I love finding old pocket paperbacks in thrift stores. That’s how I ended up with a 1960s-era British pocket Penguin edition of Saul Bellow’s Seize the Day. On the cover, the price is listed as “3’6” which, though I’ve been to England, I can’t decipher. On the first page, in pencil is the price – 50p – wanted by some British used book dealer years ago, and in pen, the name of one of the book’s former owners. I myself got the book for around fifty cents or a dollar from one of the neighborhood secondhand shops, and though I’d love to keep it on my shelf, I’m tempted to release it back into the wild so it may continue on its journey. The book does indeed fit in my pocket and so was a good one to take on my recent trip to Los Angeles. I read the book in its entirety on the plane ride home. I love reading books like that, in one sitting while in transit, because it feeds into a romantic notion I have of what I might spend my days doing if I had no other responsibilities. But, of course, I have responsibilities and so does Tommy Wilhelm, the protagonist of Bellow’s book. Wilhelm, a failed Hollywood actor living in a New York hotel a few floors removed from his father, appears to be nearing the low ebb of a long downward slide. He has lost his job, owes money to his wife (who won’t give him a divorce), rarely sees his children, fell out with his mistress, and is so nearly penniless that he must ask his father to cover the rent. Tommy’s father, Dr. Adler (Tommy changed his name in Hollywood), sees his son as a big baby. Seize the Day reminded me of both Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer and John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces. All the books of ruminating, somewhat pathetic male protagonists who appear to live their lives mostly in their heads. Wilhelm ruminates mostly on sorrows of lost opportunities, yet the book is shot through with humor as well, especially as Wilhelm gets more and more wrapped up in a stock market scheme. Bellow’s book is sad and funny and deserves to be read far more than it is. (Special thanks to Millions contributor Patrick who first pointed me to this book years ago – it just took a little while for me to get to it.)
Near the start of The Flame Alphabet, we find the novel’s narrator fretting over the falseness of narrative. The protagonist, Sam, is part put-upon husband, part picaresque everyman. Most of all, though, he’s a storyteller; one of those “reliable narrators” of old-fashioned literary lore. Keen to set the scene, Sam’s on the lookout for novelistic “motifs,” and maybe even “a fine bit of foreshadowing.” But reality falls far short of such bookish ambitions. “What is it called when the landscape mirrors the condition of the poor fucks who live in it?” he wonders. “Whatever it is, it was not in effect.” This calls to mind Samuel Beckett’s aside, mid-description: ‘to hell with all this fucking scenery.’ What’s at stake in both cases is more than merely a rhetorical reflection on the rift between life and literature. With Ben Marcus, as with Beckett, such disruptions are signs of literature itself being stretched and tensed, pressed to express the process of a writer testing his limits.
Ben Marcus’ earlier books – especially his debut, The Age of Wire and String – expressed much the same thing by foregrounding their formal experimentation. Yet the marvel of The Flame Alphabet is that it reads in an even more artfully alien way, with no fragmentation of form at all. The energy of the book is entirely embedded in narrative action; in content. Put simply, Marcus has managed to craft a story so disturbing that it’s best told with absolute clarity. The plot occurs in a parallel world whose place names echo our own (New York; Wisconsin) yet whose social reality quickly, queasily slips outside of any recognizable frame of reference. Sam, Claire, and their daughter Esther are an “ordinary” Jewish family, settled in an eerily serene suburban setting straight out of The Twilight Zone. This is B-movie blank canvas suburbia; the sort of place whose existence dictates that something is about to go wrong. And go wrong it does. The children (Jews first, then Gentiles) contract a condition that infects their speech. In other words, their words become toxic. While they remain healthy, their verbal vectors sicken their parents. Soon all adults fall ill, families collapse, quarantines are called, and the infection spreads so far that any form of spoken or written language is rendered “off-limits.”
Likening language to a virus is an old Burroughsian trope, of course, but in Burroughs it’s basically just a routine; a clever abstraction. Marcus makes it more forcefully, hurtfully concrete. Indeed, his creation of a fully immersive fictional world (as opposed to a formal experiment) allows him to take a real emotional toll on his readers. After all, a life without language would be one of harrowing sadness. Deep down, then, The Flame Alphabet is less about linguistics than the decay of relationships, the fracturing of familial loyalties, and the everyday heartbreak of human estrangement. All of this is affectingly drawn by Marcus – particularly the teenage Esther’s alienation from her parents, a painfully familiar part of any family drama, viral or not.
But while Marcus’ transparent narrative is supple enough to capture such subtleties, it also enables events to acquire a terrifying immediacy. Those events often are truly shocking; among several stomach-churning scenes, one involving a surgical needle cries out for adaptation by Cronenberg. On a more metaphysical level, we can note that this is a world which goes on getting worse – which is, like a nightmare, both believably realistic and, as Sam puts it at one point, “impossible.” Think of the revelation of the world’s unreality at the end of Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle. Think, too, of the philosopher Ernst Bloch’s uneasy feeling that “the real world cannot be true.” This unreal realism, a background hum of incredulous horror, is what fans the flames of The Flame Alphabet. As Sam says, “we should have known that whatever we couldn’t imagine was exactly what was coming next.”
Sure enough, the story only gets stranger. Soon it turns out that Sam and Claire aren’t “ordinary” Jews at all. They’re “Forest Jews,” members of a far-fetched mystery cult. The two of them worship alone in a hut in the woods, listening in on an “underground signalling mechanism” by means of a biomechanical “Moses Mouth.” There’s a dense web of allusions at work here. The notion of a network of subterranean tunnels is deeply engrained in both urban legend and folklore. Then there are echoes, as well, of the paranoid narrative stylings of anti-Semitic conspiracy theory. Two points are worth taking away from this. Firstly, for Marcus the Forest Jews figure a non-toxic form of communication. Far from viral, their sermons are secret, hermetic, “necessarily private” – they’re underground in both the literal and the cultural sense, like when we speak of an “underground scene.” Secondly, the entire extended metaphor perfectly represents the world of The Flame Alphabet. It’s a world that takes its cue from our own, along with most of its content. Yet that content is skewed into odd new shapes by the novel’s mythology. Every object and every occurrence accrues its own mythic resonance, such that reality is restructured in line with (to borrow from Vladimir Propp) the “morphology of the folktale.”
History is similarly mythologized. The book’s back-story posits prophetic references to the virus in everyone from Augustine to Pliny, but it’s all fabricated, as if by “someone reaching back into history, rearranging the parts with a filthy hand.” Famous linguists Sapir and Whorf crop up as well, in the context of a crazed experiment that could never have happened. And Marcus’ mad scientist villain, LeBov, is presumably named in homage to William Labov, the still-living founder of sociolinguistics. LeBov himself is more myth than man, veiled in a shifting disguise of pseudonyms and split personalities. Vague mentions of “the LeBovs” hint that there’s more than one of him; in fact, he’s been made in the image of a mish-mash of fictional archetypes. Not least, he’s partly a play on a James Bond supervillain – he even has his own secret hideout, a shady scientific facility called “Forsyth.” In the world of The Flame Alphabet, LeBov was the first to theorize the contagion – for him communication per se is “the primary allergy, allergen zero.” But unlike the underground Jews, his antidote is not one of apophasis, mystical silence. Rather, he wants to extract from the earth a sort of ur-language; an original, incorruptible common tongue. Hence, deep inside Forsyth he fixates on a hole in the ground (recalling Conan Doyle’s Professor Challenger), probing it with weird, jerry-rigged listening devices.
So we could say that The Flame Alphabet explores two solutions to linguistic crisis: firstly, religious reticence, and secondly a scientific search for origins. Yet there is also a third, artistic alternative: the creation of an entirely new form of language from scratch. By the book’s second half, Sam has been wrenched from his family and put to work in LeBov’s laboratory. Here he’s tasked to develop and test his own avant-garde alphabets. But his search for a non-toxic system of symbols drives him to ever more desperately delicate measures:
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… I tried pointillizing type, whitening it or darkening it, making a scattered dust of it on the page, then blowing that dust free with a bellows until it could only be read under blue light…
If the point of this passage is to dramatize the difficulties of working with language, perhaps it also reveals a self-reflective, writerly subtext. After all, isn’t Sam’s trial almost a model of that of most modern novelists? One challenge faced by writers these days is, as T.S. Eliot put it, to “purify the dialect of the tribe” – or at any rate to replenish language’s freshness, in the face of its exhaustion through everyday usage. The Flame Alphabet stages a scenario where language is literally “off-limits,” but isn’t our own world one in which words no longer mean what they’re meant to? Where any sincerely meant “meaning” seems on the brink of slipping into cliché? In this respect, surely our language is out of reach too; our writing worn down, our speech obsolete. Marcus has sometimes shied away, shrewdly, from using the word “experimental” to describe his own writerly style. Yet if his protagonist, Sam, is in some sense a writer-by-proxy, it’s not insignificant that he should be placed in a lab (of all places!) working on what, in a way, is an exemplary literary experiment. Critics like Mark McGurl have remarked that craft shades into technique, or “technicity,” in some subfields of post-war American letters. A technocratic cult of technique, and an ethos of “experimentalism” – these are arguably part of a cultural dynamic that’s gone some way toward shaping the cutting edge of contemporary fiction. Whatever it all means, such themes do seem expertly condensed in the image of Sam crafting his alphabets: the writer reinventing the word in a literary laboratory.
But maybe I’m misreading Marcus, or rather, reading too much into him. It’s easy to ask a richly symbolic book like The Flame Alphabet to furnish us with all sorts of subtexts, yet the basic question of what the book means may turn out to be somewhat more slippery. What gives it its strength is that, in one sense, it’s densely, unsettlingly meaningful – while, in another, it remains enigmatically silent whenever we search it for some sort of “message.” This isn’t a book that delivers a didactic payload; instead, it quietly builds up an aura of strangeness around itself. How does it pull off this artistic trick? It’s a complicated accomplishment, but it could come down to a matter of style.
Anyone who’s read Marcus’ friend (and Columbia colleague) Sam Lipsyte will be aware of a trademark Lipsytian trait: in a book like The Ask, an unfolding argument acquires literary force and thickness by being embedded in a finely-tuned stylistic system. This system seems to be driven by the coining of particular words and proper names that are peculiar to the world of the novel, and that any description of that world will then refer back to. That is to say, Lipsyte’s narratives always take care to touch base with their own emblematic inventions. In The Ask, one example would be the authorial act of naming a character “Vargina.” The first time we see this, it’s (apart from being funny) jarringly strange; it’s alienating, in the sense of Viktor Shklovsky’s ideal literary estrangement – what he called “östranenie.” Yet once we’re immersed in its imaginative context, the term is repeated so many times (each repetition furthering our immersion) that it makes perfect sense: it’s part of a closed circle of signs, a private language that we, the book’s readers, are privy to.
I think The Flame Alphabet proceeds by means of a strikingly similar method. But, in Marcus, it’s pushed to a bizarre and beautiful breaking point. As with Lipsyte’s fictions, when reading this novel we enter a “world” by being pulled into a pact with its highly particular language. Yet where Lipsyte’s literary landscape is realistically sociological, Marcus’ is more like a mad anthropologist’s fantasy: our own world made over in the mode of misremembered myths and fairy tales. It’s no coincidence that Aesop’s Fables crop up toward the end of The Flame Alphabet. As Lee Rourke has recently argued, these archaic yarns could be read as “blueprints for our entire literary tradition.” What Marcus does is rewind literary history, recover those blueprints, and put them to perverse new uses. He borrows the terms of existing traditions and translates them into a tongue for which they were never intended. In this way that technique of “estrangement,” of stylistic disorientation, is brought to a boil and kept simmering, always perched on the brink of becoming bewilderingly extreme.
Thus, a bit like Lipsyte’s books, and perhaps even more like the gnomic late works of Beckett, The Flame Alphabet can be read as a self-contained structure of signs, which only make sense when they’re seen from inside that structure. If we follow Ferdinand de Saussure, we could even claim that the book itself is a language: not an innately “meaningful” thing, more like a machine for making meaning. And this claim might be as close as we’ll come to figuring out The Flame Alphabet. In the end, Sam’s fantastical story doesn’t really mean anything in the sense of “referring” to something that makes it intelligible. This isn’t a “big book” with “something to say.” It’s one that wants to be left alone to conduct what Marcus would call its “smallwork” – subtly constructing its own inner life from the scraps of half-familiar symbols. In so doing, it doesn’t convey a definite meaning so much as a deeper, stranger sensation of meaning: how meaning “means” to begin with. Louis Sass has described how some schizophrenic patients, when confronted with a Rorschach card, don’t interpret the inkblot (“this is a horse”) but instead give a concrete account of its makeup (“this is a piece of cardboard with ink on it”). In the same way, Marcus burrows beneath the fabric of fiction to get at its grammar, which isn’t a set of rules but something more wild, freewheeling, and primitive. The meaning of The Flame Alphabet is what the philosopher C.K. Ogden once called “the meaning of meaning.” Unreal yet real, unknowable but totally tangible: this is the territory that Ben Marcus takes us to.
There are probably scads and scads of books like 13. I’ve seen them in libraries and used book stores. They are books that take on one topic and mine it for endless anecdotes and historical curios, but they don’t claim that by looking through the prism of the topic at hand, a reader can discern the entire arc of human history. The books are about what they are about, and all you need to do as a reader is sit back and be entertained and informed. John McPhee, who is very good at this sort of thing, once wrote a book entirely about Oranges, for example. Nathaniel Lachenmeyer does this sort of thing well, too. His book is an impeccably researched look at an old superstition. With every turn of the page the reader is presented with another odd relic that Lachenmeyer has dug up for our perusal: the existence of popular superstition-defying “13 clubs” at the beginning of the 20th century, for example. And onward the book moves through Friday the 13th, the missing 13th floor, and all the rest. Taken as a whole, the book is a nifty piece of well-researched reportage bringing to light the many murky progenitors of this now commonplace superstition.