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For this week’s reading, we get a certain amount of reveal of how Marcus’s world works, and Marcus specifies a little more clearly what he thinks his theme is; we get a long stretch –difficult for me to enjoy– when the protagonist is alone in the middle of a bureaucracy; and, by sheer chance, we stopped just as the story seems geared to move back to the question of family bonds.

So I spent the first third of the novel under the misunderstanding that this was going to be a novel about how children become or are toxic to adults, through the metaphor/symbol/whatever of toxic speech. I was wrong: the conceit turns out to be that all speech has become toxic, and that it is children who start their lives immune to this toxicity, only losing that immunity as they grow. Moreover, it is not “speech” in the aural sense that is toxic: language of any kind has become toxic.

I should have paid more attention to the theories of LeBov! (btw, one of the founders of sociolinguistics in the US is named Bill Labov: Wikipedia on Labov. He’s not dead. Or isn’t he?) It might be that children –Jewish children!– are more toxic than any speakers, at the beginning, but by the middle of the novel all language is toxic. Our protagonist Sam seems to be particularly toxic to his wife Claire, as the many previous scenes of sarcasm, irony, passive-aggression and so on indicate.

How does Sam get to be the hero/anti-hero of this tale? Murphy/LeBov has been stalking the community of “forest Jews” for a while, presumably thinking that their attitude towards non-communication of the divine Word is in harmony with his views or that they will otherwise be useful for him, and it’s Sam’s naïveté that makes LeBov think that he can take advantage of Sam, and, arguably, it is this same cluelessness, this ability to avoid not seeing what’s right in front of him (the absurdity and unnecessariness of his religious rites; the emotional ambivalences in his relationship to Claire and Esther –the birthday party scene of ch. 16 is particularly good in conveying self-delusion–) that makes LeBov say that Sam would be useful at the “lab” he’s running, the Forsythe.

With the beginning of Part Two I found myself resisting how the novel’s plot was turning, a bit. I loved the heartbreak and cruelty of the separation from Claire; that hurt, and worked. I loved the drive upstate, those surreal touches on pp.143-5. Even the incarceration and quarantine parts of the Forsythe section worked well enough, I thought, with that perfect scene in which he steals loose orange tubing from the ceiling, puts a wire in his mouth, and becomes the voice of Burke in a brilliant pastiche of Biblical language (I googled it to make sure it wasn’t a direct quote of an actual passage of the Old Testament), ch. 27, p.159). But once we actually see the Forsythe lab at work, well. I felt that novel’s conceit strained and finally broke through my suspension of disbelief, necessary for non-realistic fiction that wants to show us how the real world works. I could believe that the “lab” workers like Sam could pursue their work on language in silence. (I appreciated the “history of languages” sections of Sam’s work as a sort of humanist’s equivalence of the faux-science vocabulary of earlier parts of the novel.) I could believe that all the leisure activities of the scientists could be conducted in silence. But I couldn’t believe that the work of the “technicians” could take place without communication. As long as (I thought that) the conceit was that the voices of children were toxic, the presence of ambiguously and nonsensically phrased precautions and haz-mat suits made sense. But now I keep thinking: How do they order food for this institution, and who cooks it? Who makes up the schedules for taking turns? How does the place get a hold of papers, inks, wool, for Sam’s and other “researchers”‘s “experiments”?

[The irony isn’t lost on me that I’m reading this book with old students of mine who attended an institution that refused the division of labor that Marcus’s Forsythe takes for granted.]

So while Marcus’s post-modern version of existentialism spins out a conceit of a world in which human isolation is so complete that any attempts to express oneself or form romantic attachments or even communicate practically are poisonous to everyone, this same conceit has to pretend that a minimum of blue-collar and pink-collar work is still possible in a world where domestic, religious, political, and poetic speech kill the (suburban, middle-class) adults who try to keep using it. (I include “poetic” because of the series of faked aphorisms in ch.35: the last one is William Carlos Williams’s “No ideas but in things” (from Paterson, 1927); I will hunt around to find the originals of the others, if I have the time.) Scientists may think that the people who wash their windows and launder their lab coats can do all these things without speaking, but Marcus shouldn’t be enabling that misconception. It’ll be interesting to see if Marcus bothers to try to work that angle in the rest of his novel, but I suspect he won’t.

Instead, just as we hit our 2/3 mark, he seems to be returning to the idea of children and setting up Sam’s need to return to “rescue” Esther and Claire. The idea that adults will vampirize the élan vital of children, as in the experiment in ch.36, pops up in all sorts of places in the history of culture. (My two favorites are the real 17thc. Transylvanian “bloody countess” beloved of Bataille and the Surrealists Erszebet Bathory, and Guy Maddin’s movie Brand Upon the Brain! (2006).) If Sam does make his way back to his unnamed home town it will be interesting to see if Marcus decides to find a way to make him the savior of the entire world, or just have him save Claire and Esther, or whether Marcus will ironize on these expectations.


June 16, 2015 - Posted by | The Flame Alphabet


  1. I kept thinking the same thing about the impossibility of coordinating anything without language. He even specifies that not even crude sign language is safe. I did like the scene when LeBov tells him that his work continues to be bullshit, but then couldn’t figure out why he’d brought him into the institute and left him to do it for a length of time that is unclear. I found the style in this section less annoying, mostly because it was more obvious that the things Marcus was failing to describe clearly (mostly the interminable passages about Sam’s work) didn’t really matter.

    I was however quite annoyed that he treated all these alphabets like they were equivalent or worked the same. For example, Hebrew is unusual in its lack of vowels and regular formations of root words, hieroglyphics were pictorial, not phonetic … yet he treats them all the same, as things to be mentioned in lists, not addressed in any reality.

    Comment by Joshua | June 17, 2015

  2. I’m not finished yet, but you can see that he is making an exception for Hebrew, which is the material he’s making the flame alphabet out of; but your point is of course true, what he likes about Hebrew is the esoteric and the incomprehensible element of it, not that you have to infer the vowels or that you read it right to left or whatever. He is supposedly making his letter out of the material that is unsaid or unexpressed in Hebrew. The best passage describing this is pp.208-11: “The Hebrew letter is like a form of nature. In it is the blueprint for some flower whose name I forget, and if this flower doesn’t exist yet, it will. [….] The absolute key was that this letter would, by necessity, need to be orphaned from the flame alphabet, toxic to it and in no way capable of joining its system. No matter what else you could communicate with it, it was imperative that this letter could never indicate the Name, or be part of a word or words that did, however indirectly. It would be the flame alphabet’s bastard letter, and I knew who would be the first to receive it. [….] With this new Hebrew lettering paradigm I began work on a non-alphabet, a system revolving around one symbol that could never be used in a word, a letter that did not even exist yet, a letter whose existence was merely inferred by the other letters. [.…] I realized that I had inadvertently constructed an artifact that was, in appearance if not in function […,] a listener. A Moses mouth.”
    But our main complaint about the mechanics of his allegory remains, and he himself says it: “Everything I produced and sent down to the yard for testing suggested that it was comprehension itself that we could no longer bear” (196).
    Once you get past the how of this (which I agree doesn’t work, and reinforces the idea that “technicians” can do their jobs without “comprehending” in the way that white-collar-worker suburbanite poet-novelsits and their families do), the next question is, Why bother? What was he aiming for, that he was willing to have some well-meaning reader of his third draft point out the impossibility of the allegory and he said, Naah, I’ll keep it in anyway?
    I’ve suggested one possibility already: he wants to up the ante on mid-century alienation and get at a radical aloneness, antiseptic (since most of us live pretty antiseptic lives anyway) yet constantly aware of the fallible materiality of our bodies (all that vomiting, the mucus, the spittle, the vertigo, the headaches, the way your face shrinks or goes blank). It’s possible he’s also interested in taking seriously the deconstructionists’ and the language poets’ claims that denotation is ultimately unimportant compared to connotation, or a language that somehow conveys emotion without needing to convey traditional meaning. If he does want his allegory to examine this, then he’s come to a pretty damning conclusion, of course. Yet I still think that one of the nuclei of the novel’s conceit is the idea that irony, sarcasm, and so many other negative affects are what people in social interactions (in white-collar, suburban, domestic worlds) communicate in their speech to one another, and that a certain point we just can’t take it any more.

    Comment by poc2666 | June 21, 2015

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