I think what surprised me the most about the positive and negative reviews I read of The Flame Alphabet was that all seemed to agree with the first-person narrator Sam that everything he was doing, he did out of love for his wife and daughter. Was it perverse of me to think that this was not the case, and that Marcus was perfectly aware that this was not the case?
I presume that most of you know the history of “the unreliable narrator,” a figure much beloved of high school English teachers (back in those long-ago days when high school English teachers were allowed to teach fiction; you might have seen this recently in the New York Times). The emphasis that authors and narrators are different, that the fiction does not necessarily espouse the opinions of the creator, turns out to be predominantly part of the history of English rhetoric, from Henry James in fiction to the important Understanding Poetry textbook in the ’50s by Brooks and Warren. Other literary traditions –the French in particular– do not put such a heavy stress on it; there’s a lot more stress on the sentence, on language being a repository of received opinions, and on the lability of the self, so the idea that a reader focuses on a character, and has to decide to trust him or her, or that the fallback position is that the I of a text is the I of the author, doesn’t come up (among sophisticated readers; but even unsophisticated readers knew that Camus wasn’t Meurseault), and therefore doesn’t need the shaming label of “unreliable narrator” to undo.
There are so many linguistic pyrotechnics in The Flame Alphabet –or, if you prefer, there are so many signs that you should be reading this book the way that the French would– that it is easy, I think, to fall into the trap of taking our narrator at his word. I am not referring just to his characterization of the world: he muddles through this plague and he and the author, thanks in part to Murphy/LeBov (who is often lying and/or correcting himself later too), keep the reader more or less abreast of how this world and plague work. I mean that by the end, if not much much sooner, we are supposed to doubt the narrator’s ability to describe his own emotions, and his conviction that what he has done in this novel he has done –to his daughter Esther, to his wife Claire– out of love.
I certainly had my doubts from the beginning. In the early parts of the book, where it seems that it’s the speech of children that is toxic, nevertheless the conversations between Sam and Claire reek of disappointment and passive-aggression. One of the first memories of his play with his daughter is that they pretend to fistfight on the front lawn, where people driving by can see them. Claire has apparently often criticized his mode of conversation with their daughter. Possibly the high/low point of this passive-aggression is Sam’s baking the disgusting-sounding birthday cake for Esther, after which he hides under the stairway and, looking through his peephole there, hopes to see her eat it. We understand that Sam has few resources with which to show his love, but the cake shows all manner of mixed messages too.
In this context, Sam’s major betrayals of the family –planning to abandon his daughter; when Claire bolts, abandoning her too; cheating on Claire with Marta when he thinks Claire’s dead; cheating on her again when he knows she’s alive; the final abandonment of Claire in Forsythe by diving into the Jew hole instead of staying to try to rescue her– all seem part, not of the story of how much a man will do to save his family, but rather how narcissism constantly generates an image of the self as a loving person when self-preservation strategies indicate quite the opposite.
Marcus not only seems aware that he is creating his character this way, he is signaling it bluntly by the end of the book: Part Two ends with Sam jumping into the “Jewish hole of Forsythe,” “For the second time now, instead of staying to help my wife, I went the other way” (252), with its final image a fantasy of togetherness replacing the reality: “the underground wind rushing over me so sweetly it seemed that, perhaps, as I fell, I might have been in bed […] I could maybe hold my Claire again for a little while, hold her so tight that perhaps it would not hurt so much when together we landed in the world below.” Likewise, in the last section, the image of Esther replaces her reality for years: “It is problematic to father alone […] I mean it is problematic to father without an actual child. How exactly does one father when no child is to be found, and yet the father has not finished his work…”(257). The irony is heavy throughout this section: clearly Sam has forfeited the right to be considered a father, but cannot admit it. He also –and this is also underlined heavily– vampirizes children in order to make serum (Marcus is quite aware that this dovetails with traditional anti-Semitic libels of Jews who eat gentile children). Again, this theme is emphasized with the fable he can hear about the bird mother who blindfolds her child and pretends to abandon it, with the result that the baby bird refuses to take off the blindfold even after the mother has returned (282-3); Sam draws a different moral from this story than the one we can presume the children do.
It sounds as if I’m judging Sam. Rather, I think that Marcus has created a character –maybe like Walter White in Breaking Bad, another man who, in good times, seemed like a good father but somehow under the pressure of illness engaged in strategies that hardened his character and alienated further his wife and children?– whose mild character flaws become exacerbated under the stress of a plague/ the linguistic conceit that communication is unhealthy. Marcus knows that Samuel knows that by the end we will be judging him: “When I picture you examining this account, dangling each decaying page aloft with a tweezers, I wonder if you are alone, barricaded from someone with whom you once spoke freely” (the passages goes on, pp. 260-1). It’s a mildly nasty passage, basically asking how many children did we have to vampirize in order to read it, or reminding the reader that if he has not been touched by the plague, he is unfit to judge Sam. But then, that section begins with him reflecting on how happy the birds are now that humans are confined to silence, and then there’s that bird fable later on in the section, and just before the end of the novel a bird, silenced, falls down dead from the sky; the implication is that the plague has now jumped species. Really, I’m quite relieved that Esther has had the good sense to abandon her father by the side of the hole, where he magically imagines a reunion of him and Claire and Esther, “like a family” (289).
Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.