‘Structure is content, geometry is everything’ – The Flame Alphabet by Ben Marcus

I have to say, I was looking forward to this book before I read it. In addition to the fact that I remember the quiet fuss around one of Marcus’ previous book, The Age of Wire & String (which made it one of those books I meant to read when I got time), I was also, I must admit, impressed by the battery of names providing cover quotes to The Flame Alphabet itself: Michael Chabon, Rick Moody, Jonathan Lethem, all of whom wax themselves into a froth to be the first to proclaim the book a classic. Despite the fact that the novel seemed cast in the same mould as Kevin Brockmeier’s The Illumination (where Brockmeier had a sudden outbreak of light shining through all wounds, Marcus has language, specifically, or at first, the language of children, becoming toxic) and despite the back cover quote from Remainder author Tom McCarthy which left a bad taste in my mouth (‘The Flame Alphabet drags the contemporary novel… back toward the track it should be following’ – thanks Tom for pointing out the correct path, itself clear to you, us lesser mortals should be treading), I was, as I say, really looking forward to The Flame Alphabet.

Centring on Sam, who narrates, and his wife Claire and their daughter Esther, the novel opens largely in situ and then flits back and forth from the seeming present to the near past, fleshing out how the characters came to find themselves in the position they do (although ‘fleshing out’ may be too strong, the skin hangs loose on the bones). Sam and Claire suffer in proximity to their daughter and blossom, briefly, apart, as other parents seem to when their community hooks up for a picnic. Sam begins a strange friendship with a curious local called Murphy who feeds him pamphlets written by a largely derided academic called LeBov who attempted to warn people of the problem before it became a problem, using possibly made-up literary annotations. At the same time, Esther appears to align herself with wayward local gangs who have taken to shouting other local residents to unconsciousness. Sam and Claire, it should be said, are also Jewish, of a very particular Jewish persuasion, given to listening to sermons that emerge from a hole in the ground. Eventually, Sam and Claire attempt to escape, are divided and Sam ends up attempting to come up with a new form of communication at a sort of laboratory working for Murphy who may also be LeBov, work LeBov derides, searching as he is for some unguent that can be removed from children and used like a jam to make language palatable again – his plan to ‘suck their essence… into a cup, to be boiled down somewhere into a speech-releasing agent’.

‘I will be dead by the time you read this,’ Sam informs us:

‘We do not get to survey the people of the future, who laugh at how little we knew, how poorly we felt things, how softly we knocked at the door that protected all the best remedies. You are monstrous and unreal to me now, it is important that you know that. You are my reader but I cannot reach into your face and pull out your secrets. Perhaps you live in a time when someone else’s harm is not bound up in your pursuit of words and you traffic easily with the acoustical weapon, the clustered scripts. Congratulations, if so. I remember those days, too. It is my true wish you enjoy yourself.’

How does Sam get to write these words without falling sick himself? I’m not sure the novel tells you, although at one point, referring to something else Murphy/LeBov says:

‘I’m fascinated by people who pout when they can’t find sense and logic, as if it’s not fair when something in nature doesn’t reveal a pattern. It’s a fucking epidemic, and the logic is impenetrable. That’s how it succeeds, by being inconsistent and unknowable. Fairness is for toddlers in the fucking sandbox.’

The conclusion of the book arrives with parents, waiting for children to grow up and emerge from their compound:

‘But what they did next, where they went and what happened after they arrived, what those people actually did with their days when silence was enforced by the speech fever, that information is not available to me. I refuse to make up stories about such people. To refrain from storytelling is perhaps one of the highest forms of respect we can pay. Those people, with no stories to circle them, can die without being misunderstood.’

In a review of two books by Jean-Philippe Toussaint in the London Review of Books, Tom McCarthy said, ‘We don’t want plot, depth or content: we want angles, arcs and intervals; we want pattern. Structure is content, geometry is everything.’ The Flame Alphabet is firmly in this camp. This is a novel of ideas that largely eschews plot, depth or content, a child born of Reality Hunger. The problem is – and it’s a problem for McCarthy too, not, I’m sure, that he cares – some readers, this reader, for instance, like plot and depth and character. I’m not opposed to the grand tradition of anti-humanist writings that McCarthy and his ilk are so fond of – I just oppose the fact that one seems to judge and look down upon the other. It’s fine for you to like nice books with – sneer of derision – stories in them. Just understand that you remain beneath our contempt for doing so. Because Sam is largely a cypher that allows Marcus to explore what he wants to explore (what happens after language), which itself requires language, his actions lack convincing etiology: LeBov latches on to Sam for no clear reason other than the fact he is the narrator of this book; LaBov returns to Sam time and again despite the fact that he has nothing but derision for everything Sam does; Sam becomes a master of language, seemingly apropos of nothing previous; one moment Sam has the ability to walk away from his admittedly poisonous daughter without a backward look, the next he is returning, Marcus forging a climax from air (or wire and string – The Flame Alphabet is awash with wire and string). The novel feels inflexible, forged from stone. I also felt that Marcus did not fully explore the possibilities presented by the disease itself (as Brockmeier does in The Illumination): what is happening elsewhere in the world, does it affect the deaf in the same way, etc (but then ‘fairness is for toddlers’, right?). He is more interested in what happens to language when language becomes toxic – and yet he writes this story in language that, if sometimes bright and unusual on the page, is still recognisably language. For me, Mark Dunn does a better job exploring the end of language in Ella Minnow Pea and Dunn doesn’t do it with such a po-faced expression. It also reads like a book written by someone who doesn’t like kids very much; there isn’t a great deal of understanding of the child/parental bond, it seems inexplicable to Marcus. Parents in The Flame Alphabet leave their kids in droves. Readers of the book may do the same, provided they’re not swept up in what may be one of those collective spurts of lunacy we sometimes see in critical circle-jerks. Ultimately, my impression of the book was best summed up by some of Sam’s research:

‘The reading did not harm me. I scanned through what was written but felt nothing. Sometimes numbness took me, working like a vacuum to siphon off what I knew, but it did not feel connected to reading. It felt like a headache that had grown cold, pulled long, a headache on the move through parts of me I never knew felt pain.’

Any Cop?: Resolutely not for me. It’s not a bad novel by any means but it’s a novel that fails to come to life – which may exactly be the point (so well done if that was what was intended) but doesn’t lessen the sense of frustration. One for fans of academics, undergraduates and fans of Blake Butler.
Peter Wild


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