Sometimes, late at night, or even in the afternoon, I contemplate the history of language. How it is that humans were able to develop these skills, to communicate all of what is happening inside here [the author points to his own head] and express it in such a way that someone else can understand it inside here [the author points to the reader’s head]. I think of the struggles of translations, of archaic languages, of dead languages, of Rousseau and Hobbes, of society vs. nature, until it’s so overwhelming I declare the whole thing meaningless. That’s not to say I wouldn’t want to be able to ruminate like this in the first place. Since you are reading this, you know I consider myself a “writer,” one who finds meaning in life through language and the written word. Yet as with any passion, what can be so attractive about an art can also be what’s so repellant, toxic even. I have to wonder if Ben Marcus had these same thoughts as he began his third novel, The Flame Alphabet
The Flame Alphabet begins with narrator Sam and his wife Claire running away from their daughter Esther. That’s right, abandoning their own daughter. To be fair, it is with good reason: every time Esther speaks, it is poisonous to them. In fact, all children have gained this power. As with any pandemic, the origins are unclear while the events are unfolding. The symptoms were vague enough at first also not to warrant too much attention. When Esther went away to camp one week, Sam and Claire regained their health, and welcomed their daughter back with open arms. But it only took one conversation for the symptoms to re-emerge.
The family is Jewish, but of a very odd sect: forest Jews. Every Thursday, Claire and Sam gather in a hut in the middle of the woods, where a ‘listener’ broadcasts a sermon for them alone to listen to. In this world, “the Jewish transaction is a necessarily private one.” It is quite a bizarre ritual, and in concordance with the fact that this poisonous language began with Jewish children, only made it easier for radio personality LeBov to antagonize the Jews. As Sam is doing his best to avoid his daughter (after experiencing how profoundly appropriate the word ‘earshot’ is), he runs into Murphy, one of LeBov’s followers. They get into an intense discussion, Sam trying not to let too much personal information escape, particularly of his Jewish background. Murphy is obviously smarter and knows more about these private forest Jews than he leads on. It is this character that determines where Sam travels the rest of the novel, the experiments with salt that he creates, and the meaning of concepts like blame, burden, and commitment. Sam’s later experiments in the novel deal with different languages and how they affect people. Is the poison in the meaning of a sentence, it’s volume, a specific voice’s timbre? Does English affect someone differently than Hebrew, than Chinese? What is the meaning of work when we can’t share the results?
Not to dwell on the Jewish question, so to say, but I did find myself wondering why use a concrete religion but abstract it in such a way that does not relate at all to our non-fictional world? There is at least one uniform trait though: in Judaism, there is a name for God that cannot be spoken. Marcus takes this practice further: as all things come from God, it therefore follows that language itself should never be spoken. Thus, how it became poisonous in the first place. Which is why often what is not said is just as important as what is said: “language acts as an acid over its message” is the true Jewish teaching. And to take it one step further, historians of this crisis would conclude that “ideas and people do not mix.” Of course, this idea in itself has its roots in Eastern philosophy: Tao called Tao is not Tao. The Flame Alphabet is another link in the tradition of understanding the duality of language: it’s limitation as well as its necessity.
The book isn’t meant to hold any real anti-Semitic tone (it certainly wouldn’t have gotten the praise it has if Marcus sympathized with LeBov and Murphy), but rather explores not so much a dystopian society, but that of an absurd world where we cannot communicate even with those whom we love. Subtly, Marcus does a great job pointing out perfect and imperfect words that we not only use in daily conversation, but of new meanings specific to the context of the novel. Yes, language and how it is used is the main theme of the novel, but also how that concept interacts with family, religion, and love and how commitment interacts with all of these concepts. Likewise, the discussion revolves around the vague nature and obscurity inherent in communication. No matter how hard we try, there is always something lost, even when we think we’re so good at this thing called communicating. Know what I’m saying?
Andrew Hertzberg is a Chicago music blogger for Windy City Rock, a deep dish pizza slinger, and a night-time bike riding enthusiast. He recently reviewed Michel Houellebecq’s novel The Map and the Territory.