from the novel that seems to owe more than a passing nod to David Markson’s notecard novels.

 

February 4, 2013

Ben Marcus/Victor Segalen/George Saunders (Books Acquired, 2.01.2013)

by Biblioklept

20130203-165505.jpg

I went to the bookstore on Friday afternoon to drop off some trade-ins and order a few books for my wife and kids for Valentine’s Day. I had no intention of buying anything, but a bit of random browsing led to me leaving with Ben Marcus’s collection Notable American Women (how could I resist that blurb?), a collection of George Saunders essays, and René Leys by Victor Segalen—the NYRB edition stuck out, and then the blurb sold me on this tale of a Westerner trying to access the Forbidden City of imperial China.

I’m reading Ben Marcus’s The Flame Alphabet right now, along with some short stories by Yoko Ogawa, as well as Lars Iyer’s latest, Exodus; I’m pretty sure René Leys is on deck after one of those.

 

January 15, 2013

Ben Marcus’s The Flame Alphabet (Book Acquired, 1.11.2013)

by Biblioklept

20130115-162753.jpg

Ben Marcus’s The Flame Alphabet is newish in trade paperback from the nice people at Vintage. I’ve been wanting to read it after absorbing Marcus’s The Age of Wire and String last year. I hear that The Flame Alphabet is more conventional than that earlier work, although a breakfast-menu-as-novel would be more conventional, really. Anyway, this one is up on deck, so no blurbage this time.

In place of the normal blurb I offer with these “book acquired” posts, here’s Marcus on David Markson (from “The Genre Artist,” published in a 2003 issue of The Believer):

 . . . when, for example, David Markson, an expository novelist who fired the starting gun for fictions of information and proved that pure exposition can be alarmingly moving, who purposefully tells instead of shows, is dismissed in The New York Times for failing to provide a story in his novel Reader’s Block, no discussion follows about why, exactly, fiction must have one (at 150 words in the book review, how could any discussion follow?). Nor do we learn what a story might have looked like in such an exquisitely felt book that, to summarize, catalogs the various ways historical figures have hated whole races of people and/or died by their own hands. (Yes, you should read this book.)

Markson should have presumably, under the fiction-must-have-a-story criteria, zeroed in on one of his hundreds of characters and gone deep, doing that good old-time psychological work, the person-making stuff, dramatizing how such an interesting fellow had gone on to hate Jews and/or kill himself. Markson should have used more words like “then.” He should have sequenced. He seems to have forgotten that literature is supposedly a time-based art.

Markson’s amnesia is one of the happy accidents of the last decade of fiction writing. By eschewing a fetishistic, conventional interest in character, or a dutiful allegiance to moment creation, to occurrence itself, Markson accomplishes what a story, slogging through time and obedient to momentum, arguably could not: a commanding, obsessive portrait of single behaviors throughout history, a catalog of atrocity that overwhelms through relentless example. In truth, it’s a novel that can be read as an essay, but unlike most essays, it’s lyrically shrewd, poetry in the form of history, and it’s brave enough to provide creepy, gaping holes where we normally might encounter context (the burden of the conventional essayist).

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