15. The Flame Alphabet, Ben Marcus

2 May

Now this was a strange experience.

I have been obsessed with Ben Marcus’s recent short fiction in The New Yorker. He writes amazing prose and has a Flannery O’Connor-like sense of the disturbing and grotesque. The story Rollingwood, especially, was unbearably dark, brilliant and damaging to me, being about corporate evil, medical weirdness and divorce. In fact, I found Rollingwood so excruciating and shattering that I held off on The Flame Alphabet out of fear.

The book’s basic premise is that language becomes toxic. First it’s language spoken by children, then it becomes all language. That had the potential to become a little too meta-fiction for me, but it also had the potential to resonate in permanently damaging ways. As a parent, the idea that children are inherently damaging to adults has some sick appeal—sometimes it’s one of my paranoid fears. Children do incinerate your 20s self; they do narrow your options; they are often totally lethal for your fun, your career, your self esteem, etc. (I say all of this as a mother of two who would have two more if she could pull it off…)

I went to a reading for The Flame Alphabet and I wanted to ask during the Q&A if this language-toxic world where the words of children kill their parents was just a metaphor for the real world. But I was too chicken.

And now, having read the book, I would say that if that’s true, it’s not easily teased out. I didn’t end up loving it, though it’s an interesting and strange voyage. Mainly, I found the Marcus world, which has been so damaging in the more realistic New Yorker stories, to be too much when it’s applied to a strange apocalyptic netherworld where this language plague takes place. The book is pure speculation, pure flight of fancy, neither our world nor a posited other world, and it lost its emotional grip on me.  The language plague was wonderfully described, but I couldn’t buy it. Possible also because I was ‘reading’ about it in a book. It bothered me that the narrator, who by the end was so mute he had to avoid all comprehension, was rattling off his tale in gorgeous sentences. I wanted it to be an artifact presented by an editor like Either/Or.

And it also bothered me that the narrator’s child and the other children mentioned were so evil from the start. At the reading, hearing it out loud in the author’s voice, the daughter’s hatred of her parents sounded funny, like the usual angry-teen stuff, but in black and white it just felt implausible. The children in the book ran wild and delighted in hurting adults with their speech, which is fine, but it didn’t give me a lot to think about. Which is basically how I felt about the book overall. It had wonderful, weird, dark, grotesque styling but ended up being kind of a Huh?

One Response to “15. The Flame Alphabet, Ben Marcus”

  1. E.S. May 2, 2012 at 8:31 pm #

    Sounds fascinating…but dark. Maybe I will just check out his New Yorker stories you reference.

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