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Bad Dad

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).

June 22, 2015 - Posted by | The Flame Alphabet


  1. I think it’s supposed to be clear early on that he’s experimenting in his wife rather than helping her, although I do believe a certain amount of his love for Esther. I also think that by putting a spotlight on the question of first-person narration — why is this person telling me all this — Marcus makes it ultimately completely clear that Sam’s need for communication is just that, a need, unconnected to the needs of the person listening. In Sam’s world there is not a conceivable reader, yet he is vampirizing children to produce this unreadable text. Ultimately that’s what I took away from this: people have a visceral need to be heard, but no corresponding need to listen. All communication is therefore narcissistic. I like that as a final insight.

    Comment by Joshua | June 22, 2015

  2. I finally clicked on that link. I cannot imagine how miserable English classes must be for those kids now. New pedagogy seems designed to make children hate learning.

    Comment by Joshua | June 24, 2015

  3. I try to be fair towards non-fiction, since I make my living teaching fiction. But non-fiction is beating fiction six ways to Sunday in the real world, on every level from reality TV shows to the new documentary to new MFA programs in “creative non-fiction” to bookstore shelf space. The bottom line of what is irksome about the Common Core guidelines is the obsession with standardized testing. (And you and I were good at those kind of tests, in our different days.) You can see from the article that at least some strong schools have come up with creative responses to the shift in mixing fiction with non-fiction at appropriate ages. But I do go back to what my department chair in English at St. Ann’s said (Ruth is still there, 33 years later; she’s wonderful): “The K-3 faculty teach them how to read; our job teaching 4th-12th is to see that they love to read.”

    Comment by poc2666 | June 26, 2015

  4. I have not figured out how to post a comment of my own, so I will do so by responding to Pat’s “Bad Dad.” I have very little to offer by way of a full-fledged interpretation of Flame Alphabet, but I have a multitude of questions and puzzlements and perhaps a few glimmers of ideas, and I will just starting spelling those out.

    Re Bad Dad: I agree that it makes sense to take one’s distance from the voice of Sam. Both the relationship with Esther “being Esther’s father means doing one’s best not to appear to be Esther’s father” and the repeatedly strained relation with twice-abandoned Claire “I never felt so close to her as when I was completely separated from her” seem to me to be deeply problematic, and nearly every scene where they appear with Sam is disturbing. The entire plot of the novel is driven by Sam’s professed desire to keep his family together–primarily by inventing medicine in Part One and language in Part Two, and briefly as Esther caretaker near the end–and yet the final scene has him sitting calmly alone with only the fantasy of a family. The astonishing thing about this plot is that its principal motive (save the family) and its principal actions (Sam’s endless “small work” on medicines and words) are UTTERLY, crushingly, repeatedly, and it would appear KNOWINGLY futile and end up achieving more or less the opposite of what Sam professes he wants, and still he never registers despair or frustration, just a kind of dogged, plodding commitment to the next day’s work. Is there ever a pre-plague occupation specified for this guy, or for Claire? Other than the weird joyless Jewish picnic zone and the even weirder Jewhole forest hut/conjugal visit synagogue, they seem to have no friends, no work, no politics, no life at all outside their strained relationships with the most aggressively unloving child in the history of literature.

    So here are some of my questions about Sam: given we take our distance from this guy, what moral perspective do we gain? Is there a moral universe suggested outside his voice? There does seem to be a suggestion that even the nearly sociopathic Sam has internal qualms about vampirizing children and to a lesser extent tormenting test subjects with experimental toxic alphabets. But why portray such a loveless character and his stupendously futile work on projects and relationships that come to abandonment and pain? Why does he love his small work so well he can do it without any of the results he claims to want? Is there a “redeeming” feature in his character, any at all? His one passionate feeling seems to be his professed loathing for Murphy/LeBov, whom he tries to resist a number of times even tho he ends up coming back to him and his projects, and he seems suddenly to want to break out of Forsythe–so is there some kind of rebellion in his soul?

    God/Judaism: the obsessively negative theology of this book “you have commanded us not to know you and we have obeyed” is perhaps even more vacuous than its grim work ethic, more fruitless and solitary and meaningless. Negative theology has traditionally been part of mystical experience: denying lesser names and concepts in order to promote some form of experiential oneness with the divine that transcends faulty language and finite notions (meditation, prayer, music, nature, ritual, practices of love and compassion). However one NEVER, NEVER EVER gets a glimmer of divine presence in this book–not in nature, not in ritual, not in work, not in family relations and obligations. Sam ends the book claiming that he still “believes” but no longer needs to hear the rabbi’s endless injunctions against understanding any more. But what does he believe? The absence of God, obsessively evoked by the repeated prohibitions of words or comprehension, yields almost a more intense sense of godlessness than mere atheism. The Flame Alphabet of the book’s title points to a mystical dimension of Jewish tradition, a Divine Language beyond languages, but it is not at all clear how Sam connects with that tradition or how his perfect failures to rebuild language somehow honors the idea of God’s letters of fire. The idea of the orange subterranean transmission cables carrying various rabbinic voices, of dubious authenticity, invoking no response, no sharing, no communication, no understanding, no practice or action — is that all a monstrous satire of Judaism as the ultimate religion of Nothing? Is that ultimate religion a highest form of religion or the real truth of the meaninglessness of all religion? Interestingly, no other religion (eg Christianity, Islam) is ever named or alluded to in the novel.

    Holocaust/anti-Semitism; Pat points out what must be the conscious evocation of vicious anti-Semitic prejudices in many details of this book: Esther’s name alludes to the biblical story of a threatened Jewish people exiled in a foreign king’s country; vast and esoteric conspiracies (the network of forest Jews); the Jewish children who are thought to bring on contagion and disease; the kidnapping and violation of children; the sense that Jews are never really part of the community, always apart and pursuing secret, nefarious purposes. As with the Bad Dad issue, though: what does one’s sense of historical evil yield for the reader? Are we somehow meant to be repelled by this ghastly anti-family (Sam, Claire, Esther) and its religion of the void, the hole? Is the novel a supremely ironic INCARNATION of anti-Semitic slanders–to what purpose?

    Sex/food: Marcus seems to invest some writerly energy in making the pleasures of life as spooky and disgusting and repellent as possible. Sam’s joyless coupling with Claire in the forest hut and total failure even to achieve an erection even with the nearly miraculous reunion, leading to his longing to get away from her, Sam’s wordless sex with Marta and a few others in Forsythe. The birthday cake Pat nicely describes as revolting–but not just that, ALL the foodstuffs in the entire book are slimy, gelatinous, more like insect grubs consumed from animal instinct than what we think of as food–even the picnics in the public park where couples and families gather don’t give the feeling of good food, fun, or fellowship.

    Torah to my mind create a religion focused on family and procreation, on food (think of the many famines of Genesis, the passover meal, the dietary prescriptions), on language (decalogue, interpretation, and rabbinic reading) and the survival of a people in covenant with God. I guess The Flame Alphabet strives to evacuate all of these traditional hallmarks of Jewish faith and story: family disintegrates; procreation fails (are any children produced post-plague?); language destroys and explodes society; and not only community but family and even the individual come to ruin. Bleak indeed

    Comment by adkriefall | June 27, 2015

  5. I think most of this sounds just right, Andreas, and I think it’s interesting that your focus on the ethical/ theological mostly dovetails with the focus on the communicative/social that I was thinking more about, and some of which Josh M. summed up so pithily: “people have a visceral need to be heard, but no corresponding need to listen.” The social and socio-economic isolation of this particular nuclear family tends to throw the whole book into the allegorical realm, where one of the levels would be aesthetic: language poets and avant-garde fiction writers have a visceral need to be heard, but [their verbal art is aggressively painful to the people around them, and] neither they nor the people who live with and around them have any need to listen to them. If you can read this, you are doomed. If you know people who write this, they are sub- or consciously trying to hurt you. And the line between bad self-expression and non-experimental good self-expression is not fixed in stone and in fact verbal acts are becoming more and more poisonous every day. As Apu puts it, Thank-you-come-again–

    Comment by poc2666 | June 27, 2015

  6. Andreas: Your last set of comments on religion and antisemitism really crystallized for me another set of irritations I’d been having all the way through. Why are they Jewish? What does antisemitism or Judaism have to do with any of this? The particularly frustrating thing to me was that there is so freaking much about actual Judaism and Hebrew that Marcus could have used that would have fit so nicely into the novel: the mysticism of numerology, for example, the internal debates in rabbinic law regarding textual emendation and the endless attempts to turn meaning into its opposite through interpretation, the way Hebrew is this almost mathematically precise system of three-letter root words and meanings, the fact that the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet is unvoiced, the fact that the name of God in Judaism is never to be spoken and is indeed supposedly 70 syllables and forever lost… All this wealth of stuff that he could have used but threw aside in favor of a dimly defined sect of isolates doing something they don’t understand and the reader can’t understand, to a thematic purpose that I don’t understand. Why the hell are they Jews?

    Comment by Joshua Malbin | June 27, 2015

  7. I think they are Jews because Marcus is using very partial and distortive combinations of Judaism and antisemitism to build his FA world of blocked communication. The complex glories of rabbinical and kabbalistic Judaism interpretation to which you allude would be more usable if Marcus did not want to tell a story of sickness and stultification,after all those numerologies and esoteric codes are all about accessing plenitudes of meaning and achieving s vigorous interaction between the divine and human whereas there is none of that in FA’s sad universe of drainage impediment and decline

    Comment by adkriefall | June 27, 2015

  8. Thank you btw for that pithy and cogent phrase about being heard vs listening. I think it is a terribly solipsistic view of human being, but it is incredibly accurate as a generalization of the FA world and its story

    Comment by adkriefall | June 27, 2015

  9. I don’t really have an answer to Josh as to why so many cool aspects of Jewish traditions are left unused by Marcus, but I will say one thing about my habits of reading allegory. My fallback position on such things comes from the DeMan tradition of “allegories of reading” or allegories of interpretation: on some level a book is expected to tell us how to read it. (Most books slap “novel” on the cover and maybe also a genre term –thriller, Western, romance– and then you know how to read it; avant-garde fiction makes you work to figure out how to interpret it.) Much of the richest part of Jewish and other esoteric traditions is its hermeneutics: how do you find the meaning in a sacred text? Well, in this novel, reading makes you sick. Even being exposed to any kind of intentional sign-making makes you sick. Ergo, much of the esoteric ways to interpret the sacred texts are useless for Marcus’s purpose.
    It’s tempting to try to relate this to Andreas’s suggestion in the other thread, about paranoia. Paranoia can be defined a lot of ways, but one of its characteristics is that you read into innocent things, see meanings that weren’t intended. It’s a communication disease characterized by over-interpretation. I am totally used to stories that hinge on these errors of interpretation (I teach Borges for a living), so I am used to the idea that we can detach “paranoia” from the usual psychiatric elements of it. However, the plotting of FA moves away from treating the disease as a disease of interpretation. Eventually, it’s clear that all speech is actually causing everyone physical harm, and that the content of these speech acts, how you interpret them, is irrelevant to whether it will make you sick: they will all make you sick.
    I’ve compared Marcus to Kafka once or twice. One of the secondary texts also suggested that naming the protagonist Sam (and having another character named Murphy) should also bring to mind the worlds of Samuel Beckett, really a more radical isolation than that of Kafka.

    Comment by poc2666 | June 29, 2015

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