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Also in Lieu of My Own Reaction–Some Critics Weigh In

I’ve finished the book, and I found it upsetting, so while I’m waiting for you all to post and for my own thoughts to settle, I went on-line to five Respectable Publications to see what people had to say, and got six interestingly discordant reviews.

The reviews were from the Washington Post, The LA Times, The A.V.Club, The New York Times por supuesto, and two reviews from The Guardian, a year apart (I have no idea if that’s general policy). The Post and LA Times gave it outright pans. The reviewer from the Post, Lionel Shriver, is a somewhat snide woman novelist who focuses on difficult relations between parents and children; her 2005 book We Need To Talk About Kevin was turned into a movie starring Tilda Swinton.  The L.A.Times reviewer, whom I don’t know, ended up with a more formal complaint similar to Shriver’s:  they both were annoyed that the suggestive language of the novel’s conceit was not realistic enough for the reader to plug properly into the world (the LA Times reader said that Marcus can’t invoke the genre of dystopian science fiction and get the right payoff unless he makes things more realistic, and shrewdly wondered what happened to The Government in this story). The NY Times reader agrees, pulling a trick that drives me crazy about the Times, in which the reviewer spends half the review praising the author’s previous works, and then sagely, sadly, says that this book doesn’t measure up. (More than half the time the previous reviewers of the same author will have done the same thing to the books that the current reader takes as proof of his/her genius.) “Marcus is a writer of prodigious talent, but “The Flame Alphabet” doesn’t fulfill its own promise as a hybrid of the traditional and experimental.”

The other reviewers professed to be aficionados.  They more or less agreed that the best way to enjoy this book was not to expect closure or continuity, and to treat the book as an author bouncing from one position about the perils of language and communication, or about the way families misunderstand the way they love each other, or anti-Semitism and Jewish mysticism, to another. What other reviewers saw as defects are, not exactly praised, but brushed off.  The A.V.Club’s review, as usual short, agrees with the LATimes reviewer that this book is just plain hard to read, and “That’s why the flat characters and static relationships are more a necessity than a weakness: They serve as constant guideposts in shifting terrain.” Its short review (properly, I think) name-checks Cronenberg and Phillip K. Dick in their mutual “pessimistic attitude toward people’s desire to understand and be understood by one another.”

I was especially impressed by the two Guardian reviewers.  Lionel Shriver in the Washington Post hated reading the book so much, she wrote, that she cleaned her house obsessively while being forced to review it.  Nicholas Lezard in The Guardian thinks that such was a sign of Marcus’s success:  “What I found fascinating about this book, after its remarkable premise, which both invites and strongly resists allegorical interpretation, and the cold beauty of its prose, was my own reaction to it. I can put it no better than to say that this book got to me, and I started worrying whether Marcus had in fact achieved something darkly magical: the creation in readers of the very reaction he describes his characters having to language. In short, this book made me sick with anxiety, more so than I would have believed possible. I grew almost to fear it.” he ends by saying that the book “is in short a masterpiece.”  The critic who reviewed it in The Guardian first, in 2012, ended up with something more nuanced:  with the subtitle “Can a book about language work as a thriller?” James Lasdun concludes, Well, no, not just because of the internal verisimilitude necessary to a thriller (a point made by other reviewers above), but because LeBov/Murphy’s thuggish language rings false in the book, and because “the sundered family plot, beloved of blockbusters, is milked for teary emotionality.”

That’s probably where I’m going to start my own blog post, when i get around to it.

June 21, 2015 - Posted by | The Flame Alphabet

1 Comment

  1. I just went and looked at a few of these myself and it’s interesting, even the pans feel compelled to acknowledge that Marcus’s style is beautiful, even if they don’t think his ideas hold together. Whereas I found his ideas somewhat intriguing but his style pretentious, lazy, and unbearable.

    Comment by Joshua | June 22, 2015

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