[Knopf; 2012]

It was perhaps inevitable that Ben Marcus’s fiction would come to seem more conventional following on his first book, The Age of Wire and String (1995), which could be taken either as a collection of short pieces employing a common subject and method or as a novel, and which surely qualifies as “experimental” in any intelligible definition of the word as it applies to the writing of fiction. It is an utterly singular work, requiring the reader to put aside all assumptions about the role of narrative, character, and setting in fiction. Not only does this book (considered either as a whole or in its parts) eschew all of these elements, but it almost seems to invent a form in which they could have no role; in this work they are notions as strange in their application to the “world” the book describes as the devices it does use no doubt seem to readers who assume “narrative” and “fiction” are essentially synonymous terms. Its own first words proclaim it “a catalog of the life project as prosecuted in the Age of Wire and String and beyond,” and the most satisfying reading of The Age of Wire and String allows it to resolve the uncertainties of this self-characterization as it will.

Notable American Women (2002), Marcus’s next book, could hardly be called a conventional novel, but it does begin in a recognizable situation (family dysfunction), introduces relatively recognizable characters (the family of “Ben Marcus”), and tells a story of sorts (the story of how “Ben Marcus” is instructed in the tenets of the “Silentist” movement, which is dedicated to the achievement of complete silence). This novel could be called a narrative rather than a “catalog,” although it is a highly fragmented one that moves freely back and forth through time. Given the outrageous premise, this is not a novel of “realism,” however it never crosses over into outright fantasy. Instead, it works allegorically, using the outrageous premise to render the Marcus family drama more emphatically, to convert the apparently autobiographical elements of this drama into emblematic, if absurdist, melodrama.

The allegorical mode is again Marcus’s chosen method in his latest novel, The Flame Alphabet, although now it is more a straightforward sort of allegory absent the explicit autobiographical focus on the experiences of “Ben Marcus” (however wary we should be of identifying this character literally with the biographical author) to be found in both The Age of Wire and String and Notable American Women. Indeed, The Flame Alphabet more or less takes the form of a post-apocalyptic narrative, but where most such narratives represent the political or cultural tendencies that have led to the dire conditions they portray (ultimately they are to be taken as stories about the present even though they are set in the post-apocalyptic future, the future representing present conditions taken to their logically destructive extreme), The Flame Alphabet posits a more metaphysical source of affliction. Here, Marcus brings together motifs and themes that are treated more obliquely or more partially in his previous books, most obviously the notion that human beings have a vexed relationship with language, that language as a human attribute may finally do more harm than good, and that in our struggle to control language, to use it in ways that foster communication or expression, more often than not, we fail. In The Flame Alphabet, the danger we court in our careless and frequently hurtful uses of language has been literalized in the form of a “language toxicity,” a plague whereby adults are sickened by, and presumably eventually die from, the words spoken by children (in the later stages, by all forms of language).

Prominent in the struggle to control language would be, of course, the struggle of the writer to induce it into satisfying rhetorical and aesthetic forms, to invoke it in a way that affirms human potential. The Flame Alphabet could be interpreted as a fable about this struggle, substituting a more subtle kind of metafiction for the blatant self-reflexivity of the previous books and their invocation of “Ben Marcus.” The narrator not only chronicles the toll the “language toxicity” takes on his own family, but also tries to find a cure with increasing desperation, experimenting with a new alphabet to address the fact that

the alphabet as we knew it was too complex, soaked in meaning, stimulating the brain to produce a chemical that was obviously fatal. In its parts, in combination, our lettering system triggered a nasty reaction. If the alphabet could be thinned out, shaved down, to trick the brain somehow, perhaps we could still deploy this new set of symbols, or even a single symbol, the kind you hold in your hand and reshape for different meanings, for modest, emergency-only communications.

To do so, the narrator surveys linguistic history to determine if any of its historical “scripts” might be free of the taint modern language can no longer conceal, an effort which ultimately fails, although at the novel’s close a serum is developed that makes it possible for the human race to temporarily survive. The implication clearly enough seems to be that language will never be safe for human production or consumption, that its effects will always be beyond our abilities to anticipate or understand them. It is an odd theme for a novelist, unless we are to regard The Flame Alphabet as an instance of the struggle with language that provisionally succeeds, manages in its verbal ingenuity a momentary stay against the confusion that language itself breeds. Perhaps the book itself, in its achieved coherence, stands as the author’s own temporary victory in the struggle, as a tentative affirmation of the human. Some readers might find that it does effectively wrestle meaning from chaos, but surely by leaning so hard on its allegorical plot and its rather loudly announced themes, it does so in a disappointingly obvious and heavy-handed way.

The post-apocalyptic genre has become such a recognizable vehicle for writers wishing to convey a message, to “say something” about the state of humanity, that it is to me somewhat surprising that a self-confessed experimental writer such as Ben Marcus would turn to its narrative formula in the first place. Yet another tale of the twilight of the human race, however much it does avoid the usual social and political commentary to which such narratives can often be reduced, The Flame Alphabet doesn’t seem like a noteworthy contribution to the further development of innovative fiction. It merely leaves us with the impression that “experiment” in fiction has been reduced to a vaguely futuristic story illustrating strange ideas about language.

Further, Marcus’s own skill with language implicitly threatens to undermine these ideas:

. . .in Wisconsin there were early adopters. A fiendish strain of childless adults who consumed the toxic language on purpose, as a drug, destroying themselves under the flood of child speech. They stormed areas high in children, falling drunk inside cones of sound. They gorged themselves on the fence line of playgrounds where voice clouds blew hard enough to trigger a reaction, sharing exposure sites with each other by code. Later these people were found dried out in parks, on the road, collapsed and hardening in their homes. They were found with the slightly smaller faces we would routinely see on victims in only a few weeks.

Such a passage as this is both imaginative and exact. It succinctly captures the actions described through figurations that show impressive command of the resources of language. There is also a deadpan humor here that further confirms Marcus as a writer able to use words skillfully and with sensitivity to their effects. It doesn’t really suggest through its own formal or stylistic choices that this meaning is dangerous or unstable or even uncontrollably ambiguous in its proliferation. If language is indeed an elusive phenomenon whose power exceeds our capacity to wield it, this is a proposition that comes to our attention because it is advanced directly, in no uncertain terms, by the novel’s narrator and its narrative, not because the novel itself embodies the idea aesthetically either in style or form. The dissonance between the novel’s doom-laden message about the perils of human communication and its author’s proven facility — here and in his previous work — with the medium through which it occurs is rather hard to ignore, and it makes The Flame Alphabet seem an artistic misstep.