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Language in our world, and the world of The Flame Alphabet: some passages

What other sorts of things happen in a world where the speech of children is toxic to adults? What aspects of the “real world” is Marcus commenting on with this allegory/symbol/what-have-you?

Sam describes how he and Claire decided to abandon their daughter:

p.6-7. Even before the quarantine was announced, we knew we had to leave. We talked it through as much as Claire could endure, and she had agreed, or at least, she had assented silently […].

She hated how I verbally rehearsed everything.

I hated it, too.


I showed Claire the timeline I thought we should follow and she held the paper away from her as if it were an old diaper, heaving an ugly laugh. […]

‘You actually wrote this down,’ she finally said, her voice hollowed through the mask.

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.

Here’s another everyday-life example of aggressive speech between husband and wife:

p.91. “Esther’s not going anywhere, Sam. You don’t get to make that decision, and I’ll never agree to it.”

It was always awkward to hear my own name in her voice. We never did that. Never. We openly discussed that we never did. It was somehow unbearably intimate and deeply hostile at the same time.

Another everyday-life example of verbal aggression, Sam trying to carry on a conversation with Esther about her horse camp vacation:

p.39. I looked over at Claire, who had been awfully quiet. Usually she stayed quiet on purpose, in retaliation, to allow Esther, as she put it, to discover herself out loud. To Claire, I was the obstacle as we battled for a foothold as parents. She would say that I offered so many listening prompts to Esther, such eager receptivity and sentence finishing, that I obliterated our daughter’s conversational flow and actually caused her reticence. One can be adversarial, apparently, through aggressive attention. My signs of interest, and their vocal accompaniment, claimed Claire, were the problem.

[This last argument between Sam and Claire actually sounds to me like arguments about how best to lead a discussion section, and the next quote also sounds like advice to writers, Murphy trying to summarize LeBov:

p.63 There was too much conflicting information, too many doctored broadsides attributed to him, loaded with unverified ideas. The speech cautions making the rounds, for instance, against I statements, against certain rhetoric deemed to be more toxic, attack sentences, that sort of thing, were probably not LeBov’s cautions. Even if it was possible, said Murphy, that an ultra-restricted language, operating according to a new grammar, might finally be our way out of this.]

How do teenagers learn to be so awful to their parents? On the one hand, much of this book seems to about mocking the desire to look for a cause of (or a treatment to) a situation; on the other hand, this is a specific family:

p.8 The yard where we played and sometimes picknicked, where Esther and I once staged father-daughter pretend fights, with fake angry faces, to confuse the passing motorists–Is that a man fistfighting his young daughter?–or where we argued in earnest, with calm faces that belied out true feelings, Esther asserting, no doubt correctly, that there was something I didn’t understand–[…]

There are huge numbers of objects described as like babies or children (like the “old diaper” above), much behavior described as “childish,” as below; this passage also describes one of the emotional functions of speaking, disguised as a cognitive function:

p.15. Conversations from the museum of the uninformed. It troubled us that common sense had so little medical traction. There were doctors, and there were armchair doctors, and there were people like us, crawling in the mud, deploying childish diagnostics, hoping that through sheer tone of voice, through the posturing of authority, we would exact some definitive change of reality. Perhaps we thought the world we lived in could be hacked into pleasing shapes simply by what we said. Maybe we still believed that.

For me one of the important reveals of this part of the novel is p.75, when Sam discovers that Esther is “wilding,” roaming through the streets in a gang that preys on adults and sickens them with their voices. With our emotionally unreliable narrator, it’s hard to tell if this is a progression of Esther’s anti-social behavior or if we were supposed to know that she was doing this sort of thing much sooner than Sam knows it.

And on the last page of what we were supposed to read for June 7th, a strange symbol that I can’t tightly connect to anything just yet. Is it supposed to be Sam himself, or his despair, or his inhumanity at forcibly abandoning Esther?

p.94-95. I looked east toward the man-shaped silhouette between the houses where the sun would appear in a few hours, but there was nothing there to suggest a sun could ever heave itself into the sky again. I would never get used to that.

I could not ignore how that space looked forever immune from any illumination. Places give no warning that they might be soon be erased by light. There is never a single thing to suggest that some grotesque change is coming that will reveal all, and soon.

A language solely of place-names. What would we possibly say to each other?

Sitting with my wife, whose disgust pulsed over me, I laughed to myself over these assessments, thoughts of a final or irresolvable darkness. [The rest of this page is pretty terrific too –Sam recalls LeBov counseling people against giving in to their emotions, Sam countering that this is only good counsel if you don’t want to give up and die; the page ends with:]

It still seems important, given all that’s happened, to report that across the street from my house, there was a hidden piece of the deadest air. […] Just a swollen patch of darkness that seemed to throb the more I stared.


June 11, 2015 - Posted by | The Flame Alphabet

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