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!
Hello fellow heteronomists and readers of hard books. Officially we finished Ben Marcus’s The Flame Alphabet last Friday, but we have given ourselves an extra week for those who needed to catch up to do so, and I at least will still be reading your posts, and comments on my post, with great enthusiasm, like the friends and family of a marathon runner who stick around the finish line even if the professional runners have crossed some time ago.
We said we thought it would take us four weeks to read our next book Tom McCarthy’s C. I gather that, as with Marcus, an earlier book of McCarthy’s was praised as sheer experimentalism, and then this one was praised as being an attempt to marshal certain avant-garde tendencies to help tell a more traditional story. As i write you this, that is absolutely all I know about McCarthy, except that he writes out of Great Britain, hence the proper pronunciation in the title of this post.
We said four weeks and the book is in four parts, but inconveniently for us, since it’s best to do a little less than exactly 1/4 of a book for the first week as we acclimatize ourselves. Hence and ergo this is what we should be aiming to read and by which date:
Friday July 3: pp 1-78 (chs. 1-4)
Friday July 10: pp. 79-171 (chs. 5-7)
Friday July 17: pp.172-297 (chs. 8-10, i.e., through Part Three)
Friday July 24: finish
C you next Friday– (ha ha c what I just did there?)
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’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. Continue reading
I just finished Flame Alphabet, and will post something serious about it later, but hoo boy was it an acrid thing to be reading on Fathers’ Day. “Fatherhood is perhaps another name for something done badly” (256).
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. Continue reading
What other sorts of things happen in a world where the speech of children is toxic to adults? What aspects of the “real world” is Marcus commenting on with this allegory/symbol/what-have-you? Continue reading
All realist stories are alike. All non-realist stories are non-realist in their own way.
Over a decade later, I am still fuming over Harold Bloom’s popularizing and unhelpful book How to Read and Why (2001), where, among many vapid generalizations, he says that there are only two routes the short story can take: The Chekhovian route of realism, and the Kafkian route of fantasy. Well, it may be the case that the kind of psychological realism practiced by writers stylistically as diverse as Henry Fielding, Henry James, Thomas Mann, and Hillary Mantel are all the same: since realism operates in the world (it thinks) we share, it presumably cleaves to the same standard across the Western world and wherever the disenchantment of everyday life has taken place. (Note to self: re-read Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis one of these days.) But non-realism? Each novelist, each novel, can play by its own rules, and not cleave to the trail blazed by the one non-realist author, however great, favored by Mr. Western Canon. Furthermore, it’s pretty sloppy thinking to say that all of Kafka’s non-realistic writing constitutes “one” route: “The Metamorphosis” is different from The Trial and The Castle, and both differ from “The Judgment,” and they all differ from “The Penal Colony,” und so weiter.
Well, I’m glad I got that out of my system. Because in the great wide landscape of the fantastic that is available for any non-realistic writer, so far The Flame Alphabet seems to be choosing to invoke a whole lot of aspects of the Kafkaesque for its project. Continue reading
So today is June 1st, and so today our four intrepid readers (and anyone else interested –welcome aboard, Guido!) officially dive into the swift currents and oddly toxic water of Ben Marcus’s The Flame Alphabet. Why Ben Marcus? Well, two possible answers come to mind. Continue reading
A few years ago, The Weblog hosted a summer book club to read 2666 by Roberto Bolaño. Pat has volunteered to host the proceedings once again, and a small group of us, including Big Josh* who was here last time decided to read Ben Marcus’s The Flame Alphabet followed by Tom McCarthy’s C. Please join in! We aim to kick things off on June 1st or thereabouts.
*Big Josh and I are really about the same size, but that’s how we told each other apart when we were cob-loggers.