Saturday, April 26, 2014

The Flame Alphabet by Ben Marcus

Whereas we would once find in American fiction a tacit celebration of America, however multifarious, however broken and flawed, more recently - and often enough to be more than just a trend - we have seen writers perching their narratives on the edge of the contemporary, at the point of breakdown, whether in the earthquake zone of LA in A.M. Homes' "This Book Can Save Your Life", the timewarped alternate histories of Roth's "The Plot Against America" and King's "11.22.63", or the post-apocalypse depicted in Cormac McCarthy's future frontier novel "The Road." To this list we can now add Ben Marcus's "The Flame Alphabet."

A suburban couple are packing to leave their house and possessions behind them, not only that, but their teenage daughter, Esther, will also be left behind. For she is the carrier of the contagion that is steadily killing them. In a brilliantly original conceit, the words of teenagers and children are killing their parents. "At first we thought we were bitten," begins our narrator, as he describes the steady sickening of his wife Claire, and then himself. It becomes clear over time that it is their teenagers who are killing them. In recognition of generation gaps everywhere, Esther's hatred for her parents' ministrations and care for her, is accentuated into something toxic so that when she blasts at them, they are made physically ill. This state of affairs, means that the sullen, unresponsive teenager becomes isolated from them, yet so great their love for her is that they keep pushing her, only for a torrent of words to come close to killing them.

Yet such a conceit, occasionally funny, but more often portrayed with a great sense of malevolence by Marcus - you can almost feel the palpable tension in their home, as they try and navigate this new state of toxicity - is not enough in what is a substantial novel. For the couple are followers of a secret religion. They are "forest Jews" who worship in private, each couple given their own "Jew hole", a secret place in the forest where they can "listen" to prayers and incantations through some antique orange-wired phone system. Common to readers of his short stories, this warping of a familiar world is part of Marcus's stock-in-trade. He is far less interested in describing the practicalities of a world that is otherwise the one we know, with cars, houses and canned food - and much more interested in creating a warped layer within it. 

One feels that there are probably numerous subtexts - beyond the obvious ones of subjugation and anti-Semitism - in this hidden Jewish religion relating to the nature of the Jewish religion, and its embodiment in the Torah, the word of God. I'm not knowledgeable enough about Judaism to be sure - but its not really that necessary - for this secret language, where the listeners become "conduits" to a private messaging channel, which in the slightly steampunky descriptions feels like a combination of CB radio and secret "numbers stations". Yet this is a fixed line network, that we begin to think only exists through the self-deceptions of its few adherents.

As the language plague spreads, and becomes more dangerous, there's a worry that its only the Jewish children who are spreading it, but it becomes more widespread, so that the children have to be quarantined in the city's where they live, and the adults are kept out by loudspeakers blasting out children reading Aesop's fables.  Yet it is not so easy to leave a child. Addicted to the secrecies of their religion our narrator begins various "smallwork" to protect him and his family. Here the similarities with "The Road" are quite acute, this is a man who will do everything he can, however misguided, to protect what he loves. A stranger appears in his life, the red-headed Murphy, a non-Jew who appears over-fascinated in this private religion and particular in the "listener", a personal receiver that each worshipper has as a conduit to scripture. As the plague grows, it begins to be discussed in the media. "Experts" look to find cures to see how it travels to understand how to protect against it. There is a chorus of philosophers, a man called Burke, a man called LeBov, the Rabbi Thompson, and then, making himself known to our narrator, Murphy, a red-haired stranger who appears overly interested in him, his family, and his attempts at self preservation.

There's something compelling about these layers of mystery in the first section of the novel. There's a genuine sense of dread, as the everyday certainties of life get pulled apart not just by the plague but by the rumous attached to its spreading. Bit by bit we see that normal society is a construct that can be pulled apart, even as much as dragging parents from their children, who are left to run feral in noisy gangs, before they too, at a certain shift into adulthood, will begin to feel the language toxic.

In the 2nd part of the novel, our narrator escapes, but it is a futile escape - too late for Claire who is too weak by this stage - and with no real sense of where he's going he gets bundled into Forsythe, the experimental research facility where they are researching language - for now it is not just children, but language in all its forms that is toxic. In a fiendishly imagined lab of silence, he comes up with new versions of old languages that are then tested on unwitting volunteers. Its seems language, meaning, even the symbols - the alphabet - are equally toxic. As soon as we understand, we suffer. As Claire is brought to the laboratory, he begins to understand his own role here - that he is seen as someone who may have some knowledge of a cure. Murphy and LeBov turn out to be the same person. The secrets of the Jewish communication are seen as somehow necessary in finding a solution, even as they look to discover a diabolical serum that can allow conversation of some sort.

This long second section is perhaps less successful than the opening. Marcus's world is so skewed that its hard to retain a sustained imaginative understanding of it. Our narrator is unreliable, scheming, kept going by irrational thoughts and surreptitious plans about bringing his family back together. Whilst Murphy/LeBov seems almost a cartoon villain, a creature of an undeclared establishment who is doing what is necessary. It perhaps lacks some of the narrative coherence of the best SF but instead has a complex, multi-layered patterning about the world. I'm reminded of that other brilliant but flawed future-society that has developed a new language, Will Self's "Book of Dave" where the central conceit is so brilliant, but, like in "The Flame Alphabet", it is sometimes hard to truly imagine the strange world that the books exists in - so little is explained, even though our narrator tries to explain where he can, he is also coming from a position of ignorance.

When Claire comes into Forsythe, we can see that the possibility of the redemption - of the family getting back together again may be the conclusion of this strange, unsettling book - but Marcus seems less interested in this kind of narrative tidiness. Our characters are adrift in a madness of their own - pumped up by adherence to a scripture, that we're never entirely sure if its not they themselves who are making up, and sharing across the underground network. The novel seems to be setting up that without language all the things we take for granted - love, family, sex - become almost impossibly devoid of meaning. The scientists in Forsythe tap each other on the shoulder as a prelude to unemotional sex. Our self-preservation as a species sees many willing volunteers come into the facility to be "test subjects" lured, perhaps, by the sense of a possible reunion with their children. This muteness, like the "Blindness" in that Saramago novel, creates a bleak feral society. There's a touch of the generic in this - which goes back to the laboratories in books like "A Clockwork Orange" and "1984" and surely has at least some of its potency in our knowledge of Mengele's labs. There's little explicit in this book that can describe motive - like "The Road" or "Blindness" this is a fallen world without cause - in this there are devils and angels, yet seen through one man's perspective we can only imagine some kind of pre-science world of superstition.

For the language plague creates the same myths and uncertainties and fears as the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s or the black death - and our solutions, even in an age of science, are as likely to be anecdotal or based on faith as on any real evidence. As our narrator escapes - his captives apparently placing too much faith in his secret language, when it proves no more rewarding than any other "cure", we expect perhaps some kind of epiphant. But Esther, who in the early pages of the novel is a brilliant creation, becomes only a chimera in this language-free world. How can love survive without words?

"The Flame Alphabet" is ultimately a powerful, yet frustrating novel of complex ideas, that themselves are never over-explained, but leave the reader wondering what he might have missed - whilst as the same time enjoying the genuine strangeness of Marcus's imagined world. There are no convenient answers, and like the man determined to protect his son on "The Road", this desire to bring back a family which is almost severed beyond repair leaves us saddened, wondering at the toxicity, not just of language, but of the ideas and thoughts that sustain it.

P.S. Having just read Nicholas Lezard's review in the Guardian from when it came out, I think he gets a bit to the heart of the book's strange beauty, which my more literal reading above skirted round a little.

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