Review: The Flame Alphabet

The Flame Alphabet

Ben Marcus

Granta Books, 304pp, £16.99

I found Ben Marcus’s first book, The Age of Wire and String, in 1995, on a table in Compendium, Camden Town – a bookshop still
unmatched, in my experience, for amazing discoveries. It was a small hardback, wrapped in soft, fleshy paper. This is the beginning of
the first of The Age of Wire and String’s many short sections: “Intercourse with resuscitated wife for particular number of days, superstitious act designed to ensure safe operation of household machinery.”

All of Marcus is already here – family as romantic centre of the universe, the weirdly banal suburban backdrop, occult relations between the human and the technological, deliberately awkward sentence structures and the harsh sounds of the prose, a cultivated vagueness of detail.

The Age of Wire and String was, and remains, an appallingly original book. It seems to present an entirely alienated, yet entirely credible, vision of the nuclear family. The book proceeds not by plot but through a series of definitions. To read it is to encounter a cultural primer that seems midway through a nervous breakdown. It is a work of brute genius.

Here’s one definition: “WESTERN WORSHIP BOXES The smallest structures, designed to fit precisely one body. They are rough-walled and dank, wooden and finely trimmed – the only areas of devotion. When more than one body enters to worship as a team, the box gevorts.”

This kind of originality doesn’t come quickly. It was seven years before Marcus’s next book, Notable American Women, and a larger gap of nine before The Flame Alphabet. But his world, and the way the elements of it fit idiosyncratically together, is constant. Huts appear significantly in The Flame Alphabet:

[O]ur sunken network existed solely as a radio system, feeding Rabbi Burke’s services to his dispersed, silent community. Tunnels throughout the north-east, stretching as far as Denver, surfacing in hundreds of discrete sites. Mostly holes covered by huts like ours, where two members of the faith – the smallest possible chavurah, highly motivated to worship without the pollutions of comprehension of a community – could privately gather to receive a broadcast.

One way of understanding Marcus’s development, since his first book, is that he is finding a way to normalise these elements. Another is that he is being forced to normalise these elements. This may be inevitable. The Age of Wire and String reads as an impasse. There doesn’t seem to be anything beyond it but less. In attempting to write more, Marcus has come quite a long way towards conventional plots and characters – with both gains and losses.

The Flame Alphabet concerns literalised “pollutions of comprehension”. The plot – and it’s a gripping though waywardly pursued one – is that the speech of children becomes a plague to their parents. (Or so it seems at first; it also seems that Jewish children are the Typhoid Marys.) The symptoms are “facial smallness, lethargy, a hardening under the tongue that defeat[s] attempts at speech”. Too much exposure to child speech is fatal. Samuel and Claire, a couple of “forest Jews”, worshippers in the hut, hold out against the language of their daughter, Esther, for as long as they can – attempting to love her, endure her, despite her extreme 14-year-old toxicity.

The Flame Alphabet follows Samuel’s craven attempts to survive the speech plague by pursuing father figures. One is Rabbi Burke, who broadcasts his mystical, asocial Judaism direct to the “questionable equipment” in the hut. One calls himself Murphy and is reminiscent
of Vaughan, the seedy guru of body-machine interfaces in J G Ballard’s novel Crash. Another is the plague’s chief scientific interpreter, LeBov, who seems a cross between the antitypes of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four – Goldstein and O’Brien, theorist and practitioner. All of these fathers fail and Samuel’s survival comes at appalling cost.

Marcus has courted biographical readings before. The Age of Wire and String is dedicated to “Father” and contains an epigraph from “Michael Marcus”. The undedicated Notable American Women bears a cover quotation from Michael Marcus, Ben’s father – “How can one word from Ben Marcus’s rotten, filthy heart be trusted?” So, it’s not illegitimate to point out that The Flame Alphabet is dedicated “to my family – Heidi, Delia, and Solomon”. The novel’s final word is “family”. It’s hard not to read Marcus’s normalisation as a factor of his own fatherhood, of his having crossed the blame line.

No other position is so guilty, in Marcus’s cosmology. In this, the novel could not be more explicit: “Fatherhood is perhaps another name for something done badly.” To name your son Solomon is to set him up, wishfully, as a good father – perhaps your own father.

This article first appeared in the 04 June 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The royal makeover