Ben Marcus is so hot right now. With reviews and interviews in New York Magazine, The New York Times, NPR, Wired, The Millions, Salon,Bookforum, HTMLGiant, and Publisher’s Weekly, it’s hard not to describe the publication of The Flame Alphabet as a very big deal. While many of the reviews remark on how the book's linear narrative is a departure from Marcus’ other, “more difficult” books, the central conflict—that the speech of children is somehow killing off adults—is anything but conventional. And since our theme this month is "Relative Perversions," I’d like to offer up the top five perversions at play that, regardless of "linear" or "difficult," make the book so compelling.
5. Perverse Fear. The lethal-language-of-kids notion is, somehow, very correct. How could the young not be the end of us? Like any good virus, the disease mutates, becomes a more efficient killing machine by transforming all language into a vector of fatal harm. The questions raised by such an attack are both entirely personal and too enormous to digest. What effects do our words have on other people? Is there a way of speaking without causing harm? How could the world function without language?
4. Perverse Perseverance. So. Any and all language is killing your wife and causing your own very rapid deterioration. What’s a father to do? Work. Feverish, futile work. The father’s determination to keep his family together is the force driving the whole novel. Here is the activity of Beckett (“Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”) and the activity we all desperately cling to while our lives swarm uncontrollably on. Wait, what? I don’t think I know what I’m saying, but I like thinking about it.
3. The Perversion of Failure. The Flame Alphabet is rich with objects that are somehow both textually vivid and kind of impossible to imagine. As a reader, this is to experience the perverse failure of language first-hand. These objects are alive, resonant...but I somehow can’t manage to see them. This is delightful. This is an effect that causes me to lean further in.
2. The Perversion of Belief. The Flame Alphabet also explores what happens when a man has to reconcile certain fundamental beliefs with an impossible new reality. Our protagonist is assailed by different authorities (scientists, doctors, rabbis) who make him question whether understanding is desirable, if even possible. This is my favorite kind of game. What usefulness does knowledge have? If an idea can be understood, is it lifeless?
1. Perverse Sexy Time. There are some adorable moments of catastrophically awkward sex: "To prove her vigor, Claire cornered me, sexually, made a physical trespass. Seeking, it would seem, someone to leak on." I know not everyone’s into that kind of thing, but I find a certain charm in these descriptions of failed engagement: the private longing, the humiliation.
And hey, even if perversion isn't really your thing, you should probably read The Flame Alphabet in order to advance, sexually, with Columbia students, or to find out how this novel fits in with Marcus' obsession with men trapped in holes. One of the best things a book can do is provide the space and time and the tiny pushes your brain needs in order to proceed with curiosity. The Flame Alphabet does this astoundingly well.
Image: New York Magazine