Ben Marcus, The Flame Alphabet (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2012). 304 pp. $25.95.
According to the Jews, the world begins with speech. God says, “There is light,” and so there is light. But what if something happened — it doesn’t really matter what — and speech turned lethal?
That’s the premise of The Flame Alphabet, the third novel by Ben Marcus, a creative writing professor at Columbia University and son of the feminist critic Jane Marcus. Sometime in an unspecified future, somewhere in a featureless Midwest, the speech of children begins to sicken their parents. “We feasted on the putrid material because our daughter made it,” explains Samuel, the book’s narrator. “We gorged on it and inside us it steamed, rotted, turned rank.” As the contagion spreads so does the public anxiety. The speech of Jewish children is the first to turn bad, raising official fears of mass anti-Semitic hysteria. It seems, after all, to be a “chosen affliction.” Whoever is in charge resorts to high-sounding vagueness:
From our portable radio came word that studies had returned, pinpointing children as the culprit. The word carrier was used. The word Jew was not. The discussion was wrapped in the vocabulary of viral infection. There was no reason for alarm because this crisis appeared to be genetic in nature, a problem only for certain people, whoever they were.
Before long, though, it becomes clear that all children — not merely Jewish children — are causing adults to fall sick by speech and writing. As an authority theorizes, “Language happens to be a toxin we are very good at producing, but not so good at absorbing.” People begin to die.
The novel’s opening chapters trace the search for an official diagnosis while the disease spreads, the symptoms worsen. The first half of the book ends with children being quarantined, and parents being forced — by a nameless faceless government without apparent ideology — to abandon their children. Samuel and his wife Claire prepare to leave their daughter Esther behind, but at the last minute Claire leaps from the car and is swallowed up by the government health machinery.
In the second half of the book, Samuel goes on without them. Despite the absence of road signs — they have been smudged over to prevent contagion — he somehow arrives in Rochester (probably New York instead of Minnesota, though maybe not), where he goes to work for Forsyth, which seems to be some kind of quasi-governmental mega-corporate medical lab. There Samuel conducts research into alphabetical systems without reference or communication. He creates a disappearing Hebrew, invents a private alphabet, experiments with concealing portions of text to contain the infection. Nothing works:
If we hid the text too much, it could not be seen. If we revealed it so it could be seen, it burned out the mind. No matter what. To see writing was to suffer.
And by now it should be obvious that, although it has the outward appearance of a dystopian novel, The Flame Alphabet is a philosophical allegory about language and literature. A science fiction writer would have taken the trouble to devise a plausible explanation for “a world where speech was lethal.” Not Marcus, though. Heavily influenced by Wittgenstein, he is puzzled and fascinated by the concept of private language. If speech is communication, as popular opinion has it, then meaning is a communicable disease. But if it refers only to inner sensations and locked-in mental intentions, then speech is just weird and mystifying behavior.
The implications for literature might be less obvious. Marcus is well-known (at least to literary critics) as an “experimental” writer and an apostle of “experimental” writing. The term is one that he selected for himself, although even the most passionate advocate of “experimental” writing expressed doubts about it. Marcus unfurled it in a famous attack upon Jonathan Franzen, published as a cover story by Harper’s in 2005 (and available only to subscribers), in which he upheld the principle of “literature as an art form” against the author of The Corrections, who writes a “narrative style that was already embraced by the culture.” By literature as an art form, he means writing that is “more interested in forging complex bursts of meaning that are expressionistic rather than figurative.”
There, in short, is the same opposition between language as communication of diseased meaning (“already embraced by the culture”) and the weird and mystifying artistic text, which “creates in us desires we did not know we had.”
The trouble is that The Flame Alphabet does little more than play with its ideas, refusing to let go until all the air is squeezed out of them. Marcus is nothing at all like the Kafka described by André Gide, who examines a “fantastic universe” with “detailed exactitude.” What interests him about a world in which language is deadly are the speculative games that such a premise gives rise to. What becomes of parents’ attachment when their children are the carriers of a plague? What happens to human community when language can no longer knit it together? What might language be if not communication?
Even then, however, the speculative questions are little more than occasions for an outburst of style:
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. It is said that the twenty-two Hebrew letters, if laid flat and joined properly, then submitted to the correct curves on a table stabbed with pins, would describe the cardiovascular plan of the human body. And not only that.
But a little of that goes a long way. There is a Jewish subplot in The Flame Alphabet (although plot is the wrong word for a novel that is not organized by narrative), but it doesn’t amount to much, because Marcus likes to contrive knowledge, to invent allusions and quotations, in order to frustrate the reader’s desperate search for clues in a mapped and recognizable world.
His title, for example, seems as if it might refer to the classical midrashic description of the Torah as having been written, even before creation, “with black fire on white fire.” (Abraham Isaac Kook’s interpretation of the image is here.) Marcus’s account is pure fabrication:
The flame alphabet was the word of God, written in fire, obliterating to behold. The so-called Torah. . . . We could not say God’s true name, nor could we, if we were devoted, speak of God at all. This was basic stuff. But it was the midrashic spin on the flame alphabet that was more exclusive, spoken of only, as far as I knew, by [the narrator’s rabbi, with whom he has contact only by means of a listening device like the radio]. Since the entire alphabet comprises God’s name, [Rabbi] Burke asserted, since it is written in every arrangement of letters, then all words reference God, do they not? That’s what words are. They are variations on his name. No matter the language. Whatever we say, we say God. . . . Therefore the language itself was, by definition, off-limits. Every single word of it. We were best to be done with it. Our time with it is nearly through. The logic was hard to deny. You could not do it.
These are, of course, Jewish references without any resemblance to the historical existence of a Jewish people to whom the Jewish God spoke words — the Ten Commandments are called, in Hebrew, the aseret hadevarim, the “ten words” — which they have repeated to one another for centuries.
But that is exactly Marcus’s point; or, rather, his literary “experiment.” If it were possible (as he proposes) to write fiction in a language that does not communicate a message — a language does not kill itself in being consumed — so too it might be possible to lead a Jewish life without God, community, traditional religious teaching, or a light carried to the nations. In such a vision of experience, the logic may be hard to deny or even follow, but the speculative enjoyment is endless. For readers who do not agree with Marcus that “our machine of understanding is inferior,” The Flame Alphabet may seem endless too.