The Weblog

Home for the heteronomous

The Kitsch Spectrum

The swiftly dawning realization in the first few pages of The Flame Alphabet that the narrator is about to abandon his child is powerful to the point of verging on kitsch. I had two simultaneous reactions to it.

The first was a straightforward emotional reaction. Reading as a relatively new father, it struck me as unbearably, chokingly sad, triggering the same feeling I get from catastrophizing about my daughter.

The second was in a more familiar mode for me. Reading as a critical reader (or as a jerk, take your pick) it struck me as slightly de trop. Dead babies, man, to steal from Martin Amis. I have a similar feeling about the movie Gravity, although family tragedy makes more native sense in a family horror story than in a space adventure. But there’s still a level on which it works and works hard. (I stopped discounting my sympathetic reaction to Gravity after talking to a friend who had lost a child and admired the movie.)

At the same time, the book is also an extended riff on how annoying teenagers are (with a Jewish girl teen at the center). Take my daughter… please!

June 27, 2015 - Posted by | The Flame Alphabet


  1. I have learned a bit recently about how sleep helps the brain to process the previous day’s events and thoughts, building or strengthening new synapses to create memory and connection. Perhaps that explains my waking to a sense that I was beginning to form An Idea of what Marcus is doing, or perhaps (distinctly possible) this author’s toxic language contagion creates obsessive behavior in the test subjects that are his readers–IRREGARDLESS, I will venture the following, formed in dialogue with Josh, Josh, and Pat yesterday:

    The Flame Alphabet is an allegorical fable, like Pat nicely explained, a story shorn of realistic detail to isolate a small set of characters and their interactions. Sam’s venture to the edge of the child concentration camp, his experimental listening, strung out on the remnants of distilled frightened child’s breath, to the Aesop story of the bird mother and the blinded bird child is looming large in my mind as a key to approaching the FA book as a whole. This fable tells the (satirically eaggerated) tale NOT of Judaism, but of ANTISEMITIC PARANOIA: here’s what the world becomes when the sneaky, suspect, wickedly clever Jews take over: religion is evacuated, society dissolves, families come apart, language becomes toxic–people can only use each other, never understand or help or grow together. The cruelty of the bird mother, raising her child with studied withholding of love and communication, suggests the cruelty of the bad Jew dad, relating to wife as test subject and to daughter as favorite toy, experimental plaything.

    Pace Professor O’Connor: Fredric Jameson, in one of the only readings of his I ever understood, has a kind of cool piece on postmodernism and schizophrenia, using language poets as evidence. He suggests, as I remember it (caveat emptor), that the hyperreal unmeaning menacing quality of objects comes to dispace semantics for schizophrenics, and that this schizoid world of alienated but supervivid objects can be glimpsed in the way language poetry eschews poetic semantics and creates vivid but utterly disconnected words, empty of meaning but full of frightening life.

    Perhaps, then,

    (god knows I am stretching, but what else can one do? I read once that a book (Moby-Dick? I can’t remember) made one generate interpretations as an act of sheer self defense–a perfect description of what I am doing with Marcus)

    PERHAPS Marcus is using PARANOID FANTASY as an extended commentary on postmodern meaninglessness. The antisemitic paranoia is not the real content, only the form carrying allegorical content at another level of the death of God, the death of subjectivity as a repository of truth, the death of meaning. The story of the wicked Jews becomes itself an allegory of the postmodern condition.

    Nuff said? I felt compelled to be heard (!), but am (like Pat) waiting eagerly to see our marathon runners win, place, or show. Thank you all for this intoxicating experience–let’s keep using these frightening allegories of unrelationship to celebrate dialogue and connection

    Comment by adkriefall | June 28, 2015

  2. Rereading summation, I want to replace “death” with “sickness”: ie the sickness of subject, sickness of meaning, postmodernism as contagious palsy

    Comment by adkriefall | June 28, 2015

  3. I’m perfectly okay with thinking of some aspects of this novel as an extended metaphor about anti-Semitic paranoia. What gives it its kick –again, this tends to bring it close to Kafka– is that Marcus and his protagonist are both Jewish. The Jewish father asks Murphy plaintively, “Were the Jewish children the first?” That said, there are plenty of elements of the story that don’t resonate particularly with anti-Semitic fantasies. The laboratory in particular in the United States is its own nightmare scenario –if anything, in the history of the West it’s associated with Nazis, not with Jews. Sam could also be seen as a collaborator, I suppose, and of course he’s creating his own Listener as he pretends to do his job, he’s a sort of crypto-Jew in the service of the Nazis, but the over-riding metaphor for these parts is the soulless state, not the twisted nuclear Jewish family.

    To Josh’s first point: it sure does start off with a sort of clichéd threat. I presumed that the plot was going to involve further cliché and that Sam was going to head off from Forsyth to rescue wife and child. So it was with nauseating satisfaction that I realized that the same internal flaw that induced Sam into leaving child and wife the first time held true for his abandoning Claire the second time and that his “rescue” of Esther was virtually no rescue at all.

    Comment by poc2666 | June 29, 2015

  4. Good points all, Pat. The damnably complex allegorical thicket that is this novel seems to draw promiscuously on anti-Semitic fantasies, on Nazi labwork, and terrifying visions of a soulless state treating people as test subjects.

    In a nutshell, how would you (or any of you) diagnose Sam’s “internal flaw”? He is a very very unusual character.

    Comment by adkriefall | June 29, 2015

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.

%d bloggers like this: