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» On the one hand, Marcus’s sentences in The Flame Alphabet are just as challenging as those of his previous works; but these sentences get tethered to the trappings of plot, character, and world in ways that seem designed to entice mainstream readers. This is where the trouble begins.

I’m finding that one of the most reliable indications of how much I like a book — how worthwhile I think it ultimately is — comes in how much I’m interested in reading about it. And I’m still willingly reading about The Flame Alphabet, despite it being a thoroughly unlikeable reading experience. I think I slightly less than half-agree with Lee Konstantinou’s LARB essay on the book, in part because of the rigor and consistency he’s demanding Marcus to show between criticism and art, and in part because I thought that the sentence-level repulsion aided, in a way that wasn’t seperable, the storyline and especially the thematics of the novel.

That said, I’m also pretty sure that this essay is much more interesting than all the stuff I didn’t bother to read about Freedom.



March 28, 2012, 3:52pm  Comments

amelia gray, threats

“The tape on the package was striped with waxed string. David dug his fingernails underneath the perimeter of the tape and clawed at it. He didn’t want to go to the kitchen for a knife, and he spent an extra piece of time examining the entire package to find the loose end that could be pulled up. Inside the package was a Styrofoam carton, sealed with another kind of thick tape. A receipt was attached to the top of the lid, noting a cremation charge of $795, a box charge of $25, and a shipping charge of $20.95.”

I don’t tend to put too much weight on first lines, first paragraphs — they have to carry enough weight anyway, and one assumes that they’re a part of any book that’s been worried over and polished and fought with so much that the passage reveals only what the writer wants. It’s a first impression, a best face rather than the truest face, of the book. That said, this is the first paragraph of Threats. Which I’m pretty enamored of. Not only because it does that short-story-in-a-hundred-words thing well, though it does, and the sucker punch is nice; and not just because it demonstrates the peculiar quality of Gray’s prose, which is really nicely bunted somewhere between Ben Marcus and Tao Lin; but for the phrase “extra piece of time:” that choice of wording gives you both the estrangement Gray works hard for, and grounds the book in a recognizable colloquial reality. It’s something like the David Lynch trick of zooming in to show the rot and madness under the idyllic postcard surface. And so: Lynch, Marcus, and Tao Lin, all positively referenced, and I’m pretty sure I’m not underselling Threats.

FSG 03.06.12



March 06, 2012, 2:19pm   Comments

marcus continued

“LeBov enjoyed the rhetorical vague. He relished not naming something, in not even talking about something. I felt his pleasure as he refused to say whatever he was obviously thinking. He didn’t even really say what he was saying. Instead he found some way to make it seem that someone else was saying it, someone he looked down on. He was only the vessel, raped in the mouth and made to channel the words of an invader. This kind of concealment was supposed to create tension, build mystery. We spoke in code, but no one was listening in, and we no longer knew the original language to which our niceties would be translated back. We were trapped in the code now for good. A language twice removed, stepped on, boiled into a paste, and rubbed into an animal’s corpse.”

LeBov isn’t quite the villain, but he’s absolutely the snake in the garden, or perhaps just Wallace Stevens’s Lunatic of One Idea. The plague of language isn’t his fault, but his battle against it incurs awful costs, warps and cracks anything it touches, not least of all Marcus’s diction and syntax. The result is something complex and difficult, defeated and hopeless, hard to read but impressive in its comprehensiveness and sorrow.



January 20, 2012, 11:00am   Comments

marcus continued

“Much of my time in those early days at the script design desk was spent creating inhibitors that would keep me from seeing what I was doing.”

And then there’s the second half, which moves from one kind of nightmare (flight, isolation) to another (clinical futility) — and with that shift comes the notion, the difficulty of working with something toxic, creating a panacea out of something lethal. And in this case, a hero who works with objects — letters, “scripts” — in a dizzying array of media, without being able to view even an entire letter.



January 19, 2012, 11:00am   Comments

marcus continued

“When I thought of Esther alone in the house, without us, I pictured her being waited on by … us. Facsimiles of us. Robot usses. Father and mother us, hovering over Esther with bowls of berries, with the special dinner of steamed greens, the de-meated slab of protein and sauteed bread she liked. Her own baby bowl of salt, hooked onto her dinner plate like a sidecar. I couldn’t see her, Esther didn’t exist, without a satellite of us orbiting by, although I’m sure Esther had no problem imagining her solitude.”

And here’s a hint at what Marcus does — with the de-meated slab of protein and sauteed bread, with the weirdness of the image of the sidecar of salt. The things he describes are a little bit off (or a lot off, as with the odd mode of Jewish worship he describes, hiding in a hut in a forest listening to clandestine radio transmissions with a two-part receiver rig), but only in the manner of a near-future dystopia or a wet science fiction story, mild little unsettling differences from a mostly-recognizable setting. But the diction — the diction continues to get uglier, more viscerally awful, as the book goes on, the ugliness and hopelessness of Marcus’s world coded into the words he uses. In this, The Flame Alphabet resembles something like Blake Butler’s There Is No Year, which I thoroughly disliked. But The Flame Alphabet succeeds in a way that No Year doesn’t (still unlikeable, but because of a visceral recoil from the language, a calculated effect) because the diction is a vehicle for and an emblem of the plot, and the layered metaphors built up like sediment over top of that plot.



January 18, 2012, 11:00am   Comments

ben marcus, the flame alphabet

“Esther was probably riding a horse right now, wearing the black Mary Janes she refused to shed for anyone, even if it was a shit-clotted field she needed to cross. Or she was lugging a saddle to the stable, or standing not-so-patiently as someone overexplained something Esther already knew. At home she fumed when you doled out information she took to be a given. Anything factual went without saying. Esther opposed repetition, opposed the obvious, showed resistance to anything that resembled an instructional phrase, a word of advice, a sentence that carried, however politely, a new piece of information. These were off-limits, or else would be scorched by her temper. Out in the world I wondered how she concealed it.”

Normal teenage behavior. This is the start of, and really the inverse of, Marcus’s nightmare, though: the ability of the teenager to wound her parents with curtness, or silence. This is before they realize that she wounds them, literally rather than emotionally, with her speech, and which is the first of the loosely-nested series of metaphors that get suggested behind the icky apocalyptic sci-fi of the main plot.

Knopf 01.17.12



January 17, 2012, 11:00am   Comments