‘The Flame Alphabet: A Novel’ by Ben Marcus (Granta Books, 2013)
Reviewed by Dr Nagihan Haliloğlu, assistant professor at Fatih Sultan Mehmet University in Istanbul. Her book on Jean Rhys, ‘Narrating from the Margins’ is published from Rodopi. She writes on multiculturalism, memory and world literature.
Language as Airborne Toxic Event
The Flame Alphabet is a dystopian novel in which speech has become toxic to people, except for ‘children’. The plot unfurls in a blurry landscape that is supposed to be familiar, but that has become uncanny due both to the impossibility of communication between adults and ‘children’, and to the alienating language that is used by the narrator Sam, who now fears the speech of his beloved daughter Esther.
While we don’t know at what age people stop being ‘children’, one of the clues we are given about language toxicity is that it may have started with Jewish children. We are given to understand that Sam and his wife Claire follow an obscure Jewish sect, named ‘Forest Jews’ by outsiders, and their religious ritual involves going to a hut in the woods and listening to sermons that are relayed through orange cables that stretch out from a hole in the ground. One third into The Flame Alphabet, Sam’s nemesis (of sorts), the false messiah figure LeBov tells him he shouldn’t try to make sense of toxicity of language through Biblical stories: ‘That topic is exhausted. Mythology is the lowest temptation’ (p. 66). However by that stage it’s already too late, at least for this reader. The text, starting from page one, is so thick with cultural references and metaphors, you feel you are always one step behind because you don’t know your religious or secular ‘mythology’ well enough.
The first name we see on the page is Esther, Sam’s daughter with toxic speech, and one quickly tries to remember what her significance in the Biblical story was. Half way down the page we get ‘white noisery’, and soon enough things are ‘airborn’. After these two words point unmistakably to the great American toxic novel, we are given a character assessment for Esther, who determinedly tries to break the idyllic nature of the suburban home with her wry remarks and no nonsense attitude- the Jewish daughter who won’t let the family live out its American dream- a-la-American Pastoral. And then there’s the ‘hut’ (read: Sukkot) that Sam and Claire retreat to in order to hear the sermons of their rabbi through improbable cables, holes, receivers (called the ‘Listener’ or ‘Moses Mouth’ if you will) – which reminded me of some of the rituals conducted at the Hatch of the series Lost, another grand narrative of mysticism and world making of our times.
The characters live in a miasma of airborne material and sound, and after a while you stop wondering whether sentences like ‘His smile had a little bit of clear shit in it. I could smell it’ (p. 121) are meant literally or metaphorically. Having been exposed to a critical mass of obnoxious bloodily fluid in textual form, the effect of nausea is guaranteed either way. With descriptions of the graphic resilience of the sick, oozing, decaying human body, The Flame Alphabet is not meant to be a read for your commute, for it does leave you feeling queasy, which is in a way proof of its narrative power. It is a book that tries to put its premise into practice by playing with words to try to affect a physical response in the body. It tests out the toxic power of words, and if we are convinced by this power, the same source can be tapped for possible curative benefits. As a reverse experiment, it looks at an area that is very much at the forefront of medical humanities at the moment.
The age old metaphor of language as poison and cure at the same time, that of the Pharmakon as formulated by Plato, is one that is sustained throughout: ‘Spreading messages dilutes them. Even understanding them is a compromise. […] Language acts as an acid over its message. If you no longer care about an idea or feeling, then put it into language’ (p. 44). Indeed. Or put it on a ‘well wishing’ card. Words, particularly in written form, help house meaning and memory outside the body, and thus weaken or even obliterate that body’s connection to it. Plato had suggested that words were a poison for the faculty of memory. Marcus takes this metaphor further and suggests that it is poison for the whole body, that connections between words and bodies are more physical than we’d like to think. Literature and the humanities have made ample use of medical metaphors throughout time, and Marcus turns these metaphors on their heads to explore what the medical consequences would be if these metaphors did come to life. In that sense, the book asks us to reflect on the language that the humanities and medicine share. Certain elements in the body politic have always been described as ‘sick’ and/or causing decay- it is interesting that in Marcus’s book, this ‘element’ turns out to be more generational than a racial category, reflecting the concerns of our times.
When we meet Sam, the toxicity of his daughter’s speech has taken its toll on him and Claire, and after their bodies have buckled and oozed an unconscionable amount of liquid that will be related in detail in the coming pages, they’ve decided to leave their daughter and go to a child free zone where the adults are expected to hold their tongues. He remembers abortive conversations with Esther: however, his daughter’s mean-teen speech, dished out unsparingly (pre and post toxicity), doesn’t signify as it ought because of the general treachery her voice causes, irrespective of what she says. The question of why Esther is so cynical about life and ruthless towards her parents (because she was conceived in the forest hut while parents listened to the possibly fake sermons?) is never answered, if ever raised. The fact that all words are toxic also closes the door on a discussion about the power of words and indeed prayer, which has taken centre-stage once again in pastoral care.
In the compound Sam discovers more orange cables that make him a mouthpiece for prayers like the radio rabbis. These are unfamiliar prayers and are regarded as false both by himself and LeBov. Sam tries to make sense of the words that the cables have made him utter, and his tribulations sounds very much like the average believing man’s response to exegesis: ‘I grew so alert to its obvious meanings that they sickened me, leading me to secondary, ironic intentions, disguises of rhetoric I would not normally notice. But soon these, too, felt fraudulent and then I returned to the literal meanings, which had gained more force now that I’d spurned them’ (p. 160). Indeed, Marcus is asking us, repeatedly, to move beyond content and meaning, and focus on the toxic and/or curative powers of speech itself- the effects of vibrations uttered at a certain wavelength (and the very sight of letters) rather than their meanings which may trigger responses in the brain.
In one of their conversations before going the compound Sam, trying to understand LeBov’s methods ‘floats the Jewish question’ as the first toxic people, which LeBov is quick to dismiss. Marcus leaves so many things floating in the air by this point both literally- little pockets of grey air, dust and noise that Sam concocts at home to try to defend himself and his wife from Esther’s speech- and metaphorically, that ‘the Jewish
question’ is supposed to dwindle into insignificance. However, the specter will not disappear: the scene in which Sam watches his wife enter the compound, stripped, washing submissively under an ominous shower head, is too reminiscent of reconstructed scenes from concentration camps.
Throughout the book there is a sense that Man has not made proper use of words and that’s why it has turned toxic on him: ‘Our time with it is nearly through’ says Sam with a finality, almost wistful for missed opportunities. The book itself, with its repetitions, cadence, rhythm and difficult to decipher message reads like a parable, though we are warned throughout we should ignore stories that try to convey profound meaning. At the end, by revealing the dear price – a serum extracted from children- that makes language possible for adults, and that makes it possible for Sam to tell his story to us, Marcus manages to ask a crucial question: what price are we prepared to pay for language, and for the preservation and passing on of our mythologies? In an age when people seem to be more communication dependent than ever, Marcus does a good job of questioning the efficacy and benignity of this tool that we use indiscriminately.