Critical Analyses: The Flame Alphabet

As a purported graduate student, I’m supposed to satisfy the requirements of my respective courses.  I have four courses this semester and each of them is truly a gas and a half.  That’s ten total gases that I have the privilege of enjoying every week.  Most recently, as recently as fifty words ago, I wrote a “piece” of “literary criticism” on Ben Marcus’ The Flame Alphabet.  It’s a book.  I’ve attached the book trailer below to prove it.  Ideally you would find your interest piqued by the attached below book trailer and run to your nearest Nook to buy The Flame Alphabet and read it and disagree with what I have to say below the attached below book trailer.  You would then write a snippy comment on this post and/or my Facebook Wall.  It would be something to the tune of, “i h8 u.  u can’t instagram to save you’re life.  hope the flame alphabet catches u on fire n u die.”  To which I would reply, “As much as I appreciate your readership and respect your cultivated opinions, this was not meant to satisfy you.  It was meant to satisfy course requirements.  N I H8 U 2.”  This is the ideal exchange that could arise from this blog post.  It’d be a gas and a half, if not a gas and three quarters.  Decide for yourself, after the trailer of course.


On The Flame Alphabet

            Misunderstanding can be ruthless.  Justly, Ben Marcus’ The Flame Alphabet is a ruthless novel.  The book—Marcus’ fourth after The Age of Wire and String, The Father Costume, and Notable American Women—does not seek to revitalize the written word; it seeks to weaponize it.  Menace pervades every page, paragraph, sentence, word, letter.  The loose narrative, an apocalyptic tale of a family shattered by literally toxic language, unfolds like a bombardment.  No one is spared.  Not the characters.  Not the reader.  Not even Marcus, who weaponizes language to such a degree that his own artistic aims occasionally fall within the blast radius.  This makes for a singularly harrowing, singularly frustrating reading experience.  The Flame Alphabet conflates language’s—and Marcus’—loftiest possibilities and gravest limitations.  The conflation is, in this particular case, a detriment.  Was this Marcus’ intention?  Is the reader meant to comprehend?  Can a book that centralizes misunderstanding accomplish anything beyond instilling an understanding of misunderstanding in its reader?  Am I just a great, big idiot?  Let us hope not.  Let us try to understand.

What Little I Am Sure Of: The Flame Alphabet is a family-drama-cum-allegory.  Its nebulous plot is set in New York.  The protagonist, Sam, narrates the apocalypse in unflinching, scythe-sharp diction.  Sam has a wife named Claire.  Sam and Claire have a sociopathic teenage daughter named Esther.  I have wrestled with the suspicion that the entire novel is a cautionary tale about naming a child Esther, the wrath such a transgression could invite.  So ends my certainties about this book.

If incomprehension was Marcus’ aim, then his aim was true.  And if this is indeed the case, I so get it.  The analytical capacity of readers, myself included, has devolved so drastically that Marcus leveraged reader expectation into a meta-fictional critique that no one would be unable to understand.  The preemptory omnipresent lauds, Marcus’ two stupendous forays into realism in The New Yorker, the hyperbolic panegyric that Jonathan Lethem wrote for Amazon, each served as a kind of veiled sadomasochistic foreplay, leading to both parties’ injury, but only Marcus’ orgasm.  I don’t get it; hence, I do get it.  Mine is the face covered in cum.  What a world!  Essay over.


            Essay not over.  I haven’t even discussed Jew Holes yet.

After my fourth[1] reading of The Flame Alphabet, certain realities became self-evident.  Ben Marcus is a far better writer than I will ever be.  The novel’s second chapter is one of the most redoubtable manipulations of prose I have read.  Certain passages in The Flame Alphabet had an almost toxic effect on my psyche.  I found my writerly ambitions paralyzed, as if the skeleton of my aspirations had turned suddenly to ash.  I was, at times, utterly awestruck in observance of Marcus’ command of language.  This, I am sure, was Marcus’ intent: to display the written word’s irrefutable ability to instill a tangible, somatic response in the reader.  By the nineteenth page, Marcus has wholly proven his point.  Then the novel continues on for three hundred pages.  By the end, shock far outweighed awe, and the only vestigial emotions I held were confusion, numbness, a wondering why.

Why, given Marcus’ prodigious talents, does the novel seem misconceived?  I have my suspicions, but, before delving into the book’s internal missteps, a brief look into its external confusions.  By my estimation (and discounting big boy literary critics), I should be the ideal reader for The Flame Alphabet.  As an aspiring writer of literary fiction currently enrolled in the MFA Program where Ben Marcus teaches, I would suspect that if any demographic were to be inclined to enjoy this book, I would be that demographic.  Now, one could argue that the reading of fiction is a profoundly subjective experience, that a writer’s talent transcends demographics, class, all barriers to a reader’s entry.  I’ll agree with myself that reading is profoundly subjective, that a writer’s talents can transcend those barriers, that Ben Marcus is a writer who possesses that trove of talent.  What I believe happened with this novel is that Ben Marcus, for whatever reason, did not apply his prodigious talents correctly.  This makes me sad.

As much as The Flame Alphabet is about misunderstanding, it is also about talent squandered.  In his 2005 Harper’s essay, “Why Experimental Fiction Threatens to Destroy Publishing, Jonathan Franzen, and Life as We Know It: A Correction,” Marcus writes that, “Effort is the last thing we are supposed to request of a reader.”  In my right now essay titled, “Self-Immolation,” I write, “Effort is the first thing we are supposed to request of an author.”  As I read The Flame Alphabet, I consciously sought out instances of Marcus challenging himself as an experimental writer, of his genuine effort to achieve something beyond a futilely beautiful exercise of prose.  I kept not seeing this happen.  Stylistically, formally, thematically, the book maintained its status quo, became the exact book I had imagined it was going to be.  It was like reading a Jonathan Franzen novel, except Franzen, on rare occasions, attempts to surprise his reader.  The more I exposed myself to The Flame Alphabet, the greater sense I had that Marcus was writing with one hand tied behind his back, that he was using the other free hand to bash his keyboard with my skull.  I am wont to say this was accidental, that my injuries were resultant of a dire misreading.  Maybe coming of age in modern society has marred my perceptive abilities, rendered me a hollow assemblage of bone, sinew, muscle, incapable of true feeling.  Though, why the continuous painful throbbing of my head parts?  Why, from the second the words first hit me, did it all seem intentional?

Doy, Carmen, because it all was intentional.  Ben Marcus intended the tone to be an unremitting, funereal drone.  The purported family drama was a flimsy excuse to explore the deficiencies and potentials of language.  Murphy was Lebov; Lebov was Murphy; the multiple Levovs were all Levovs; the multiple Levovs were all Murphys.  The Jew Holes (there they are!) weren’t meant to be an exploration of anti-Semitism, but a metaphor for the secular marginalization and bizarre practices of the experimental artist.  Sam represents the artist.  Esther represents his untamable creation.  Claire represents the loved one harmed by the irremediably tenuous relationship between artist and creation.  Or not!  Esther could represent the discrepancy between the harsh generality of the spoken word and the exquisite exactitude of the written.  Or, Esther could represent an artist’s imperative to reconnect with the mysterious wonderment of youth.  Or not!  The reader isn’t meant to care whether or not language destroyed Sam’s family.  The reader is meant to realize that language still has the ability to destroy, to rebuild, to inspire.  As if the existence of books, this one included, doesn’t prove that already.

“You can know nothing of another’s worship,” Marcus writes.  “Even when they try to tell you.”  If The Flame Alphabet is Ben Marcus’ explanation of his particular brand of worship, then I do know nothing of it.  What I do know is that, if a more self-defeating maxim for novel writing exists, I can’t formulate it.  Isn’t language meant to provide one access to the mind of another?  Isn’t the novel society’s most effective tool in accomplishing this implausible feat?  I believe it is, and, despite its faults, The Flame Alphabet demonstrates the fact.  Because as I neared the end, as the allegories proliferated to innumerability, as the characters were snuffed out like a match’s pinched flame only to reappear later at random, as language dealt me that final blow, I felt like I knew Ben Marcus.  He is an infinitely gifted writer who cannot efficiently bestow those infinite gifts upon even the most receptive of readers.  He is a monk whose worship of experimental fiction has led him to self-immolation, only the fire is set not in the city square, but in the construction site before the square has even been erected.  The fire spreads just the same, and the reader is reduced to gazing upon the rubble, to imagine not the city that once was, but the one that might have been.

Or am I being too ruthless?

[1] I failed to persist past page 150 on three subsequent attempts and assigned myself this critique in a fit of self-coercion.  It worked much in the way that lighting oneself on fire motivates one to start jogging.