'Imagined lexicography opens onto imagined anthropology'

A review of Ben Marcus's 'The Flame Alphabet'

The Flame Alphabet

The Flame Alphabet

Ben Marcus

Alfred A. Knopf 2012, 304 pages, $25.95, ISBN 030737937X

The Age of Wire and String (1995), Ben Marcus’s debut collection of stories, gave us the manual for a bizarre and wonderful alternate reality, a “catalog of the life project as prosecuted in the Age of Wire and String and beyond.”[1] As in Raymond Roussel’s Locus Solus or Raymond Queneau’s 1948 novel Saint-Glinglin, important predecessors, Marcus’s alternate universe emerges out of the methodical strangeness of his language.[2] Fabulism and verbal experimentation become mutually entwined. Marcus’s primary method is the imaginary lexicographical definition, and the bulk of The Age of Wire and String might be thought of as a collection of entries from some unreal dictionary. For instance: “Yard, the Locality in which wind is buried and houses are discussed. Fine grains line the banks. Water curves outside the pastures. Members settle into position” (65). Imagined lexicography opens onto imagined anthropology, with impossible rites and technologies described in eerie detail. Here’s one of my favorites, an entry for “Intercourse with Resuscitated Wife”:

Intercourse with resuscitated wife for particular number of days, superstitious act designed to insure safe operation of household machinery. Electricity mourns the absence of the energy form (wife) within the household’s walls by stalling its flow to the outlets. As such, an improvised friction needs to take the place of electricity, to goad the natural currents back to their proper levels. This is achieved with the dead wife. She must be found, revived, and then penetrated until heat fills the room, until the toaster is shooting bread onto the floor, until she is smiling beneath you with black teeth and grabbing your bottom. Then the vacuum rides by and no one is pushing it, it is on full steam. Days flip past in chunks of fake light, and the intercourse is placed in the back of the mind. But it is always there, that moving into a static-ridden corpse that once spoke familiar messages in the morning when the sun was new. (7)

In Marcus’s fiction, sex always occurs somewhere on a bandwidth between the disappointing and the grotesque, but bound nevertheless to powerful emotion. The electrical energy generated by the fucking of the dead wife might stand as an emblem for much of Marcus’s work: intensities both affective and physical are systematically sublimated into fantastic set-pieces of ritualistically exact verbal artifice.

Imaginary definition remained central to Marcus’s follow-up novel Notable American Women, but tethered, there, to something like a plot. A young man named “Ben Marcus” must navigate a strange land called Ohio. His father has been imprisoned underground. His mother has joined a women’s group — the Silentists — committed to eradicating language. The bulk of the novel is taken up with Ben’s depiction of life under the Silentist regime, though this portion is bookended by first-person narratives in the voices of Ben’s imprisoned father and Silentist mother, respectively. (Incidentally, these parents — Michael and Jane — are, like “Ben Marcus” himself, given the real names of real members of the real Marcus clan.) It’s as if the protean world of Age of Wire and String had been invaded by a dysfunctional family on the run from their group therapist. But unlike the earlier work, the distortions of idiom in Notable American Women could feel forced, precious, a flaw perhaps attributable to the novel’s uneven integration of its narrative and poetic possibilities.

In The Flame Alphabet, Marcus has made peace with plotting, and the result, which might with comic inadequacy be labeled an experimental medical thriller, is in its very different way as radical and surprising as The Age of Wire and String. The Flame Alphabet is a horror novel about an epidemic of toxic language emanating from children. It has all the generic trappings of an apocalypse-by-epidemic thriller, but filtered through an avant-gardist technique that somehow doesn't seem derivative of anyone. Imagine if Stephen King spent a year studying Carla Harryman’s Gardener of Stars and then tried to write The Stand.

The novel’s narrator, Sam, and his wife, Claire, have become physically ill by exposure to the speech of their teenaged daughter, Esther. “At first we thought we were bitten,” says Sam, and indeed the zombie flick hovers at the generic margins of the story. Esther’s speech poisons literally, but, in one of the novel’s many humorous strokes, its toxicity is also figuratively repellant, in the manner of any discontented adolescent’s perpetual grumbling and self-involvement:

Nice things, mean things, dumb things, just a teenager’s chatter, like a tour guide to nothing, stalking us from room to room. Blame and self-congratulation and a constant narration of this, that, and the other thing, in low-functioning if common rhetorical modes, in occasions of speech designed not particularly to communicate but to alter the domestic acoustics, because she seemed to go dull if she wasn’t speaking or reading or serving somehow as a great filter of words.[3]

The Flame Alphabet’s focus on family life is continuous with Notable American Women, but whereas that novel transformed parent-child psychodynamics into a panorama of charged symbols, this one hews closer to something like recognizable reality. Sam and Claire are eventually forced to evacuate their town, leaving Esther behind with the other toxic children in quarantine zones. To be near their daughter will kill them, but to save themselves is to abandon her — this impossible conflict is the novel’s emotional heart. Claire would rather die of proximity to her daughter than leave her; Sam wants to survive. The shame of his will to live threatens to overwhelm him: “When [Claire] looked at me I felt the high disgrace of being known for what I am” (135). Having escaped the children does not solve the problems of the adults, since their own speech, too, has become toxic, as has writing and sign language. All activity must henceforth take place not only in enforced silence, but under a general prohibition on any form of symbolic communication.

Much of the power of novels like The Stand or Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (The Stand’s pretentious, faux-literary poor relation) depends on the negative sublimity of radical depopulation. The Flame Alphabet works adjacent territory, but the terms by which the world is stripped of the human are different. Not the postapocalyptic landscape of a world emptied of people, but instead the equally unimaginable condition of human being without human language:

The lack of speech, the absence of language to build us into full people, had turned us into a kind of emotive cattle. Perhaps a raucous inner life produced shattering notes inside us, but with no extraction tool, no language to pry it free and publicize it, even if it was moronic, one sensed that the whole enterprise of consciousness had suddenly lost its way. (190–91)

In the beginning was the Word, and in the end there wasn’t. Sam and his family are, importantly, Jewish, and in what is perhaps a riff on the well-trodden novelistic tradition of representing Jewish family life as charged, claustrophobic, pathological — think Portnoy’s Complaint — Marcus initially limits language toxicity to Jewish children, though by the time of the evacuations the disease has become general. But Jewish tradition remains central to the plot, with the Hebrew alphabet as potentially both source and cure of language toxicity. When asked in an interview what “the flame alphabet” means, Marcus explained thus:

It sounds made up, but it’s an existing concept in Judaism. The flame alphabet is a way to refer to the Torah: the word of God, written in fire. When I first read about it I was amazed. The idea of a language too blinding to look at, something too intense to understand.

Marcus has said that he’s “always wanted to invent a religion,” and his earlier fictions abound in occult patternings, in the construction of surreal technologies of the spiritual and the mystic, but The Flame Alphabet’s focus on Judaism proper is a departure. Sam and Claire belong to an invented Jewish sect — referred to by outsiders as “Forest Jews” — who worship secretly in isolated huts spread throughout the woods. In a sort of Jewish inside joke, Marcus makes the Forest Jews a wing of the (real) Reconstructionists, a progressive offshoot of American Conservative Judaism opposed to religious orthodoxy but emphasizing traditionalist practices. The Forest Jews are “[r]econstructionist Jews following a program modified by Mordecai Kaplan, indebted to Ira Eisenstein’s idea of private religious observation, an entirely covert method of devotion” (41). They retreat in groups of two (violating the Jewish requirement of a minyan, or minimum of ten adherents, for worship) to their huts, where they attach a “listener” to a hole in the ground (the “Jew hole”) from which sermons are broadcast by radio. This “listener,” a biomechanical contraption out of early Cronenberg, must be carefully fitted over the Jew hole to receive a signal, an eminently disgusting process:

Behind the hut I extracted the listener from its shit-caked bag. At the rusted orifice in the hut floor I squeezed the hole until I could pull on the fitting, but the hole was stiff. After a finger-mincing effort, it ripped wider with what sounded like an animal cry and heat spread into the hut as the listener shriveled in my hands. Soon the bag stoppering the hole swelled with air, inflating gently as if a sick person lay beneath it, breathing his last. Now, at least, a transmission might be possible. (77)

The Forest Jews’ “listeners” are mutant tools, and, like the video game controllers in Cronenberg’s eXistenZ, their working parts proliferate obscenely. “Sitting there as the day grew dark, the listener perspired on me, and one part of it, a fin canting from its rear that seemed encased by a soft wood, was so hot that I felt sick when I touched it” (80).

This is the stuff of horror, but horror crucially inflected (as it so often is) by religion. The fantastic Judaism in The Flame Alphabet works towards an end central to Marcus’s project from The Age of Wire and String on: the evocation of a reenchanted world. Appropriately enough for a horror novel about disease, this reenchantment proceeds along the largely negative path of the scientific grotesque, though the “science” is filtered through Jewish mysticism. Having retreated to a research facility in which investigators work in involuntary silence (all speech is now fatal), Sam pursues the development of a special Hebrew letter which, he hopes, will hold the antidote to the language epidemic. “The Hebrew letter is like a form of nature. In it is the blueprint for some flower whose name I forget, and if this flower doesn’t exist yet, it will” (208–209). Sam eventually synthesizes his mystic letter, though it doesn’t exactly sound benign:

I’d never held a shrunken head, but this was what one must be like: a cold, wrinkled organism submitted to a blistering round of dehydration, then crushed down to alphabet size. There were letters based on body parts, activities, feelings, but this was different. This letter, composed of what was missing or inferred in all the other Hebrew letters, was a species unto itself, and while I worked under the bright shield of the child serum, immune to the sluices of resonance, of comprehension that flowed so jarringly into me, my experimental letter gave off the unmistakable stink of organic matter left too long in the sun. (223)

Sci-fi theology as a means of reenchantment works, in The Flame Alphabet, hand in hand with the slightly warped idiom Marcus applies across the whole surface of the text. The euphemisms of medical-bureaucratic jargon assume special prominence. After being “medically ambushed” — that is, jumped by a security squadron and forcibly injected with a mysterious serum — Sam discovers that the real powers at his research facility have developed an antidote to language toxicity. The shot he’s been given allows him to converse with others, for a time. It would be churlish to reveal the turns of the plot, but suffice it to say that the means of acquiring the anti-language-toxicity serum are rather unsavory.

The serum itself is, furthermore, imperfect, and the sinister bigwigs hope Sam’s Forest Jew expertise might contribute to its refinement. (The exact nature of the help Sam can provide is unclear.) Will he cooperate? Will he ever be reunited with Esther? Like any good horror novel, The Flame Alphabet renders its implausible fantasies with uncanny, viscerally evocative verve. Its vision is total and totally unnerving. It gets under the skin. Or, as Sam says towards the novel’s end, “I grew foreign to myself, my skin like a hair-soaked stone, my face too numb to feel” (271).



1. Ben Marcus, The Age of Wire and String (New York: Knopf, 1995), 1.

2. Marcus has recently written a review essay on Raymond Roussel in Harper’s: Ben Marcus, “La doublure: The singular fascinations of Raymond Roussel,” Harper’s 104, Nov. 2011, 90.

3. Ben Marcus, The Flame Alphabet (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2012), 11–12.