Novel Aflame

A potent story, Ben Marcus writes, is one that deploys language as a kind of contraband, pumping it into us until we collapse on the floor, overwhelmed with feeling. His own The Flame Alphabet (2012) is such a story.

Illustrations by Clifford Harper.

If pain was all you had left in life, how badly behaved would you allow yourself to get? What are the operating motifs from mythology, this novel asks, “when parents take leave of a child? Is there not some standard departure imagery offered by the fables?”

The Flame Alphabet opens with such unbearable undertaking, and then it gets worse. Reading this bizarre novel is witnessing the testimony of narrator Sam after a plague comes to town. Sam retells the evolution of the illness, a “speech fever” only potent for adults and which forces him to leave his daughter and abuse his wife.

Before getting into that, here is a brief plot outline:

In part one of the novel we are acquainted with Sam and his wife Claire, parents of narcissistic teenager Esther. The parents are struggling with reoccurring physical symptoms of fatigue, muscle stiffness and nausea, and we soon learn they are not alone; all adults in their neighborhood (and later, all adults) have been infected by this apparently highly contagious, deadly plague. What is toxic, is children’s speech — or, more specifically, the media falsely reports — Jewish children’s speech. What adds to the crisis is the already underlying conflict between Claire and Sam and between Esther and her parents; the family is not getting along very well. This domestic estrangement is further complimented by the fact that Sam and Claire belong to a mysterious Jewish sect known as Forest Jews. Every week they walk to their synagogue, a small two-person hut hidden in the woods, where they listen to the sermons of Rabbi Burke by way of a bewildering underground cable transmission. As they are not allowed to discuss the sermons, not with each other nor with other members of the sect (if there are any others), they conduct their worship in solitude. Ultimately, the speech fever renders all uses of language toxic — oral, written, visual — and Claire especially is so worn down by the symptoms, facial smallness being among them, that Sam decides on both their behalf that they must escape their daughter. Part two of the book describes the grim progress of the speech fever. Sam turns his attention to society at large, especially to how the authorities mobilize to deal with this incomprehensible emergency. Claire mysteriously disappears, poisonous children are quarantined, and Sam ends up at Forsythe, a language lab. The research facility is led by a conspicuous, multifaceted character, Murphy-LeBov, who is set on finding a cure, whatever the cost. Adults come (or are they brought?) to Forsythe in “an endless fleet of red busses” hoping to be cured, but instead they function as guinea pigs for the scientists. This “medicalized police state”, as one book reviewer puts it, is orchestrated by men in masks in an environment where everyone avoids eye-contact with each other. Finally, the radio goes silent, the television blank, road signs are camouflaged, all text is scrubbed from the world. Sam thinks he is installed in the laboratory as a researcher, assigned to invent a new, harmless language. Day after day he sits at his desk and does his work, seemingly insensible to what goes on outside his office. Being an amateur expert, he fails, and, losing his sense of ethics along the way, he fails worse. He ends up jumping in the “rabbit hole” which in The Flame Alphabet is the abovementioned underground cable hole of his sect and thus escapes Forsythe. In the third part, three years after his leap, we meet him in his old neighborhood. Sam now lives in his forest hut. Esther has reached the age where she herself has caught the plague and he spends the days caring for her, until she escapes him. He continues his so-called smallwork — inventing a cure on a smaller scale now — which involves forcing children to hyperventilate out of fear until they cough up a powder usable in a serum that lets him tolerate language if only for a while. Sam keeps his innocent victims hidden from the reader’s sight, self-righteously justifying his own behavior, all the while dreaming of the day his family is reunited.

What interests me about this claustrophobic nightmare of a novel (apart from its outstanding prose), is how near it feels. We become co-viewers of a personal apocalypse but the cause is kept secret because language, our main means of communication, has become toxic. The Flame Alphabet is concerned with how crises transform bodies and — although I could write a book about this book — in the following, we will merely look into how Marcus’ troubling gendered vision constructs female bodies that are more precarious than male ones.

Early in the story we learn that Sam has surges of fear that he had learned to ignore. He laments: “Eventually you stop paying attention to your own feelings when there’s nothing to be done about them”. He tries to regain control of the situation by controlling his wife. Due to assumptions about biological essentialism, our society has always had a bias against the girl child, and this epidemic, as it were, is ominously present in The Flame Alphabet: We meet Sam and Claire as they are leaving their teenage daughter — We left on a school day, so Esther wouldn’t see us — depriving her sustenance.

The general speech fever, we come to learn, accompanies an already present domestic plague: The first dialogue line between Esther’s parents starts with Claire sarcastically repeating Sam’s doing as she is rewarding herself with candy after having injected herself with an unknown medicine: “you actually wrote this down”. Sam shares his response, first only with the reader, revealing how off track they are communications and affect wise: “A statement and not a question. Some essential marital weaponry from the arsenal of not giving an inch. Verbalize someone’s actions back to them. Menace them with language, the language mirror. Death by feedback”. Then, to Claire, he simply says: “It’s a suggestion”. However, we soon learn that he is doing far more than suggesting.

It is Sam, the patriarch, who runs the show, and he does not necessarily take Claire’s wishes or emotions seriously. In fact, Claire occupies a double exposure, as Stacy Alaimo would have dubbed it: that by her husband, the narrator, and that by society through the phallocentric language plague which strikes female bodies harder than male.

The break-down of the family’s inner and outer worlds, the break-down of rationality itself — the language plague is from the outset and till the end kept completely incomprehensible — leads Sam to cling to his own rationality and force it upon his wife. The illness that inflicts them both, and her more severely, leads him to extraordinary gestures of care — he tries to gain control of everything, transcribing their lives to the smallest detail — “but there is a violence”, critic Caleb Smith accurately reflects, “a will to command and control her, even in these. At times, he seems almost to be keeping her alive against her will”.

Surely, Sam seems to have, or claim, the power to make Claire live, an imminently violent power. As philosopher Judith Butler argues several places in her work, “any choice about who may or may not live is always a genocidal practice”, and this is vividly demonstrated by Marcus. Should we be frustrated with his vision, then, as it seems to construct a deeply troubling gendered vision, of the worst subversive kind, rendering the Man more powerful than the Woman? Is this an instance of the speciesism cum oppressive humanism vis a vis other humans that certain literary scholars want to challenge? We’re talking about something more sophisticated than a critique of obligatory heteronormativity here. The mood and workings between Sam and Claire are highly poisonous, probably much due to their joint mental and physical pains. When in crisis, one does not necessarily behave so well, does one?

In the months before they left Esther, what sickened them the most was what came from her mouth. Just teenage chatter, but Sam and Claire were thoroughly repelled by it. And when they, after months of torment, finally leave, Sam is overwhelmed with grief, or so he tells us: “birds should have frozen midflight in the winter air”, he mourns, “cars should have quit and rolled to a stop”, people, dogs and trees should have been “dragged into the collapsing grass”, “there should have been mourners in the street”, and preferably “no sound whatsoever”.

Yet, even if it is the suffering of Sam in losing his daughter we in sentimental ways hear about — in the first part of the novel, at least — it is Claire’s body we as readers see and come to detest.

Claire is the exposed subject who is “always already penetrated by substances and forces” not sufficiently accounted for, to borrow a phrase from feminist Stacy Alaimo, forces that the novel never accounts for, never restores. Exposed to Sam’s gaze and scrutiny, and exposed to our gaze, her body is and is not hers. Her body is grievable, to borrow Butler’s term, but not markable. We see her vulnerable body as it deteriorates: her “corpse-like lethargy”, her “lips pulling back”, her hair coming “to look like a wig”, her “terrible smell”, the “dry blood crisped over one of her ears”, her face shrinking, and her tongue hardening. Every few days, Sam laments, her body loses size, and her face retreats on her head, “taking on that awful smallness”. Medicine is failing, so Sam has started his own “smallwork”, as he calls it, to come up with a cure.

He wants to help Claire, he wants to provide her with medicine that “might help her sit next to Esther” whom they are both losing touch with and mourning, and yet he wants to send their daughter away so that he and Claire can breathe for a while.

She, on the other hand, does not want Esther to go anywhere — “you don’t get to make that decision”. She does not think Sam’s medicine is the answer, either, she wants off it, and Sam suspects she wants off more than that. Even in such a vulnerable state, Claire tries to show some resistance, but this only leaves Sam paralyzed. He is dispossessed by Claire, by her illness, by their inability to connect, as she is undone by his violent trespassing of her limits. All Sam has left when the illness is fully in bloom, is a relationship to his so-called smallwork, a concept invented by Marcus, referring to Sam’s data collection of their symptoms and medicine response; his own private theorizing of what the plague might be and what the cure might be. Sam misses his family, he yearns to re-connect, and yet he cannot stand them.

One example of this ambiguity: Early in the story, when Esther is away for a few days on horse camp, Claire starts to feel better. To demonstrate her vitality, she approaches Sam sexually. His wording to the reader as he retells this scene reveals a reluctant, defiant attitude, as when she first “corners” him with her unlikely proposition: “Said the half dead person, I thought”. Sam rolls out of her range and, instead of taking her seriously, he takes her “sudden atypical sexual desire” to be a clear symptom of the illness, one with predatory indicators. “She never actually took off pants, mine or hers, or got the enabling oils or the towel. I guess that was supposed to be a man’s work, or maybe only mine”, he sulks, yet is unable or unwilling to respond to her initiative. Claire does not sulk. After his rejection, which she seems to accept, she simply explains: “I’m just so happy”.

As with his aggressive caretaking, his sexual rejection seems insensitive, egocentric, perhaps even phallocentric, but is it? Butler and others have hammered in the insight that discourses on gender and sexuality often create, circulate and (re)generate the ideals they purport to critique. Yet, even if gender critique may easily turn into a zero-sum game, it is still a fair question to ask of Marcus’ gender construction. The essential sense of who we are, Butler tells us, is “to some extent the workings of a set of social norms”, and this is OK, she assures us; it does not need to mean troublesome biological determinism: “Having a sense of who we are ‘essentially’ is not for that reason an argument for innate differences; one can have a sense of what is essential for one’s life without exactly being an essentialist”.

Butler’s formulation from the 1990s that gender is performative led to two widely different interpretations: one; we radically choose our genders and two; we are utterly determined by gender norms. An aporia, in other words, just as the relationship of Sam and Claire is one. Accordingly, provocative as Sam’s unconcealed patriarchal indifference initially appears, it may deceive us. The relationship between Sam and Claire for sure looks harmful, but it is complex, it is precarious.

What could be at stake for Sam and Claire, more than gendered and sexual power inequalities, I believe, is love.

Indeed, sometimes love refuses to show itself at all, as Sam tells us by way of anthropomorphizing love, and I get the sense he is talking about his feelings for Claire, Esther, and himself. “It remains perfectly hidden”, he reflects. Sam could not prove his love through language before the plague, and now that language has become lethal, he certainly cannot. “To conceal love”, he muses, “is, in its way, the most sophisticated smallwork there is”.

Outwardly, he performs the active macho-man, inwardly the passive, precarious one. Performativity, says Butler, describes both the process of being acted upon and the process of being able to act yourself. After having failed to act lovingly upon each other, Sam and Claire both mobilize their vulnerability and escape. She goes into the forest, he goes into science.

What else than the speech fever is “wrong” with Claire? In the process of making the impossible decision to abandon Esther or send her away, Claire becomes the intermediary of blame, one of the key themes of The Flame Alphabet. As the plague takes hold of the world, a research facility, Forsythe, sets up children quarantines. Sending children there is optional, and when parents do choose that option, red soundproofed busses come and “collect their cargo”. Parents are told by the authorities to consider this a form of “medical babysitting”, no invasive medical tests to be expected. Segregation is the strategy, Sam tells us, “divide and conquer”, he adds, “divide and weep”, he also adds.

The medical authorities’ failure does not only segregate children and parents, but contribute to further separating Sam and Claire. During this phase, Murphy-LeBov, the two-faced chief scientist at Forsythe, apparently visits Claire while Sam is not there, and whatever he tells her (we are never told) leads her to disbelieve herself, her religious faith, and Sam. One evening, as they are taking a break from the house, from what — or who — is inside the house, Claire declares that she is to blame for everything. Her stubbornness leads them into a big fight where Sam, when he fails to reason with her, as he calls it, ends up calling her selfish for making such meaningless claim.

A poisonous row follows, which ends the “project of wall building”, as Sam admits, erases all remaining intimacy between them, and leaves them fully isolated together. Before they take leave of Esther, Claire has retired as Sam’s test subject, but he still forces medicine in her, “unwittingly, asleep”.

Tragically, he ends up blaming her as she blames herself:

I couldn’t blame her, falling away like that, embracing the shroud of illness. But I did. I conducted nightly campaigns of blame and accusation, silently, in the monstrous internal speech that is only half sounded out, a kind of cave speech one reserves for private airing. In these broadsides Claire spun on a low podium and absorbed every accusation.

In putting the blame on Claire, Sam defies his own vulnerability in needing her, in depending on her, and he thereby breaks his ethical relation to her. He refuses to keep being bound by her, receptive to her in ways he cannot fully predict or control because he is being undone by it. Unfortunately, as Butler informs us, losing such relation, losing the “you” whose life we seek to preserve, similarly puts us at risk of being dispossessed.

Ben Marcus.

So, when Sam lets Claire “stagger away” from the car as they are about to leave their home and child, his sense of ethics perishes. This has dramatic consequences when Sam enters the language lab of Forsythe and is taken under the wings of Murphy-LeBov. At this point in the story, the whole sign system has become toxic and children are the lone immuners. Sam blames and undoes Claire — holds her responsible — just as he as a Forest Jew is blamed and held responsible for the speech fever by society at large.

When Murphy-LeBov fakes his own death, the event is reported by an expert on television (just before it goes blank): “LeBov’s idea that science cannot help us, but faith can — this is an idea that resonates deeply for me, the reporter solemnly says whereupon he indirectly sets out a rumor about the Forest Jews to whom Sam belongs, blaming their religious practice for society’s ills. The so-called experts, led by Murphy-LeBov himself, are infuriated by the privacy and secrecy of this sect, which they view as “channeled against the interests of the world at large” and claim that its praxis is a desecration to the “real, authentic Jew”. Sam, then, as Claire, is doubly dispossessed, doubly derealized by his losses.

Once at Forsythe, once having learned that the official experts were wrong, he is more than ready to upscale his “smallwork”. Incomprehension becomes Sam’s temporary redemption and leading thread as he starts constructing a brave new language. Sam has destroyed himself by not realizing that his own life is bound to those he has destroyed, or left behind, he has entered an existence where “individual life makes no sense”, as Butler writes, “has no reality, outside of the social and political framework in which all lives are equally valued”. Thus, Sam can conduct his research without looking at the faces of his so-called test subjects, without feeling, without ethically considering the “froth of bubbles” from the mouths of his “language martyrs”. His insensitivity to human suffering and death has become the mechanism through which dehumanization is accomplished.