Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Saturday, 6 December 2014

"The Flame Alphabet" by Ben Marcus (Granta, 2012)

A couple, Claire and Sam, are having health trouble just as their daughter, Esther, is going through adolescence. She's cutting herself off from them and becoming verbally aggressive. As first they think her presence is causing their illness. Then they discover that there's a pandemic.

  • Claire had an explanation. The old, the tired, the ruined, got done in by bites. Turned into leaking sacks of mush. Whereas the young, they swigged venom to the lees and it supercharged their bodies. They could not be stopped (p.15)
  • people were noticing that among the ill numbered no children (p.16)
  • That this poison flowed from Jewish children alone, at least at first, we had no reason to think. That suffering would find us in ever more novel ways, we had probably always suspected (p.31)

They worship in a private hut

  • Claire and I held synagogue inside a small hut in the woods that received radio transmissions through underground cabling ... The practice derived from Schachter-Shalomi's notion of basements linked between homes, passageways connecting entire neighborhoods ... Huts could be anywhere, disguised in the woods, hidden in plain sight (p.41-2)
  • The secrecy surrounding the huts was justified. The true Jewish teaching is not for wide consumption, is not for groups, is not to be polluted by even a single gesture of communication. Spreading messages dilutes them. Even understanding them is a compromise. The language kills itself, expires inside its host. Language acts as an acid over its message. If you no longer care about an idea or feeling, put it into language (p.44)
  • We endured speculation on what we might be doing in the woods ... A radio console with a flesh underside is postulated. Modules sheathed in gauze, lubricants siphoned from children, injected to flow through custom gears (p.46)

The transmissions are erratic, vague. LeBov and Thompson have theories and suggestions about the pandemic. Children are collected up, bussed away. Someone called Murphy befriends Sam, uses his hut, announces LeBov's death having previously pretended to be LeBov, and says that he pretended to be the broadcaster Thompson too. Language is the toxin.

  • We've trafficked in an inexact language that must be translated anew. Not even translated. Destroyed. Rebuilt. The call for a new code, new lettering, a way to pass on messages that would bypass the toxic alphabet, the chemically foul speech we now used (p.64)
  • The master dissector Gabriele Falloppio, forerunner of the modern autopsy, found what he termed curious erosions in the brain from multilingual patients. Or more notably Boerhaave, who registered speech aversions in the infirm and began to use small doses of speech as homeopathic treatments ... Epidemics like cholera reimagined as speech-driven, miasmatic cyclones, an airborne disturbance, to be sure, but one that fed on the denser pockets of speech, grew stronger in such places, dying out in regions of controlled silence (p.82)
  • In Wisconsin all language, no matter the source, was toxic. The children alone were immune (p.118)

Religious people and poets are amongst those who've distrusted of language and/or group activity in the past. Both themes are explored here

  • The flame alphabet was the word of God, written in fire, obliterating to behold. ... We could not say God's true name, nor could we, if we were devoted, speak of God at all ... Since the entire alphabet comprises God's name, Burke asserted, since it is written in every arrangement of letters, then all words reference God (p.65)
  • From Jews comes the idea of salt as the residue of an ancient language ... Such salts were dissolved in water and dispensed to mutes, to the deaf, to infants on the threshold of speech (p.83)
  • Without Claire the hut felt small and false, the childish architecture of some hack inventor, someone who didn't believe enough that this location would actually be inhabited by real people one day. Claire and I were proud - I'm speaking for her because she couldn't hide how she felt - that we had something private like this that was our own, and that it gave us something to listen to, to think about, to rail against, to love. But there were times when I wondered why it had to be so difficult, so dependent on questionable equipment (p.79)
  • In my haste I believe I left the listener there on the floor of the hut ... exposed for anyone to find, to try to use, because I'd broken code and gone alone to the hut. Because I thought I could do something like this by myself (p.80)
  • The great effort of eager amateurs was everywhere. There were none of us who were not amateurs now. The experts had been demoted. The experts were wrong. The experts had perished. Or perhaps the experts had simply been misnamed all along. (p.146)
  • self-disguising paper ... that allowed you to see only the script character you were presently reading, and nothing else, not even the word it belonged to. It broke the act of reading into its littlest parts, keeping understanding at bay ... I could write with the perfect impassive remove that would keep me detached from the very thing I was writing. I'd have full deniability (p.166)

Jews later come in for some stick -

  • an inflatable letter vacuumed of air ... my idea of what had been missing from the Hebrew alphabet (p.210
  • That's mirroring ... Saw it on one of those film strips about insects. If he's susceptible, you gain his trust and he thinks he's found an ally for life. ... Works pretty well on Jews, who usually think they're unique (p.220)

Sam's evacuated, loses his wife, goes to LeBov's HQ where he concocts samples of old scripts, languages and codes that are tried out on guinea pigs. He finds his wife amongst the willing guinea pigs. He escapes. 3 years later he's caring for his daughter. The tables have turned. She's no longer a child, and is suffering like adults do. Sam has discovered from LeBov a way to combat his language allergy, but it involves making children suffer - or even die.

Apparently Marcus was an experimental author. SF work can be under-appreciated by general readers, so this is an interesting move, as if Borges wrote "The da Vinci code", or Whorf and Sapir wrote "The Name of the Rose" (with the style of Alien abduction accounts thrown in). One can see why Borges isn't famous for writing novels. This should have been shorter - a novella or even a short story. Certainly phrases like "Most were deep brown in color" (p.202) could be shortened.

The central conceit - that language is toxic - is pursued remorselessly. Given that context, are the characters sufficiently resourceful? Does the story work on its own terms? It's an age of cars, land-line phones and radio. No web, no computing languages, little about semiotics (though I could have missed many allusions to theory - I noticed only a few Beckettisms). Should it be read as Allegory? Are attempts and failures of understanding alluding to Religion or LitCrit? It's all from Sam's PoV. Given that there are few other characters, and even they are often absent or ill, that's quite a burden on the narrative.

I should have been amongst the target audience for this, but it didn't really work for me, either as a page-turner or as intellectual stimulation. I was interested to see what further ideas he could come up with once he'd established the premise. At times it seemed as if that was his main interest too.

Other reviews

  • Nicholas Lezard (Guardian) (Marcus has, then, taken the avant garde preoccupations of his earlier work and deftly transferred them obliquely to the form of the dystopic sci-fi novel.)
  • J. Robert Lennon (New York Times) (Marcus is a writer of prodigious talent, but “The Flame Alphabet” doesn’t fulfill its own promise as a hybrid of the traditional and experimental.)
  • Christian Williams (The Flame Alphabet is working from its own similarly skewed glossary, and it’s set in a world that feels alien one moment and alarmingly familiar the next. That's why the flat characters and static relationships are more a necessity than a weakness: They serve as constant guideposts in shifting terrain. Also forgivable: the book’s occasional lapses into repetition ... Flame Alphabet is a brutal, wonderful book, streaked with the sickly brown and gray hues of Philip K. Dick and David Cronenberg)
  • Toby Litt (New Statesman) (In attempting to write more, Marcus has come quite a long way towards conventional plots and characters – with both gains and losses. ...It’s hard not to read Marcus’s normalisation as a factor of his own fatherhood, of his having crossed the blame line. No other position is so guilty, in Marcus’s cosmology. In this, the novel could not be more explicit: “Fatherhood is perhaps another name for something done badly.”)
  • Jeff Alford (The seventy-or-so pages that make up the bulk of the novel's outbreak are nearly flawless in their execution. Marcus's words are exquisitely written and painful to read, and perfectly compliment his premise of a verbal, spoken disease. Here, answers are not necessary; by accepting the premise on the book's first page, readers are instantly along for Marcus's vengeful ride. The Flame Alphabet turns slightly sour when its ideas develop and its themes are addressed head-on. The novel becomes something different; instead of beautiful and painful snapshot, it becomes an unnecessary quest for answers and meaning.)
  • NPR (as Sam is stripped of language and flails as he struggles to protect his family, he discovers a stubborn, silent humanity that persists — perhaps predates — language and doesn't depend upon communication)

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