Wednesday, March 28, 2012
Author: Ben Marcus
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf
Length: 289 pgs
Viruses run rampant in literature. There’s something appealing about setting a virus loose in a story and letting it do its damage. It makes writing a lot easier. After all you don’t have to fret over killing off your babies. You can just let the virus take its course.
In Ben Marcus’s latest novel The Flame Alphabet he’s found a novel virus to kill off many of his characters. Language is corrupted, when delivered from the mouths of babes, sickening and killing adults. In a world polluted by noise, that’s a pretty scary way to go.
Sam and his wife Claire fight to survive this deadly virus, while their daughter Esther who pollutes the air with her vile language thrives. Only it’s a matter of time before Esther will succumb to the disease as she ages. While Claire continues to cling to whatever love she has left for her daughter, Sam wavers between love and disgust for what Esther is doing to their family. Marcus doesn’t explain what causes the disease, except that it seems to originate within the Jewish community and that it infects the alphabet as well. Adults are now unable to speak, listen, or read any form of language.
Sam tries to find medical relief for himself and his wife. First he attempts to create a medicine based on various drugs he’s distilled into smoke or a liquid he injects into his wife. He and Claire travel to the woods near their home where they’ve set up a hut that is a makeshift synagogue. There they listen to sermons and instructions from Rabbi Burke in an underground Jewish network. Murphy, an interloper, wants to learn their secrets. He thinks they have answers to why this is happening. Murphy turns out to be the leading scientist LeBov who has blamed Jews for the virus and whose unorthodox research has led him to become both pariah and soothsayer. Needless to say, after the children are quarantined and the adults sent to LeBov’s laboratory, Sam is forced to work on a new alphabet that will provide relief to sufferers. He finally escapes and returns to his former hut in the hopes of finding his daughter and become the father he had denied himself before. The novel ends with Sam still waiting, resolved to his new life of silence.
While The Flame Alphabet has a plot that's more discernible than Marcus’s previous novels, it is still experimental. It forces the reader to contemplate each sentence to parse meaning and understanding. Marcus, who several years ago defended experimentalism against an attack by Jonathan Franzen, is also committed to language even as he imagines a world without one. His observations are fully enveloped in the world of its narrator so that the two become one: “The lights of Rochester were only mildly brighter than the darkness, small pale stains oiling the air.”
While the language is beautifully observed, it is also oblique. There were parts where I wasn’t quite certain what was happening. That’s largely because the story rests somewhat on understanding Judaism, which left me at a disadvantage. Yet at its core the story is about relationships and how language and the spoken and written word bonds us. As Sam shrewdly observed, “I was never very good at knowing Claire’s feelings, even, unfortunately, after she’d shared them with me. Somehow I still didn’t understand. Now, in silence, insights into my wife were out of reach entirely.” Without language societies break down and all one is left with is oneself.
The Flame Alphabet is a difficult and sad book. I was reminded of the ways in which language today has been polluted by nonsense and meaninglessness. Marcus offers no such hope that once this language is lost that it will ever be regained. That depressing thought should bring everyone to pause.