In The Flame Alphabet, Ben Marcus’s third book, the language of children has suddenly, inexplicably become toxic to adults. The novel follows Sam, as he abandons his teenage daughter, Esther, and loses his wife, Claire, before ultimately ending up in Forsyth, a cloistered medical lab where Sam experiments with “scripts,” hoping to find some way to communicate that won’t destroy him. Forsyth is run by the mysterious LeBov, a devilsh redheaded stranger who first appears in the novel as Murphy, Sam’s inquisitive neighbor. LeBov runs grotesque experiments in the facility; he’s also fascinated by Sam’s religious practices — he and Claire are “forest Jews” who worship in a hole (sometimes referred to as a “Jew hole”) dug into the earth, listening to staticky sermons broadcast through the earth by unknown rabbis in unknown places. I spoke to Marcus in mid- February about ambiguity, readability indexes, and writing a “love letter to language.”
One thing that’s come up in talking to a few people who didn’t like your book is the assumption that people who write non-narrative or “experimental” fiction do so because they’re unable to write satisfying narrative fiction.
I’ve been reviewed that way: “He tried to do narrative and he can’t.” The idea that there are divisions between these spaces just doesn’t seem that accurate. I think when you’re writing and trying to make a world and make it come to life, to make feeling in another person, there are a lot of tools to do that. Tradition has shown us some things that work really, really well. But some writers feel that they want to try to find their own way to do it. I don’t think that necessarily makes them pretentious or assholes. You know, in painting there’s no such thing as “experimental painting.” There’s not! There’s painting. There’s an imperative that’s sort of shared: you don’t want to paint exactly like someone else.
Because it’s more narrative (or because, unlike your earlier work, it contains a narrative) some people have described The Flame Alphabet as being more “accessible” than your your first two books Do you think that accessibility can be determined?
Funnily, there is something like that. There’s a set of readability indexes that were devised by educators when they were trying to figure out the readability of books. A few years ago, I ended up writing about some of them. They’re silly because what they’re really measuring are things like sentence length and sentence complexity. You can put a text in and assign a grade-level to it.
Did you put your own work into it?
I did! I put a lot of people into it. I think it assigns a school year – 5th grade, 6th grade. I put in a page of Thomas Bernhard. You have to be in about 11,000th grade to understand it!
Naming is extremely important in your fiction. Do you see names as holding a kind of inherent power? Has your interest in the subject changed over the last 15 years?
Definitely in Notable American Women. Naming was a big part of that book and was something I really got into. It seemed to be pretty rich territory. There was this fault line I fell into that seemed really fascinating, in particular this idea that our behaviors are predetermined by our names. There’s this funny, stupid research book called You Are Your First Name, which was a list of attributes [that went along with] first names. That was the spark for that episode in Notable American Women.
I sometimes think now that all those categorical urges and interests — compartmentalizing and situating — take me away from what I’m interested in now, that there’s something static about it or that I’ve maybe tapped it out. It’s not something that was really on my mind with this book . . .
Someone once asked me why I use real place names, because it’s not really those places. I think I like the familiarity and comfort that comes from something we think we know. But I also like the uneasiness about misusing things we know. I do that a lot. I falsely attribute quotes to people. I’ve always done that.
Sam tries to withhold his name from Murphy. When Murphy discovers it, Sam feels as though he’s lost power in that relationship (if he ever had any in the first place). Murphy too, seems to exert power by having a kind of fluid identity, exemplified by multiple names . . .
I got really into that subterfuge. Even early in the book things are bad, but what I was trying to do was make them worse. How does this bad situation get worse? That was the set of marching orders I was following. The villain has to be more of a villain. Then he has to be not who we think he is, and on and on and on.
I wanted to keep squeezing things down, essentially making the situation feel unbearable in a believable way — whatever believable really is.
Do you think that ties in with what you were saying about place names, that you’re interested in fiddling with people’s expectations, with periodically pulling the rug out from underneath the reader?
Yeah, and it’s not just playing around, though. For me, the story is told from Sam’s perspective. What he sees and what he knows has to constantly be readjusted. It seemed to make sense that if Murphy wanted something from him he would be holding a lot back. Because of his own secrecy about the Jewish stuff, he also mistrusts other people. It was all really meant to be about his own clouded understanding at any given point.
You use the word “fuck” really terrifically — it often embellishes those moments when Sam realizes just how clouded his understanding is.
That’s funny because I was recently thinking that I overused it. It is there for emphasis. It seemed like there were ways that the voice wanted little outlets of rage and there probably could have been some different ways of doing that, but it seemed to come out that way. It felt right. I certainly wasn’t squeamish about it.
One of the things The Flame Alphabet has in common with your earlier work is its preoccupation with lists. Sam is constantly creating them.
I knew I wanted to open the book with a list. It’s a kind of backwards homage to “The Things They Carried,” or Orwell’s Catalonia, which [lists] the stuff that’s in his bag. I like . . . that the things on their lists [are] resonant but also mysterious.
[The things Sam packs at the beginning of The Flame Alphabet,] they’re just not the things that someone would ordinarily be packing — a white noise machine, for instance. I think it was a way to try to announce the texture of the book — these are the objects that are going to come into play. And also a promise that they’re not normal, they’re not that typical, to see if they can carry some kind of emotional weight up front.
In an earlier interview you described something similar as “object fondling.” You seem to be particularly interested in the kinds of objects that people want to keep near them.
I just wanted this book to feel tactile. It [deals with], in some sense, this kind of high-floating, conceptual notion. I really didn’t want it to be an abstract idea. This was a real thing that was really happening. This was the equipment that they fell to and used. The objects all throughout feel really crucial. When he’s creating scripts at Forsyth it’s all tactile stuff: yarn and glue and felt. Even the Jew hole — I think the physicality was really important. I just kept gravitating towards it. I don’t know what “object fondling” means.
The word “tactile” seems like a pretty good descriptor for much of the book. Even the language virus exerts a kind of presence — it reads to me almost like the way that cartoons visually depict illness.
That was really important to me. I wanted it to feel visceral. I wanted the sickness to feel real. I didn’t really question that. I felt like I wanted to write as close-up to this situation as possible. I thought a lot about that technique and what that would be. Some people have said, “It’s just repulsive. The sickness is just disgusting.” It’s funny because some people have said “There’s all this puss in the book” — I think there’s no puss! I don’t think I ever even used that word.
That was a choice I made that I was pretty relentless about — getting really close to this situation. I think that was because the situation felt so disturbing to me while I was writing it. I wanted to get as close to that as I could.
It always surprises me how much of films about disease outbreaks are made up of exposition. There’s something really horrifying about seeing symptoms and not hearing an explanation for them.
That’s kind of a big question: how much do you explain? I don’t really follow this, but it seems like in science fiction there are these different kind of ways to go about some kind of calamitous situation. One in which you give a background and the science is airtight. In particular, in the last year and a half since I finished this book, I’ve been writing short stories and I find that I’m gravitating away from any sort of unnecessary explanation that’s going to slow things down.
On the other hand, people think they want to know stuff. When I teach, we might read a story about some guy who goes and does something and someone will say, “This is interesting, but I want to know more about him. I want to know where he grew up, and what his childhood was like, and where he went to school.” I just think that doesn’t make a story more interesting, or better; that’s you, saying you want to know more.
Sometimes that wanting to know is a good thing, as long as you can sustain it at the right level. Obviously, if it’s just confusion, that’s no good. I found with this that if I tried to explain the logistics of things I would get into a real muddle and the narrative stopped. It just stopped. I was really sensitive to that — I really didn’t want it to stop.
At one point, Sam comments on the fact that one of the most terrifying things about Murphy/Lebov is how rhetorically vague he is — that he talks as if he knows something he’s not letting on to.
It’s true that in their dialogues, early on, especially, there’s more exposition. I was pretty aware of that, but I was also, even at the time, hoping to overturn it – that it wouldn’t just be flat information, that it would be dramatic because it wasn’t what it seemed. Maybe a lot of what was going on there is that I thought this was going to be a book where things weren’t what they seemed. I thought that was dramatic. I thought that would be mysterious. That was just this maneuver that felt propulsive to me. I did consciously want the book to be more propulsive, whereas Notable American Women is a kind of mosaic. It has spaces you enter that are in and of themselves propulsive, but then you move on. It wasn’t just one shot. I did think about that with this book: one story, one narrative, one timeline, shot through a cannon.
In a sense, the reader’s desire to figure out what the fuck is going on is what propels them through the book, even though that desire to understand is what’s destroying the characters in that book. And, speaking of meta-whatever, unlike some so-called metafiction, The Flame Alphabet is less interested in language’s limits than it is in its potency.
I think it’s a love letter to language. Or maybe a “Dear John” letter. It’s easy and facile to criticize language, to cite it as inadequate, to point out the ways it’s debased. Part of my attraction to this book was that I believe that there’s a lot we haven’t done with it. I think it’s an amazing tool that we don’t remotely understand. I also think as a medium for art, I just think it’s superior. It’s massively unexplored, really. What we can do is limited and we get into all these conservative debates about what we should do or if we’re pretentious to do something else. I just think, Fuck you. This is too interesting for you to say you shouldn’t do this because you might alienate somebody. I think it’s a fascinating tool and I also think it’s really powerful and dangerous and hurtful. Because I can’t imagine my life without it is why I had to write a book about life without it.
Were you setting out to use language in a particular way in The Flame Alphabet, to have a particular effect?
I’m never making a calculation of what I’m writing is going to do to anyone else. I just don’t know how to do that. I don’t know how to work that way. I know how to make something that’s the best thing I can do at any given point. It’s hopefully going to be compelling and intense, but I’m not deliberately trying to alienate anybody. I actually think it’s pretty easy to alienate people if that’s your goal.
Do you see parallels between the way you treat language and the way you treat faith in the novel? This thing that has been battered and hammered, and people are obsessed with its limits — it’s actually extremely powerful and potent. Do you see a connection between the sort of mysticism that happens in the hut that Sam and Claire worship in and the act of reading?
The mystical stuff is what’s really attractive to me, because of the mysticism that language is essentially inadequate to represent: the spiritual experience. What you desire about a mystical experience is that it transcends language. The book is pushing at that a lot and uses that as another reason that language might be over – its inadequacy and, in some ways, its failure to please God, its failure to touch our true experience. But there’s also the question of who we are without language, and if there’s even anything there. Once we learn it, if you take it away, are we able to revert to anything at all?
[The novel] ends up being fairly dark about faith also. In the end he finds out where his religion is coming from and it’s not really that pretty. I don’t think I really had a unified philosophy in place that I was trying to sketch out. [Instead,] I was probably trying to put someone through a situation where the various kinds of expertise were failing. My first book, in some sense, is a rehearsal of various kinds of expert-like rhetorical modes, a fascination with sounding authoritative, with making untrue things sound believable. Here you have the scientific and medical experts who are laughably wrong and then it’s natural to look to religion, but that expertise is mute, nonverbal. It’s a question of how much you can handle that, can you tolerate that, when your guidance is silent. That’s a thematic thing going way back in literature.
Those things were just meant to be in play. Running underneath all of that is the bond and responsibility, the shame of being in a family and wondering what you’ll do, wondering how far you’ll go to keep it together, or even if you want to keep it together. You fantasize escaping it, but then you have to live with yourself. To me, all those things are in orbit together.
At one point in the novel, Sam fantasizes about a mass suicide taking place outside Forsyth, where everyone dies while reciting “Little Red Riding Hood.” In some apocalyptic fiction there’s a sense that the folklore is the one thing that keeps us human — that scene is kind of a perversion of that. And, at the same time, the children protect their settlements from adults by constantly broadcasting fairy tales from megaphones.
That’s one of my favorite parts. I like the idea that if you’re going to die from language, you’d choose what the final language you would hear would be. You’d chose something that you loved the most — it might be a story; it might be a fairy tale.
In turn, it seems really natural that, if the kids want to protect their settlements they’d have to put language in the air. What would that be? It would be the stories they grew up with. It seemed kind of funny — there’s a lot of Aesop’s and stuff like that in there.
There’s the conceit that I put into play — that language is harmful — and then it’s really just about exploring that once it’s accepted. The idea that the stories we love could hurt us is horrible, but how could you not do that? It’s just waiting there to be done.
When Sam listens to the rabbi’s broadcasts, he’s instructed not to interpret them, to not let any ambiguity in, and for so much of the book, no matter what’s going on, he struggles against ambiguity. And yet the novel is relentlessly ambiguous, both about what’s actually going on, and what it means.
Ambiguity isn’t something that I just kind of take on for the hell of it, either. I was really trying to be faithful to what the narrator knew at any given time. As I started to scaffold the novel, I started writing this scene where Murphy scoffs at the idea that there’s going to be an illness narrative, that a disease follows our expectations of a story. I thought that it sounded like an easy out, but it also felt very convincing. Let’s say something like this struck — there would be every kind of denial, there would be scapegoating. It would be a while until there was some shared diagnosis that everyone subscribed to.
In illness narratives or fantasies, I haven’t really seen something where the diagnostic mystery is exacerbating the situation and causing more problems. I just like [the fact] that no one really would know what the fuck was going on. I guess as a narrator or a writer I could have imposed a little more clarity; maybe I should have. At the time, it really didn’t seem like that was what was interesting. There were other mysteries that seemed so much more important to me.