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Sunday, 30 June 2013

The Flame Alphabet

The Flame Alphabet

The word is now a virus. The flu virus may have once been a healthy lung cell. It is now a parasitic organism that invades and damages the central nervous system. Modern man has lost the option of silence. Try halting sub-vocal speech. Try to achieve even ten seconds of inner silence. You will encounter a resisting organism that forces you to talk. That organism is the word. – William Burroughs, The Ticket That Exploded

I knew three things about this book before I sat down to read it: it was called The Flame Alphabet, it had a cool cover and it was some kind of post-apocalyptic novel where language becomes toxic. And that was it. I didn't know the author's name or at least it didn't mean anything to me and I forgot it as soon as I'd seen it. I had no idea what his writing credentials were but I liked the idea of the book and I wanted to see if he could pull it off.

Do you know why I enjoy Star Trek? Or to be more precise: Do you know what I don't do to stop myself enjoying Star Trek (and this really applies to all science fiction and what little fantasy I watch): I don't question things. In 'Encounter at Farpoint', Wesley Crusher falls into a holographic stream, but is still dripping wet after exiting the holodeck. I never batted an eye when that happened. I never throw up my hands when they sit down at an alien computer, clatter away at the suspiciously-QWERTY-looking keyboard and access whatever they need in five seconds or less. My disbelief can be flicked on and off as easily as Commander Data's emotion chip. If you can't do that then you might want to learn how before you settle down to read The Flame Alphabet because things happen in it that are implausible at best and are never satisfactorily explained. And I'm sure it's deliberate.

I'm a writer. Language fascinates me. What fascinates me the most about it is its inadequacy. I think that the fact that any two human beings can stand face to face and exchange thoughts and ideas is incredible—or as one of the author’s students said to him, "Hello is a fucking miracle"—not that either of them really, really knows for sure that what they think the other person meant is what that person thinks he's communicated to you. And it never is but it's close enough for government work. My wife says she loves me and I tell her I love her back and we're both sensible enough to leave it at that. Language isn't perfect but it's all we've got.

In 2005 Ben Marcus created a bit of a stooshie when he published an article in Harpers Magazine entitled: Why experimental fiction threatens to destroy publishing, Jonathan Franzen, and life as we know it: A correction. In it he states the case for writing that aims to make its readers think and not just feel:

In the left temporal lobe of the brain, below the central sulcus of Ronaldo, but above and tucked behind both Broca's area and Heschl's gyri, sits Wernicke's area, a tufted bundle of flesh responsible for language comprehension. It gets its name from Carl Wernicke, a German neurologist who discovered in 1874 that damage to this region could cause an impairment of language comprehension. Think of Wernicke's area as the reader's muscle, without which all written language is an impossible tangle of codes, a scribbled bit of abstract art that can't be deciphered. Here is where what we read is turned into meaning, intangible strings of language animated into legible shapes. [...]

In the literary world, it's not politic to suggest that the brain is even involved in reading, or that our reading faculties might actually be improved. Mentions of the brain imply effort, and effort is the last thing we are supposed to request of a reader. Language is supposed to flow pre-digested, like liquid down a feeding tube. Instead of the brain, it's the heart that writers are told they must reach in order to move readers, to stir in them the deepest, most intense feelings.


My ideal reader would cough up a thimble of fine grey powder at the end of the reading session, and she could use this mineral-rich substance to compost her garden. (italics mine – see below)

It's a long article but I see in it the groundwork for The Flame Alphabet. It's a book that certainly made me think. Not that I wasn’t moved by it to but many of the feelings it generated were cultivated by the thinking process; thinking and feeling are connected and we should never forget that. pi

If I were to compare The Flame Alphabet to a film, the one that jumps to my mind is Darren Aronofsky's Pi. I've just read a review of it which says, in part:

Make no mistake, this movie is weird and requires a thoughtful mind from the viewer.

I could say much the same about The Flame Alphabet: Make no mistake, this book is weird and requires a thoughtful mind from the reader. Pi is all about numbers. The Flame Alphabet is all about words. The common ground is, oddly enough, Judaism.

In Pi the protagonist Max believes that the universe can be explained in numerical terms. He's a scientist but not the only person who sees the bigger picture. He is approached by a very specific cult of Hasidic Jews who believe that there are 216 numbers (the Shemhamphorasch) which, when properly pronounced, will reveal the true name of God; they believe the number can be used to bring about the Messianic Age.

In the beginning, the Bible says, was the Word, however, not the number. In The Flame Alphabet our protagonist is Sam, a "forest Jew" as they are known colloquially; he refers to himself as a Reconstructionist Jew. The Reconstructionists are real enough—they are a progressive offshoot of American Conservative Judaism opposed to religious orthodoxy but emphasizing traditionalist practices—but this is something new and extreme. There is nothing to say when the book is set. One reviewer assumed that what we're looking at is an alternate reality but it could just as easily be set in an imagined future. Certainly the biomechanics they use in their worship only exist in the films of Cronenberg (I'm thinking particularly of the organic virtual reality game consoles known as "game pods" that we see in his film eXistenZ).

As Reconstructionist Jews following a program modified by Mordecai Kaplan, indebted to Ira Eisenstein’s idea of private religious observation, an entirely covert method of devotion, Claire and I held synagogue inside a small hut in the woods that received radio transmissions through underground cabling.

The practice derived from Schachter-Shalomi’s notion of basements linked between homes, passageways connecting entire neighbourhoods. But our sunken network existed solely as a radio system, feeding Rabbi Burke’s services to his dispersed, silent community. Tunnels throughout the Northeast, 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.


The rules of the hut were few but they were final. Claire and I were only to go together. We could neither of us attend this synagogue alone. The experience would not be rendered in speech, you could not repeat what you heard, or even that you heard anything. Bauman was firm on this, said our access would be revoked if we breached. You would not know who else received worship in this manner, neighbours or otherwise. Children were not allowed access to the hut. Their relation to you alone did not automatically qualify them. They must be approached separately, assigned their own coordinates

The device they use to listen to the broadcasts (which appear to be on some kind of constant loop emanating from some possibly numinous source) is generally referred to as a "listener":

The technology of the hut was a glowbug setup. The hut covered a hole and the hole was stuffed with wire. From our own hole came bright orange ropes of cabling, the whole mess of it reeking of sewage, of something dead beneath the earth. This wiring was grappled to the listener, and the listener, called a Moses Mouth by Bauman, even while we were instructed to never refer to it, was draped over the radio module. I’m understating the complexity of this. But on a good day, it just worked.

The listener is clearly at least semi-organic:

Sitting there as the day grew dark, the listener perspired on me, and one part of it, a fin canting from its rear that seemed encased by a soft wood, was so hot that I felt sick when I touched it.

One interesting thing about the Reconstructionists is that they reject the classical view of God. God is redefined as the sum of natural powers or processes that allows mankind to gain self-fulfilment and moral improvement.

When I read this book I hurried through this section but having finished it I now realise that it deserved more attention because when things go wrong at least one person in apparent charge of finding a solution is open to a more mystical approach, particularly since conventional science proves to be a washout.

The book opens some weeks into the action but at a critical juncture:

We left on a school day, so Esther wouldn’t see us. In my personal bag, packed when my wife, Claire, had finally collapsed in sleep against the double-bolted bedroom door as it was getting light out, I stashed field glasses, sound abatement fabrics, and enough rolled foam to conceal two adults. On top of these I crammed a raw stash of anti-comprehension pills, a child’s radio retrofitted as a toxicity screen, an unopened bit of gear called a Dräger Aerotest breathing kit, and my symptom charts.

This was the obvious equipment, medical gear I could use on the fly, from the car, at night. That is, if I even got the chance.

I did not bring LeBov’s needle. I had tried the needle and the needle did not work.

My secondary supplies consisted of medical salts and a portable burner, a copper powder for phonic salting, plus some rubber bulbs and a bootful of felt. Eye masks and earplugs and the throat box that was functioning as the white noisery, to spew a barrier of hissing sound over me.

Tucked into the outside pouch, for quick access, I placed a personal noise dosimeter, hacked to measure children’s speech. I wanted to be able to hear them coming.

Something has happened to the children. Sam and Claire have a fourteen-year-old daughter, Esther, and whenever Esther talks she makes her parents sick, physically ill. And it's not just Sam and his family:

Claire and I weren’t the only parents to ditch our houses and, in some cases, other items of value. The command went out in early December, issued in a final radio report before the stations went mute, and everyone was leaving. 

It's a plague of biblical proportions.

AlcatrazUnlike this blog the book begins in medias res and then jumps back and fills in the necessary exposition. It's a common ploy with scriptwriters in fact I can think of at least two TV shows I watched only last week (an episode of Castle and one of Alcatraz) where they did precisely that and then those tell-tale words appear on our screen: 36 hours earlier. But that's fine. Our interest is piqued and so we don't mind a bit of a wait till be get back to where we came in.

The book is written in the first person by Sam but this is a Sam some years in the future, a predominately silent future. He forgets to—or isn't especially interested in—answering all the questions I would have liked to see answered and in that respect he's not an especially reliable narrator. He talks about his wife, his daughter and that is about it. Only the delusive (and quite possibly deluded) Murphy muscles his way into the narrative as he does into Sam's life. If Murphy's even his name. Sam meets Murphy by what seems to be an accident—he just appears like another man out for a walk to escape his own kids—but Murphy has an agenda:

He was already canvassing Jewish families, probably had been for months, or even longer. Canvassing might not be the word for what he was doing. Cornering, manipulating, extracting. There is no precise word for this work. There can’t be. In the end our language is no match for what this man did.

He tells Sam that he believes the speech-delivered illness is related to "the flame alphabet," which is "the word of God, written in fire, obliterating to behold." If it is forbidden for Jews to speak the name of God; the logical extension of this is that all words are derived from the name of God and thus will be equally destructive if spoken or read. Why now? Perhaps it's a cumulative thing. It's only a guess.

Like Sam, Murphy has been medicating himself and testing appliances:

Murphy and I walked together and I lost track of our direction. He boasted of the insulation he’d installed in his home. The soundproof barriers with R-values above twenty, the speech-blocking baffles, some sediment collectors that were yielding a not uninteresting powder, even if the use of this powder was still beyond him.

For some reason it kept falsely testing as salt.

This mysterious powder appears later in the book although we never learn what exactly it is. It forms the basis of not a cure but rather a potion that provides some short-term alleviation of the symptoms: a palliative then.

Things go from bad to worse. The first children whose speech becomes toxic appear to be those of Jews, then all children are affected, then adults; finally it's not only speech that's potentially lethal but all forms of communication, written or even gestural. This is where people start to realise that they've maybe got things backwards and the problem is with comprehension and not communication. Oddly thinking about words does no harm which is why I say that it's probably not a good idea to start drilling down into the science presented herein. Accept it as allegory, parody, metafiction, a grotesque fairy tale or an act of God. Go with the flow.

I struggled a bit with the character of Esther. People, especially kids, can be slow on the uptake and deny what's in front of their eyes but I kept thinking what I'd be like if I was a fourteen-year-old—and I had as many issues with my parents at that age as anyone else—and I can't honestly see me hurting them the way she does. She's not all bad and there are times when she either keeps her distance or keeps quiet but she felt a little too alien for my tastes. Disasters tend to bring families together rather than driving a wedge between them. In an interview this is what Marcus had to say:

In The Flame Alphabet, the daughter, Esther, is in some ways a typical teen-ager, but her aggression escalates when her language itself is poisonous to her parents. As if teen-agers needed any more power. I wanted to test the love of a father, to see just what it would take for someone to abandon his family.

The notion of language as a virus is not new. William Burroughs (of whom Marcus is a fan) talks about it in The Ticket That Exploded. In a short essay Burroughs explains:

My basis theory is that the written word was literally a virus that made spoken word possible. The word has not been recognized as a virus because it has achieved a state of stable symbiosis with the host…

Viruses, of course, somewhat paradoxically ultimately destroy the cells they need to survive:

Is the virus then simply a time bomb left on this planet to be activated by remote control? An extermination program in fact? In its path from full virulence to its ultimate goal of symbiosis will any human creature survive?

PontypoolposterThe concept has also been explored in Tony Burgess's novel Pontypool Changes Everything where somehow a virus has found its way into human language, infecting certain words, and only certain words infect certain people. Once these infected words are said and understood, the virus takes hold of the host.

In his book Marcus never gets to the stage of ever properly explaining what triggers the crisis but obviously finding a cure when you're unable to communicate with another living soul is going to be problematic and yet somehow a group of scientists for want of a better word manage to organise themselves in a place called Forsythe Labs where Sam ends up alone having been forcibly separated from his wife at the time of the exodus. There he finds himself isolated in a lab free to experiment with written languages. No one explains to him or even shows him what to do but he susses out what's required of him and sets to. How he was earmarked for this task is never properly explained nor are his qualifications clear (certainly in interview Marcus suggests that he's nothing more than an amateur) but little by little he gets a feel for how things run there without ever communicating directly with anyone. Of course he cannot work on large sections of text

A drafting desk stood at the window, and in its drawers I found paper and the makings of a lettering kit. Rubber stamps, ink pads in different colours, and a set of baby sawtooth knives. Alongside these were a clutch of chrome pens, bottles of ink, an engraver’s kit, a set of reference books labelled with a poison symbol, and, most interestingly, a scroll of self-disguising paper—paper with small windows factored in that could be enlarged with a dial—that allowed you to see only the script character you were presently reading, and nothing else, not even the word it belonged to. It broke the act of reading into its littlest parts, keeping understanding at bay.

but over the weeks he's there he tests a whole variety of ever weirder methods of non-verbal communication. By 'tests' I mean experiments on men and women he thinks of as "Volunteer, test subject, language martyr … I would never learn what they called them, since naming of this sort had no application anymore, and anyway could not be shared." How could this not call to mind the human experimentation carried out by Joseph Mengele?

After a time he is set upon—"medically ambushed" he calls it—injected with a unknown serum and brought to see the man (or one of a body of men) who appeared to be in charge: LeBov; in time he comes to talk about this group collectively as "the LeBovs". (I do use the word 'appear' a lot but for the most part that's all that's left—appearances.) The particular LeBov he meets—and, for a short time at least is able to converse with (as I've said the drug was not a cure)—believes that all Sam's experiments with written modes of communication will bear no fruit. He's more interested in exploring a more mystical solution. Within the laboratory they have a Jew hole and nine other forest Jews along with their listeners; Sam and his listener (which had been stolen from his hut) would make ten, a conventional minyan:

Someone had been doing his reading, a little elementary Jewish procedure, put abroad into the world by our clever elders only to mislead the curious. It astonished me that people expected us to share our holy text, our rules and rituals, with just anyone, or even with each other. Sharing. What a tragic mistake. While the other religions begged for joiners, humping against the resisters until they yielded and swore themselves forever to their principles, we set about repelling them, erecting barriers to belief. It was how I preferred it. And LeBov had taken the bait. The so-called quorum of ten Jews required to ignite proper worship. This rule was one of our better decoys. I marvelled at how off track he was. Whoever was running Forsythe thought a Jewish tradition, invented in the first place, was going to assist their decipherment of the transmission, a rigorously difficult act not tied to mystical belief whatsoever.

They don't know exactly what they're searching for in the Jew hole, an ur-language perhaps that they could return to. We never get to find out. Sam escapes and returns home through the network of underground tunnels or at least to the general area; he settles in his hut in the woods and it's from there that he writes this memoir. To be able to do so he needs to obtain a steady supply of the serum. By now we've learned the unpleasant way that its core ingredient is produced. And that is where the book ends. With us wondering just what kind of future the next generation would be brought up in but then so many post-apocalyptic books and films end on a question mark like that. Why would he want to flee though? Would it not be worthwhile to at least try to see what might happen? His answer is really encapsulated in the last quote.

The core of this book has been done time and time again: following a disaster the hero gets separated from his family and despite the fact the world has gone to hell in a hand basket he's going to do whatever it takes to be reunited with his loved ones, e.g. The Day After Tomorrow where Jack and his team set out for Manhattan to find his son whose freezing to death in the New York Public Library. Sam is nowhere near as heroic but then, like the rest of us, he's just an ordinary bloke. What would an ordinary bloke do?

Perhaps because the protagonist is call Sam and the antagonist Murphy, Beckett was never far from my mind reading this text whether it be the figure crawling through the mud in How It Is or the desiccated bodies attempting to couple dismally in an ill-lit rotunda as described in The Lost Ones. And, of course, Beckett had his own issues with language. It came as no surprise when I found a list of Ben Marcus's top ten books to find Beckett's Stories and Texts for Nothing there which he describes as follows:

These thirteen non-narrative prose pieces are fatalistic outcries uttered by moribund outcasts awaiting oblivion: the resigned, the dying, and the dead —all saved from meaninglessness by the grave, eloquent music of a measured style that redeems, even as it snatches away, their humanity.

Needless to say Kafka also makes the cut.

Reviews of the book are across the board as you can see from this chart from Goodreads:

Goodread Chart

I've seen the book called "jaw-droppingly great", "a worthy addition to the speculative fiction canon" and a clear fan who read the book on a plane from El Paso to Providence said, "I wanted to find a microphone and read it to everyone sitting there, complacent and bored. I wanted to give them a glimpse of what literature can do: transport, unnerve, sate." It's also been called "too clever for its own good", an "uninteresting slog" and "the ramblings of an utterly bored mind." I liked it. I could've liked it more. Everyone—I don't care who they are—wants all the answers. We might be willing to make do with what the author doles out but we really want to know. That what kept people watching Lost, the need to know, but by the time we did we'd exhausted ourselves trying to add up all the pieces and no ending was ever going to truly satisfy us. The Prisoner (the original series I mean) has people guessing right down to this day because (and I know this was partly an act of perversity on McGoohan's part) it doesn't explain everything away. Well The Flame Alphabet is like that and that will really annoy a lot of people. If you're the kind of person who needs answers then maybe avoid this one. In an interview he goes some way to explain his book's paucity of facts:

Your writing is filled with references to tools and people who are left partially understood by the reader, with only small chunks of information available. For you, are these details also partially understood? Do you know information the reader does not?

Hm, no. I’m not playing any kind of game where I try to leave the reader out of the master plan. But if a detail doesn’t add dramatic energy then I see no reason to spoil the writing with it. I guess I prefer one or two sharp details, rather than a laundry list of “facts” about a character, since this frustrates me when I read, being asked to collect data that may not matter.

Of course when you label someone an "experimental" writer that's obviously another thing that's going to put people off. As far as I'm concerned every time I sit down to write it's an experiment that can, and often does, go badly wrong. Marcus writes:

This issue of experimentalism is hollow to me.  I can’t figure out the actual content of the problem.  I’ve never tried to write anything experimental, because I don’t even know what that would be.  I’ve just written what most compels me at the time, what I’d most want to read myself.  Does anyone self-identify as experimental?  Anyone?

The Flame Alphabet is actually a fairly straightforward narrative. It has a plot, a beginning, a middle and an end. It has a good guy and a bad-guy-come-mad-scientist. It's actually more of a page-turner than you might imagine. Marcus will probably never shake the "experimental" label but to my mind he's just a regular writer like the rest of us struggling to find ways to extract something worthwhile from all the clutter in his head. In an interview where he's asked about the Harper's article he says:

I think the basic question is how to write substantive books that you want to write without alienating people. I don’t feel that readers need to be forced to read anything, and if something feels didactic to them, they shouldn’t read it. In the end I think the challenge and problem and responsibility comes back to the writer, and the writer needs to accept how much they care about something. The artistic challenge is whether they can find a delivery system for their material that is engaging vital and entertaining without forfeiting the issues that started their novel off.

You can read an excerpt from the book here and a second one here. There are several interviews online, some of which I've quoted from and linked to, but here is a particularly long one I enjoyed. Finally here are two wee videos to wind up, the first is an interview with Marcus; the second is a short animation based on The Flame Alphabet by Erin Cosgrove, a sort of trailer.


Marcus_01_bodyBen Marcus is the author of four books of fiction, Notable American Women, The Father Costume, The Age of Wire and String and The Flame Alphabet. His stories, essays, and reviews have appeared in Harper's, The New Yorker, The Paris Review, The Believer, The New York Times, Salon, McSweeney's, and Tin House. He is the editor of The Anchor Book of New American Short Stories. Marcus is a 2009 recipient of a grant for Innovative Literature from the Creative Capital Foundation. He has also received a Whiting Writers Award, a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in fiction, and three Pushcart Prizes. Marcus is an associate professor in the School of the Arts at Columbia University.


Jacqueline Howett said...

Wonderful post! You have sure given us plenty to think about here!

Thanks for sharing!

Jim Murdoch said...

Lovely to hear from you, Jacqueline and I’m glad you found the article interesting. I’d be very keen to read this guy again.

Gwil W said...

The language of words is one of many languages. In the beginning there was body language; the gesture, the cry, the laugh, the smile, the hug, the giving of nourishment and so on.

Children generally cry and laugh and express emotion readily. Adults tend to bottle things up or tough it or feel obliged or indebted and so on and try acting grown-up and are frightened of saying or ding the wrong thing, finding the 'right' phrase or word is important which naturally causes them stress and illness is the result of not acting naturally - the message is: don't lose the child within you.

Jim Murdoch said...

If you had to lose your sight, your hearing or the ability to speak which one would you choose? People ask each other questions like that all the time, Gwilliam. It’s one of those impossible-to-answer-until-you’re-there questions. Deaf people find ways to communicate as do blind and dumb so no matter which one we lost we’d cope—look at Helen Keller—but to be forbidden from communicating anything more than the most basic of things, that would be hard. Not that language (verbal or written) is the ultimate form of communication—I’ll be honest I think it’s amazing how well we make it work considering its inherent weaknesses—but it’s what we have. If all you had was a spoon to eat your dinner with you’d cope. If there were other people around we’d be self-conscious though and I can see some people doing without rather than risk embarrassing themselves. Kids don’t have that fear. They learn it quickly enough but they’re not born with it. And as soon as they realise that others are deriding them in some way, even affectionately, the walls start to go up. It’s why I prefer written to verbal communication because it slows everything down. I can consider what I’m saying, go back and edit it, erase it if necessary and start again. It’s very important to me to get it right which is why I get my wife to proofread all my blogs so that I won’t be embarrassed by a typo, a spelling mistake or some grammatical faux pas. Stupid really. But human.

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