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 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.