Review (of sorts): The Flame Alphabet by Ben Marcus

“Thinking is the first poison…”


I am humbled and, to be honest, a bit afraid.  I don’t quite know how to go about writing this review and am frightened of its implications.  For in writing about it, I am in fact destroying it – if ever so slightly – limiting the ways in which you might travel through it.  “Spreading messages dilutes them.  Even understanding them is a compromise.  The language kills itself, expires inside its host…If you no longer care about an idea or feeling, then put it into language.”

I had no lead into the text.  Aware of Marcus beforehand, I have yet to read anything else of his origin.  He was and is a myth to me.  Not a real person, but an image on a jacket with glowing words abound.

So, “I reached out my arms, leaned, then fell into the dirt.”    

A traditional review might say something to the effect of: telling a straightforward story with well crafted lyricism, Marcus wastes no space making use of every word turning The Flame Alphabet into one of the most necessary novels of our time.

This is what a traditional review might say.  And it would be correct.  But, a traditional review seems insignificant. 

Part of me thought to compose this entirely out of quotes from the text.  Allowing a description of the text’s worth to be available only through the text itself.  But, then I thought better of that idea (though I do use some).  It wouldn’t do the book justice and could in fact belittle its quality when simply lumped together as if they themselves have meaning absent the larger text.  And yet, they do, which is partly what makes the book so worth the time and energy.

Plenty of writers greater than me have laid their trade on the dust cover’s back jacket promoting Ben Marcus as “the rarest kind of writer: a necessary one.”  Tom McCarthy says “The Flame Alphabet drags the contemporary novel – kicking, screaming and foaming at the mouth – back toward the track it should be following.”  And Michael Chabon mentions people like Kafka, David Lynch, William Burroughs, Robert Walser, Bruno Schulz, and Mary Shelley.

I’m not sure that I can do better than that.  Granted their words were expressly requested so as to market and propel Marcus’ book ahead in the races, but that does not make them any less correct.  Ben Marcus is a fantastic writer who has written a gripping text condemning his own craft in the succumb of our worst fears.

Not unlike The Road, this book is about surviving.  It’s about language; the life and death of it – and by attachment our own.  The narrator is living with the process of living.  Finding inspiration where it can be found, taking in the rest as it comes; learning how to be with what is without losing that which is most vital: connections. 

Additionally, it’s about how our greatest achievements often lead to our greatest destructions. 

In the beginning there is family.  It’s maintenance, fragility, utter inability to combat that which is internal.  As the story evolves, family dissolves (at least in the material) and becomes that whose memory motivates, inspires, and enables to survive.  It is no longer the physical so much as emotional that enables one to exist in this world amongst these restrictions. 

Hello was the perfect word.  It began and ended all contact, delivering us into private chambers from which we could enjoy other people in textbook abstraction, without the burden of intimacy.”

Against the outside world is the personal struggle to find value and connection when our methods have been stripped. 

Initially “[t]he word carrier was used.  The word Jew was not.” 

And then the words themselves are disallowed.  Labeling must evolve.  Connection isolated.  How can we understand when our resource is no longer?

“To see writing was to suffer.”

Throughout the reading I tracked words, sentences, and entire pages.  I was pushed and pulled continually as to feeling ill-prepared.  I have been unsure what to do other than continue reading and yet this book was not for pleasure.  Its journey has been to produce, to inquire; to navigate the world around me with a lethal dose continuously at my side.

It’s reminded me of being a child – remembering when I started to really read.  In fifth grade my teacher decided it was a problem.  After tests I would stay quiet, keep to myself and read.  Other kids made noise and talked to their friends creating unmanageable amounts of distraction.  But, I was the problem, as she eventually discussed with my mother, because I was anti-social. 

Or so she imagined me to be.

What I was, was in love with words.  I was discovering worlds not so much of the narration at hand, but worlds created by the linking of words.  I fell in love with how they could be put together, manipulated and redefined.  Words held importance far greater than their sheer definition and usability.  They held within their power a certain religion.  Inside combinations I found connections I didn’t know were lacking and began imagining ways of being that were not in my physical surroundings.

I began to dream in ways I never anticipated and searched for authors who did more than merely tell a good yarn.  Authors could do more.  I saw it with my own two eyes.

Ben Marcus is doing more and I commend him for it.  These days do not necessarily fair well for the author who challenges.  Our brains are being nullified by the simplicity of money and it is all too easy to stay the course.

This book brought me back to those first inklings of more that inspired a child.  Its poison seeped into my brain and got to me.  Marcus has left us with something greater than itself; something of an offering that speaks to many ideas without wrapping or bow. 

This should be on the top seller list.  These worlds should fuel discussions on the train.

“It is my true wish that you enjoy yourself.”

Publisher: Knopf; First Edition
ISBN: 978-0307379375
Binding: Hardcover
Price: $25.95

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