BY Brian Dillon in Profiles | 01 FEB 12
Featured in
Issue 145


The fourth novel from New York-based writer Ben Marcus is a powerful allegory about language

BY Brian Dillon in Profiles | 01 FEB 12

Book cover design by Peter Mendelsund, 2011. Courtesy Knopf Doubleday, New York/Granta, London

Ben Marcus’s new novel The Flame Alphabet (Knopf/Granta, 2012) is, on the face of it, a deal more conventional than one expects from a writer – professor at Columbia, avowed inheritor of the experimentalism of William Gaddis and William H. Gass – whose previous books, at least at the level of their verbal texture, have been flummoxing in the extreme.

To start with, it has a narrative premise of quite awful clarity that would not be out of place in a paranoiacHollywood plot, mixing familial psychodrama with apocalyptic scenes of a panicked, fleeing populace. Parents across America – at first, it seems, only Jewish parents – are being poisoned by the language of their offspring. Limbs ache, organs atrophy, skin shrivels and palls. Twitchy bickering couples try to hide the truth from themselves and the children whose every spoken or written word is suddenly a toxic assault. If language in Marcus’s earlier fiction was a less than consoling medium, here he dramatically allegorizes its mordant powers. (And nods darkly, it seems, in the direction of harried and sleep-deprived parents everywhere.)

The Flame Alphabet opens with the flight of its narrator Sam and his wife Claire from their family home in upstate New York, and from their daughter, Esther, who is slowly and unwittingly destroying them. Her normal teenage chatter (‘like a tour guide to nothing’) has turned insidious and not quite human: she speaks now in ‘a voice with a significant half-life, a noxious mineral content […] Every piece of the alphabet that she wrote looked like a fat molecule engorged on air, ready to burst’. Sam and Claire have tried to ignore the mounting evidence of her toxicity. But when Esther leaves home for summer camp and their symptoms abate – there is a chilling scene in which they join other local parents for a dismal picnic, and nobody can broach what has happened to them all – it is clear they must escape. While their daughter is at school, Sam loads the car with medication and devices they hope will protect them from the ‘language fever’: eye masks, earplugs, a white-noise generator and ‘anti-comprehension pills’.

Marcus’s opening chapters are pitched somewhere between a superior horror tale and the enigmatic (also very funny) disorientations of his debut fiction, The Age of Wire and String (1995). I say ‘fiction’ because it was initially unclear just what genre Marcus’s first book was intended to mess with: it is perhaps a novel, as likely a series of linked stories or vignettes from a possible world, maybe a dictionary of that world’s human, animal, inanimate and atmospheric oddities. And the book already broaches what seems a persistent theme in Marcus’s work: the presence or absence of fathers, their ontological weight and meaning. But the most striking feature of The Age of Wire and String is a prose of such determined strangeness that the only analogues one could summon at the time it appeared were giants of the American avant-garde: Gertrude Stein, Donald Barthelme, John Ashbery (especially his prose poems). The impression was of a world painfully close to our own, rendered in a style at once American-demotic and truly alien.

So much for its influences and ambitions – the more vexing question was just how this rigorously mysterious prose actually worked. An introductory ‘Argument’ has it that the book is the catalogue of a culture, of its ‘poses and motions’, and accordingly comprises ‘an array of documents settling within the chief concerns of the society’. At times, the individual ‘entries’ (if that is what they are) limn a world that’s merely bizarre or perverse, as in this bit of sinister and almost Duchampian erotics: ‘Intercourse with resuscitated wife for particular number of days, superstitious act designed to insure safe operation of household machinery.’ But then one is struck by a sentence such as the following: ‘If the motion of wind were to be slowed, as weather is slowed briefly when an animal is born, we would notice a man building and destroying his own house.’ Syntactic and semantic swerves like this one are everywhere in The Age of Wire and String, suggesting a range of stylistic possibility (or bravado) some way beyond even Stein’s non-sequiturs.

Marcus’s subsequent two books of fiction – the equally exacting novel Notable American Women (2002) and The Father Costume (2002), a shorter collaboration with the artist Matthew Ritchie – confirmed his commitment to experimentalism at the level of sentence and structure. He also evinced a polemical urge to defend the advances of Modernist and Postmodernist fiction against the wholesale resurgence of realist convention that has hampered the anglophone novel for the past quarter-century. (Marcus’s immediate beef is with Jonathan Franzen, but John Updike and Philip Roth are lurking there too, just as they did for David Foster Wallace.) Actually, that is not quite right. Unlike, say, a partisan of the 20th-century avant-garde such as Tom McCarthy, Marcus rejects the familiar distinction between realism and experimentalism. In an essay for Harper’s Magazine in 2005 entitled ‘Why Experimental Fiction Threatens to Destroy Publishing, Jonathan Franzen, and Life as We Know It’, he wrote: ‘No matter my interest in reality, in the way it feels to be alive, and the way language can be shaped into contours that surround and illuminate that feeling: because I don’t write the conventional narrative language, and because I haven’t often foregrounded the consciousness of characters in my fiction, and livestocked those characters in a recognizable setting, I will never be considered a realist. Of the many kinds of literary-fiction writers, it’s the group called the realists who have, by far, both the most desirable and the least accurate name.’

The Flame Alphabet seems initially like Marcus’s first sustained effort at realism in the conventional sense. The sci-fi/disaster-movie plot is implausible but soberly, economically outlined. Sam, Claire and Esther are sketched with something approximating the ordinary lineaments of novelistic character, and there are painful interludes between parents and child that – taken out of context – sound simply emotionally heightened or metaphorically sharpened: ‘She barked my name until it became an insult, said it louder, softer, coughed it up and spat it at me […] The words felt foreign, like they were built of wood. A punishment to my mouth just to extract them, like pulling bones from my head.’ In fact, ‘character’ is coming apart as language falls out of use, Sam and Claire slowly retreating to a mute state as their own words too seem to hurt.

What replaces character – somewhat, at times, in the mode of Samuel Beckett’s short story ‘The Lost Ones’ (1970/71), in which desiccated bodies attempt to couple dismally in an ill-lit rotunda – is an arid but queasy line in physical description. There is Claire’s descent into listlessness and emaciation, her features contracting as if she is becoming a small, sick animal: ‘Once I found her asleep in the bathroom, one eye stuck open, leaking a speckled fluid.’ There is the bizarre and fleshy ritual paraphernalia by which Sam and Claire listen, in a hut in the woods, to devout broadcasts to their particular Jewish community. There are the home-brewed fluids, purses full of smoke and noxious pastes by which Sam and certain sinister others hope to ease the symptoms of the language sickness. A dark conspiracy subtends what remains of normal life: one LeBov, a mysterious expert on the new illness, slowly coaxes Sam into an institutional netherworld of linguistic experimentation, supposedly in search of a cure.

The Flame Alphabet, then, has its narrative pleasures, which are strikingly unlike those of Marcus’s earlier fiction. (Though the idea of toxic speech is already present in Notable American Women.) The story is built around a fundamental conundrum: in order to save his family, Sam has to abandon his daughter and then his wife. And the novel manages in this supposedly more conventional context to intensify Marcus’s habitual way with skewed, disturbing and sometimes revolting description. Despite the horror, there is something delicious in Sam’s accounts of the depredations of the spoken (and later the written) word upon the human body, so that one is tempted to read the book from the point of view of the plague itself. In a recent interview, Marcus complained: ‘Everyday language, punished by dull and joyless deployments, is too often so nontoxic it makes no impact at all. Language is a placebo. It is medically vacant.’ In one scurrilous sense, The Flame Alphabet is an allegorical argument for a newly weaponized language.

Brian Dillon is a writer. His latest book Affinities: On Art and Fascination will be published in spring 2023 by the New York Review of Books and Fitzcarraldo Editions, London. He is working on a book about Kate Bush’s Hounds of Love.