How so very dear

Joshua Cohen

  • The Flame Alphabet: A Novel by Ben Marcus
    Granta, 289 pp, £16.99, June 2012, ISBN 978 1 84708 622 8

A prophet is wandering Samaria when he encounters a gang of children. They begin taunting him, pointing out his baldness. The prophet becomes enraged and curses them, and suddenly two female bears lumber out of the woods and maul the children, killing them. The prophet is Elisha, who inherited Elijah’s powers when the latter ascended to heaven in a fiery chariot. Kings 2.23-24 is the West’s first account of ‘mocking children’ – the language is the Bible’s – and also marks the beginning of what psychologists in the 1980s called ‘the blame cycle’. The rabbis of the Talmud struggled with this story, and sought to contextualise the children’s punishment: to call the prophet ‘bald’, they said, was to accuse him of betraying Elijah’s legacy, of neglecting his priestly duties, even of spreading leprosy (baldness was thought to be an indicator of the disease). The early Christian Fathers who interpreted the tale were more concerned with establishing that even the holiest of men could be tempted by Satan. Both sets of commentators claimed that the she-bears responded to Elisha personally, not to any divine command. Neither religion was mature enough to understand that God hates children as much as he hates the rest of us.

Ben Marcus’s new novel, The Flame Alphabet, is a commentary on the Elisha text, but a commentary that fulfils both obligations of flame: the text’s illumination is also its destruction. A novel concerned with children and language and the terrors wrought when one comes into possession of the other, it holds speech to be dangerous not just to Samaritan delinquents and itinerant seers but also to religion and the life of the mind. Marcus does violence to prayer – it doesn’t help, it harms – and to philosophy, which becomes a playground of forgery and misattribution: he misquotes Thoreau as having called the alphabet ‘the saddest song’ (shades of Psalm 137); he has Schopenhauer impossibly plagiarise Wittgenstein (‘if it can be said, then I am not interested’); while the Nietzsche citation is not only false but a reversal of Nietzschean Sprache: ‘if I could take something from the world … it would be the language that sits rotting inside my mouth.’

Marcus retells and revises the Elisha encounter but never acknowledges the source. This is because he’s not interested in the prophet himself, as much as in the problem the prophet called into existence: why evil exists for those not yet old enough to speak its name. Given time, nearly any commentary can come to read like a primary text, or at least can absorb a measure of its sanctity. Interpretation, once supererogatory among the rabbis, is now almost required of novelists – either psychological depth, or manipulation of metaphor and symbol – and Marcus is a high priest of the hermeneutic. Each of his books – a previous novel and a story collection – reads like a gloss of every book he could have written instead.

The first was The Age of Wire and String (1995). Its 41 stories, most only one or two pages long, resemble passages deleted from obscure encyclopedias and geometry textbooks, incunabular bestiaries, interior design and gardening magazines, shoddily translated electronics user manuals, and more traditional fictions. They read like extracts editorially penalised for their obsessions: with wire and string, textiles, drinking water, domestic appliances. Though each of the eight sections of their apparently random anthologising is itself short and elliptical – ‘Food’, ‘The House’, ‘Animal’, ‘Weather’ – the collection is a graveyard of the suburban detritus of a cast of unseen, unheard and only partially named characters. Every time a cumulative narrative or even a connection between the sections suggests itself – the dead wife in the first story might be merely asleep in the second – Marcus fictionalises ‘a fact’, that the woman is dead but snoring, or asleep but drowning, which complicates or annuls the relationship. ‘Air Days’, a series of holidays of Marcus’s invention, are said to fall traditionally on Wednesdays and Fridays, but also on the ‘Half-Man Day following the first Sunday that a dog has suffocated the weather’. Salt isn’t sprinkled on Marcus’s pages as a condiment, but as ‘an item that comprises the inner and outer core of most to all animals’. Albert isn’t the husband as much as a noun meaning ‘nightly killer of light’. Jennifer, whether the wife or not, is also ‘the inability to see’. The Age of Wire and String proved influential, especially within a creative writing establishment eager to wrest control of American literature from a conservative publishing industry. MFA programmes rediscovered Gertrude Stein’s The Making of Americans and the Oulipo. A thousand flash fiction websites bloomed.

Notable American Women, published in 2002, continued Marcus’s disdain for the fashions and furnishings of plot by offering up not discards this time, but preparatory materials. The book is composed of multiple accounts of the life of a young and affectless ‘Benjamin Marcus’ who both is and isn’t the same B.M. who wrote the book. ‘His father’ introduces the volume by asserting patriarchy (a.k.a. realism): ‘Not only are there inexactitudes of an appalling scale in this book, but events, comparisons and analyses that threaten to fracture a reality that must in every way be preserved, or else forgotten with dignity.’ Though once these corrections are offered they too will be judged incorrect: ‘It should never be forgotten that Benjamin Marcus is being commanded at this and all moments by the person whose words you are reading.’ A reader can only come to these conclusions: the father is editing the son, or the son is writing the father editing the son; parricide is prolicide; revisions, like parenthood, are the price paid for the messy joy of creation.

This love-death of the author gives way to an account of a woman, a now meta-meta-fictional version or inversion of B.M.’s ‘mother’, and her attempt to achieve a state of absolute stillness and silence: ‘a voluntary paralysis’. It’s towards that ideal that the doublings unfold, filially and formally, even beyond the novel’s binding. B.M., or his ventriloquising father, invents his own language, as does the narrator of The Flame Alphabet; Notable American Women opens with the father-son voice promising in a panicked but precisian idiolect nearly identical to that of The Flame Alphabet: ‘I will not succumb to the easy distractions of language poison, even if it kills the body that I’m wearing.’

Born in 1967 in Chicago, Marcus is a writer in an antique mode: the modern. Even those writers of his cohort, such as Jonathan Franzen and Jeffrey Eugenides, who publicly cursed the prophets Gaddis, Barthelme, Barth and Coover, forsaking the structural feints and syntactical feats of the 1960s and 1970s, would be mauled by the millennium, by a bearish market more interested in television and the internet. Marcus, however, still clings to the tradition, which might only be a martyr’s way of facing the same oblivion. His corpus continually asserts that its characters, like its author, do not deserve to be spared.

The Flame Alphabet begins like Genesis: after the fact. But where the Bible presumes the existence of time and a deity, Marcus presumes a plague. Throughout upstate New York, and then throughout America, Jewish parents start getting sick. What’s sickening them is proximity to their children – not to their bodies, but to their speech:

Most of what sickened us came from our sweet daughter’s mouth. Some of it she said, and some of it she whispered, and some of it she shouted. She scribbled and wrote it and then read it aloud. She found it in books and in the mail and she made it up in her head. It was soaked into the cursive script she perfected at school, letters ballooning into heart-dotted i’s. Vowels defaced into animal drawings. Each piece of the alphabet that she wrote looked like a fat molecule engorged on air, ready to burst. How so very dear.

Eventually Samuel, the narrator, and his wife, Claire, are forced to leave that ‘sweet daughter’, the petulant pre-teen Esther, and take to the road, packing ‘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’. The choice is clear: child abandonment or parental demise. But the disoriented, vomiting Claire wanders off, and is captured by quarantine officers (Marcus is initially vague as to who’s being quarantined, children or parents). Samuel lies low for a while before being kidnapped himself and dragged to a research facility outside Rochester, administered by a man called LeBov. This man had been known to Samuel before the plague as Murphy, a man with a reputation for stalking Jewish, or Jewishish, families. Now he’s revealed as, or has assumed the identity of, a goyisher pseudo-rabbi/ mad scientist whose ramshackle laboratory is dedicated to finding a cure for the sickness. His research consists of what earlier in the book is described as worship. Samuel is a member of a crypto-semitic, Hasidic-like sect of ‘forest Jews’ who maintain huts in the woods; in each hut is a ‘Jew hole’; a fleshy oleaginous receiver is connected to a cord that comes out of the hole, and, suddenly, voices are heard, short and longwave sermons. LeBov (there’s an echo in his name of William Labov, pioneer of sociolinguistics, and of the Baal Shem Tov, Master of the Good Name, founder of Eastern Hasidism) believes the key to a cure is to be found in these voices, in their staticky messages that only forest Jews can decode. Samuel, who’d first been tasked with inventing a new alphabet for harmless communication (out of rope, cloth and Marcus’s reliable wire and string), is put to work as a listener alongside his coreligionists:

Here we finally were in the community of Jews none of us had ever wanted. We were machines of indifference with a faintly human appearance. Stonewallers and deadpanners. Unimpressed, even when you pressed on us. Failures in one way or another.

Perhaps that’s why we’d all embraced our private style of worship out in secluded huts in the suburban forest. When we came together we felt too much like nothing.

Up until this point Marcus’s writing has been brilliant, vocal-cord-taut, all incantations and vatics, but what follows is a disappointing descent (like the paragraphs above, the last few chapters of this novel read like summary): Samuel finds Claire, loses her, finds Esther, loses her, tries to find her again. No writer, however, could have ended this book satisfactorily. The postmodern novel based on a conceit (language is poison, for example) and the novel with plot are as resistant to reconciliation as mocking teenagers are to demanding parents. Ultimately Marcus’s adults are healed by a serum derived from pre-adolescent breath, while the children themselves are healed naturally: as adults, their words lose efficacy, they expire.

If the weakness of The Flame Alphabet is its half-resolved plot, its strength is its unresolved parable. Marcus’s conceit is apophatic: his only interest in meaning is in its negation. His semantic voids share empty air with Kafka’s two unfinished novels and Flaubert’s incomplete Bouvard et Pécuchet. Like the strange new unpolluting letters that Samuel fabricates, Marcus’s entire book is a signifier in search of a signified. His virus could represent anything: it could be taken as the result of a general debasement of language, a disease that every generation treats as contemporary. Advertising babble and political cant are health hazards; the entertainment media an epidemic. Then again, this spoken parenticide could be taken as a symbol: of innocence lost. Adults can’t stand listening to children because children are too honest. Everyone knows how bald you are, Elisha, but only the kids will say it.

Flaubert’s last novel proposes two old men, retired scriveners who are essentially juvenile: they seek expertise in every discipline, and, having tried them all, return to mere transcription; writing anew scares them and so they recopy the already written. Kafka’s most famous character, reduced to a K., is never physically described, which might be related to the fact that nowhere in Kafka’s fiction is there that single word that pervades his diaries and letters: ‘Jew’. It’s telling that Marcus’s book repeats the word like a mantra.

It would have been more ecumenical for Marcus to invent his own sect, especially given that his Jews bear such slight resemblance to even the craziest who claim that identity. He could have called his hole-worshipping ‘Jews’ the Listeners, Hearbrews, Hutites, or the People of the Cabling. But instead he insists: they’re Jews qua Jews – custodians of the West, culturally aware, scientifically apt, moral. His Jews are the ones you might remember from just before the Holocaust, or just after: nowhere and never at home, nowhere and never not at home, bookish. ‘Jew’ (along with ‘Rochester’) is one of the few recognisable proper nouns in the book.

The title itself is Judaic. Samuel maintains it’s a kabbalistic tradition but he, or Marcus, is off by ten centuries. The Flame Alphabet first appears in the Oral Law, sparked not by divine contemplation but by a lexical problem involving the Written Law (the Torah). Exodus 32 holds that the twin tablets Moses brought down from Sinai were written on by the forefinger of God on both sides, and that the lettering went through the stones. The Talmud, which is the written compilation of the Oral Law, holds that the souls of all the Children of Israel, past and future, were gathered together to receive the Torah, the book that describes its own giving. After addressing the question of this metafiction, the rabbis wonder about that graphological feat. How is it possible, they ask, that the two tablets were readable by everyone, and by everyone in the correct way, which in Hebrew is from right to left?

The Jerusalem Talmud answers with mysticism: Rabbi Pinchas says in the name of Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish that the commandments were written with white fire on black fire, and leaves it at that. The later Babylonian Talmud attempts to clarify: Rabbi Hisda says that the words could be read from both sides in two word orders and that both forward and backward readings were correct (suggesting that the retrograde letters contained even more arcane meanings). Kabbalistic writings of the 14th and 15th centuries – according to the religious, the age of kabbala’s codification; according to historians, the age of its creation – proposed the Talmud’s alphabet of fire as an ur-alphabet. Before glyphs and the innovations of Cadmus (or Kadmus?), before Babel, this was the language we spoke, the language we will speak again after the coming of the Messiah and the disconfusion of tongues. All the languages around us, Indo-European and Altaic, Sino-Tibetan and Afro-Asiatic, are mere representations of this tongue; their sounds and letterforms portals into a semi-comprehensible, apocalypse-grade inferno.

But only the adept can access the fire, the adepts say, and only those who have been trained can receive illumination. And it’s here that Elisha’s children come back into play. Because children are illiterate. They’ll burst into a jealous rage when they encounter a reading adult. Only once they’ve calmed down will they turn to an animal mimicry: they’ll sit with a book, turn its pages, move their lips and make sounds, though understanding nothing. The Samaritan children taunted Elisha because they were envious of his prophecy – that’s what I was taught at school, with one bald rabbi adding that baldness was caused by too much thinking.

Most diaspora Jewish novelists are Elisha’s children, in a sense. They’re no more Judaically literate than your average shtetl peasant of a century ago. Most diaspora Jewish readers are even worse: with no Hebrew, no Yiddish, just a smattering of Bible lore, recipes and jokes. The novelist’s only solution for this ignorance is to reinvent Judaism, as Marcus has done. He has exiled the public name of the religion from its past in order to imbue it with private meaning. He has turned ‘Jew’ from appellation to word to pure intellection: fictile, unfixable, rootless. This is a variation on what Marcus earlier did with toasters and vacuums, ‘weather’ and ‘sleep’. It’s also a kabbalistic technique.

Kabbalists always practised meditating on individual Hebrew letters, even on the individual limbs of the letters, attempting to discern insights into the ineffable flame and, as kabbala became absorbed into Central and Eastern European Jewish life, this practice started to be recommended for shtetl peasants who had difficulties getting through the prayers. Don’t worry if you can’t read the Torah, just sit and stare at this Aleph; repeat it soundlessly three times a day – your worship counts all the same. For those who fail to comprehend its significant and beautiful mysteries, I’d recommend the same method for Marcus’s book. Behind the black, amid the white, it burns.