Ben Marcus's books The Age of Wire and String and Notable American Women were considered "experimental" fiction because of his unconventional use of narrative, character, and language. His newest novel, The Flame Alphabet, begins with an unconventional idea: Language becomes toxic to adults — first children's language, in the Jewish community, and later all language, spoken or written. But the book itself, though written in fantastic, sharp-edged prose, is at heart a story of family, religion, and loss.
Samuel and Claire are members of a Jewish sect that secretly practices forest worship — they have their own synagogue out in the woods and, through a device called a "listener," receive Rabbinical messages from an underground radio. When the couple become sick from their daughter Esther's speech and as their community fractures around them, Samuel takes it upon himself, through "smallwork" — maybe best defined as intricate, obsessively thorough testing and experimentation — to find a cure.
Library Journal raves, "Fierce, scary, hurtful, unsettling, and brilliant, this new work by award-winning novelist Marcus...reminds us that language is dangerous and that we'll do anything to protect our children, even when they are (literally) killing us."
The Flame Alphabet is a magnificent new novel from a major talent, and we agree with Michael Chabon: "[A]s I read The Flame Alphabet, late into the night, feverishly turning the pages, I felt myself, increasingly, in the presence of the classic."
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Jill Owens: You did a Powell's interview with Dave back in 2002, and in it you said, "I'm always trying to mythologize the mouth, to make language animated so that you can see it coming out of people's heads, destroying objects." That seems pretty prescient, in retrospect.
Ben Marcus: I think it's something that seems to come up in all of my books, though, to be honest, it's sometimes one of those ideas or compulsions or drives that I try to get away from, only to find that I'm suddenly writing a whole book about them. I would think that maybe this is the last word on animated languages, or toxic languages, or language as a kind of supernatural power. But, yes, you caught me.
Jill: The idea behind The Flame Alphabet is brilliant. But I was talking to somebody about it the other day and I said, "But it's not the kind of idea that you think, Wow, it's amazing somebody hasn't come up with this before." It does feel sort of unique to me. How did this idea and this book begin?
Marcus: There's a theme in my last book, Notable American Women. It's in a minor part of the book in which the father character is considering an underground prison in his backyard, and there's someone employed to stand on the surface above the prison with a tube that feeds into his cell and a guard speaks into the tube. The idea in the book is that the language will fill the room and crush the father.
It was one of those little things that, as I was writing it, made me think it would be interesting to escalate the idea, to spread it through the world and see what would happen if suddenly, really, we couldn't talk to each other.
I think on the one hand, I have been writing about language as something that's super potent ever since I started writing. But it probably wasn't until I accidentally wrote that scene that a lot of stories started to become suggested to me.
I think in particular, when I decided that children would be immune, so that when they spoke everyone else would sort of be crippled, it became more of a domestic story, more of a sad story. Because as a father of two kids, I suddenly pictured what that might be like if the person you loved the most in the world, your child, is somebody you couldn't even physically bear to be around.
I was attracted to that conflict. The conflict of it seemed almost unbearable and impossible to imagine. I think that's one of the things that gets me excited to work on a book, when I feel that there's something almost unbearable at the core that I have to explore.
Jill: I think that's true. I was going to ask you how you thought about the tone of the book in general because there are parts of it that are absolutely just wrenching, but there are parts that are funny, too.
Marcus: I do see it as a fairly sorrowful book. I think that reflects my appetites and my interests. I think about this and struggle with this a lot because some might read what I write and say, "It's too dark. There's no redemption. I'm not interested in a story like this. It's cynical." Or, "it's bleak."
But I think that, oddly, I find redemption in things that don't have redemption in them. This is something that I sometimes feel bullied by, a false sense of the positive that things will be alright.I like thinking that one of the jobs of literature, though obviously there are many, is to explore the worst, to wonder about it and to tell stories in that space. It's cathartic in the same way having a bad dream is cathartic, because it isn't really happening to you and it allows you to expand your sense of what's possible and then, maybe, appreciate a good thing.
A theme of the novel as the king of bad dreams is one thing I sometimes do, like a bad dream that's necessary to have in order to really confront what life is.
Jill: Another quote from that interview from years ago was that you said you want to "make something that seems clever, also fraught and heavy." I was wondering if that also applied to this book or not.
Marcus: Less on the clever. I feel that was fun for a while, but I wasn't that interested in cleverness. But fraught, sure. So much of what I read is fraught, whether it's really unusual, innovative writing or really conventional. A good William Trevor story is enormously fraught. A Flannery O'Connor story is especially fraught.
And, to me, it's just another way of talking about literature that revolves around conflict. So, sure, absolutely, I'm still inclined to that, but I think that I was less interested in doing anything that would be merely clever.
There is a bit of a gallows humor in the book that is hopefully funny, but hopefully the right kind of funny. I have no idea.
Jill: I think so. I wouldn't describe it as primarily a funny book by any means, but there's definitely some humor which I think largely comes from the narrator's voice. I liked Michael Chabon's quote about the book which said, "There are echoes of Ballard's insanely sane narrators." I thought of Samuel that way, sometimes, as insanely sane.
Marcus: I sort of think of him as a father who's in that category that thinks he's got to fix everything. He's under pressure to solve this dilemma and he has no resources at all. And I think, sort of tragically, he doesn't have any skills. So, he takes these burdens upon himself, to experiment medically upon himself and his wife for instance, but it's meant to leak through that he really doesn't know what he's doing. He's trying these things without much of an education.
I like the idea of a character who thinks he's got to solve a problem, but he fails. I really do like the idea of failure and what it makes the character feel. I think I was looking to kind of prompt him and prompt him and prompt him, and things got worse and worse and worse no matter what he did. So, I think he is clearly a little bit insane. But, on the other hand, I wonder what anyone else would have done in his same situation.
Jill: Towards to the beginning, he worries that he lacks the great appetite for uncertainty that the world demands. And later he says, "It was a distraction to live with uncertainty." So, it does seem like he's trying to counteract that by action, by smallwork, by security.
Marcus: I think that's right, and that line you quoted is also in reference to his relationship with his religion, which he's not really allowed to discuss. He feels that he's not really up to the task of living this kind of private religion and being alone with it. Community is so important to so many religions, and this invented one in the book is, I think, so isolating. It really tests your relationship to whatever you think of as God.
I think of the mystics who were deliberately non-communal and also nonverbal. The idea of certain kinds of mysticism is that if you start talking, you're sort of fucked. You can't discuss religious experience; language itself doesn't match up to anything spiritual. That's an idea that I think hopefully is churning around underneath the book, all throughout it. It's also one that Samuel feels like he's no match for.
Jill: In the book, everyone becomes so isolated from each other because of the lack of language. But it is already there and present in this family because of their religion, before language became toxic.
Marcus: I'm not exactly a good sage home researcher. I can read and sort of fake research all the time. I was reading a lot of Jewish mysticism, mystical theory, and Kabbalah. There essentially became a time when I started to feel I really wasn't even inventing anything.
In Jewish mystical tradition, in particular in Kabbalah,if you feel like you understand something related to God, then you are definitely off the mark. The whole idea of understanding itself is like a decoy. It's taking you away from the truth. Verbalizing something means you're wrong. I love the paradox of that, because we have a compulsion to understand and to put things into words. When that's taken away...
The idea in Kabbalah, I think, is to work to restore, and maintain, God as completely enigmatic, completely unknowable. And it's very smart, right? [Laughter] Because it means that you can't object in any logical way. You can't object at all, and even objection itself means you don't understand, and even understanding means you don't understand.
So, these mind traps are totally compelling to me, and as I was creating this sect, this cult of Judaism in the forest, I thought, You know, it's not that far off the mark. I mean, it is in its manifestation obviously unusual, but there was a way — maybe I was just deluded, but while I writing I felt there were a lot of totally possible religious tethers to this kind of thing, except maybe for the radio. That's probably not very realistic. [Laughter]
Jill: They're out there somewhere. They're just not talking about it.
Marcus: They're there on eBay. That's actually such a good idea: I should try selling a "listener" on eBay. [Laughter]
Jill: To go back to one of the things you were just saying, it did seem to me that the novel is in part about the lack of understanding. It's a disease, not just of language, but of knowing and understanding. The experts don't know anything. No one really knows anything.
There's also a lot of talk about wisdom. On the one hand, that it's coming from outside one's self, and it should be kept private. But LeBov says that wisdom is meant to be shared. I was wondering if you saw wisdom and understanding as being two different things?
Marcus: That's a good question. LeBov seems to think that there's some kind of special insight, a kind of grail that will unlock his research, because at the scientific level he's hit all kinds of various walls. Even though, of course, you do later learn that they do have a kind of cure.
Fortunately, I don't have to take a position on the question. I just tried to put the opposing sides into the novel and have them war against each other in the way that Samuel wars against LeBov. Samuel feels protective of this religious information even as it's exposed to him as potentially, maybe even likely, fraudulent. He still wonders if it matters if you suddenly discover your Rabbi is a fraud and that his message is being manipulated or hacked. I guess I like the notion of putting these characters through these questions and concerns and worries, but I also like probing the question of what we actually gain when we gain knowledge, what it really is.
We don't really question the pursuit of knowledge. It seems like it's important. We should be accumulating it. But it's antithetical, in some sense, to most religions. You don't need to accumulate any more knowledge if you have the good book or if you're subscribed to your saints. The idea would be that everything is there and it is to be explained to you. So, I'm somewhere in the middle, on both sides, underneath and on top. [Laughter] I like the tension of it. I like worrying and not knowing. And I think that's also partly what helps me as a writer.
I remember when I was in high school, and my brother, who was a year older, was very self-conscious and very analytic. He started to go to therapy, and he was having relationship trouble. He would get home and would talk to me at length, and I was his sort of surrogate, accidental little-brother therapist. I was listening to a level of relationship analysis that I actually had never been exposed to, that I hadn't fathomed could even exist.
I remember having a sort of reactionary reaction about therapy in general, the idea of working your way towards insight and therefore feeling better. I guess the adage would be recognition is recovery, with some kind of talking cure.
I had a long, sort of completely gone now, struggle against the idea that if you were smarter about something or more perceptive or more insightful that it would even matter. I suppose it's a way of toying with the notion that insight, wisdom, however interesting it is in some important emotional way, is still a kind of impedance.
Jill: There's so much earth and underground imagery in the book. Obviously, there's actual physical underground stuff, but then there's burial imagery and digging metaphors throughout the book. What interested you specifically about that imagery?
Marcus: I guess I just really want to be buried alive. I mean who doesn't, right? [Laughter] It's everybody's dream to be buried alive.
I seem to look for organic, tactile elements in what I'm writing, maybe partly to counteract what I regard as my massive Achilles heel. My Achilles leg. [Laughter] I'm essentially trafficking in a lot of conceptual abstract material. And I'm constantly checking myself and trying to get right down in the earth and down on the body and make sure it feels physical and biological. I think in so doing, some of that stuff just becomes really talismanic to me, and really resonant and really interesting.
But I also have to admit I'm just not sure why that happens. I really am not. I do it, and I kind of love doing it. It freaks me out a little.I find it a little creepy. And when I find something creepy, for better or worse, I try to make it creepier. That's maybe a very rough and imprecise way to talk about it, because people tend to think of different things when they think of creepy. So, I guess more specifically it's about something unsettling, unnerving, that makes me a little uncomfortable, a little confused, but also a little excited.
I think a lot of times I'm just writing to make myself feel that way, and I find it very hard to do. Most of the time it comes out silly, light, inconsequential. In fact, inconsequential writing is what I more or less produce every day, and I throw it away because it's inconsequential.
So, in this case, I put these characters in a forest synagogue. They're listening to their rabbi through a radio that's connected to an underground antenna. Then suddenly there are more synagogues, and they're connected by tunnels... I think I'm looking to escalate the situation all the time. The situation is bad, but maybe it could be worse. Or maybe it isn't what you think, but it reverses. These things just start to grow; it's world-making. And for whatever reason there was a lot of earth, and holes, and that kind of thing in this book.
Jill: That's interesting that you say that, because the book is about language to a great extent, which is an abstract thing. But the book has this sort of gross corporeality to it. There's so much about the characters' physical bodies, and it was so well written, that some of the ailments they were suffering almost made me physically ill while I was reading it. I thought, he's making the book come true. [Laughter]
Marcus: That's so funny. I keep hearing that. I think you said that in kind of a nice way, but I was just poking around where I shouldn't have been poking online, and I found that someone said the book made them feel sick. Oh, great. [Laughter] That's interesting and I think it's funny because I did, believe it or not, cut a lot of the physical decline stuff out. But clearly there's a lot still in there.
Jill: I don't think that's a bad thing.
Marcus: Yes. I wanted it to feel vivid. I'm not sure if the book would have been better if it felt more removed. I'm always worried that what I'm writing will feel removed or remote or abstract. I feel like I've played around with a lot of abstract work. But the goal, even with my first book, was making it feel very intimate and very close.
I hadn't written such an explicitly narrative book before this one, and sometimes I did find that my lens was really close. Do you know what I mean? I was writing a scene from a super, super close perspective. I felt like I learned a lot while writing this book.
And I really should have then written it again when I was done, because there were a lot of ways of writing I honestly just hadn't tried before. Maybe I should have practiced them first. But I found that I was writing at a pretty visceral level a lot. Now I find myself interested in modulation, and in some more recent short stories I'm wondering a little bit about zooming in and pulling back.
It's funny. I still feel like I'm learning how to write. It's fun to learn a new technique, but then it only makes you realize all this shit you don't know how to do yet.
Jill: As you were saying earlier, you felt like you were possibly drawing from actual theology. I did have trouble telling occasionally what was real and what was not. Smallwork was one of those things. Is that a real concept?
Jill: It seems like it should be.
Marcus: It is now, right?
Marcus: I had written something before this book that never went anywhere, and it was a lot of smallwork. It was a guy getting up to some pretty nefarious stuff, though he didn't really know what it was at first. So, in some sense, it was a little bit of a vestige of that that showed up in this new book.
But now I find myself more interested in it, and think I might write about it again. There's something called closework, which is sort of an espionage term, I think, of an agent working really closely undercover or on some kind of case, but I hadn't heard of smallwork before.
Jill: Samuel's daughter, Esther, would be seen very differently as a character in another book, or in another context. She'd be more of a typical teenager, but she becomes so sinister in this book. I was wondering how you thought about her character?
Marcus: It's an interesting question. I feel fondly towards her (which is absurd because she doesn't exist). I got interested in the idea that she was very typical, and in some strange way she was just as assaultive before she was literally assaultive. There are some short flashbacks in the book of earlier times when she's quite direct and cutting with her parents.
I love writing father-kid stuff, parent-kid stuff. I love domestic intensity. I found that in this book it seemed like it was all coated in an extra kind of horrible goo because of the larger context. I like the little flashback scene where they go have a picnic and try to get her to play with the other kids, and she comes out with this argument against ever playing with anyone, ever. [Laughter]
Jill: I love her logic there.
Marcus: It's hard to really disagree with her.
I'm hoping that there's something sympathetic to her, that she's not simply seen as some kind of feral beast. But she is unpleasant. There's a scene I wish I had done a little better, towards the end of part one, when Samuel comes back from the Jew hole and finds Esther crouching over her mom, attacking her with speech.
I was looking to have a little reversal there, where Esther suddenly seemed vulnerable and wanting to be loved. But it seemed like the scene got away from me a little bit. There's so much that kind of got churned up there, but I'm not quite sure how much I got. I like the idea that she can be menacing on one page and then completely vulnerable on another — or I like the idea of trying to reconcile that. I don't know how much of that is there in the book. But I hope it is, at least a little.
Jill: I think it is, and I think it's there in that scene that you're talking about. She does move so quickly from being menacing to almost being horrified by what she's done and protective of her parents. I definitely think she has sympathetic moments.
Marcus: But you're right that in some sense she could be an archetypal teen in another book. I think that's true.
Jill: Going back to that picnic scene you were just talking about, I think that the sentence "What was it they'd found? A bucket of fresh, oiled genitals?" is my favorite sentence that I've read in a long time. [Laughter]
Marcus: Thank you. It's kind of a red herring, isn't it?
Jill: In a Harper's interview, you said that you spent much more time on the language during the rewrites for this book instead of in the first draft. How did that change how you thought about your prose?
Marcus: Up until this book, I wrote in a very, very laborious way. Maybe 100, 200 words a day, not that I ever counted. I was interested in the sentence as a work of art, as a piece of sculpture, as something that was a kind of technology to open up huge feelings in people. I still love and believe in that as a pursuit. Some of my favorite writers do that.
But I think maybe I felt disgusted with all of my own limitations and wanted to try to outsmart them, or sneak around the kinds of things I had been doing to exhaustion and to boredom. So, one of the big things I could change without changing anything — meaning an adjustment I could make that would not necessarily impact my actual aesthetic in anyway — was to write quickly and not necessarily give a shit if I wrote really functional, almost deliberately bland, language. Like, "Denny got up out of his chair and left the room," or, "He got a cup out of the cupboard." These were the kinds of things that in the past I would just fucking agonize over. I would think that you can't use functional language; that's not the job of literature. You have to slap language on that's going to completely refresh the images.
I found that if I suddenly didn't do that I was still me, and I'm still writing the same subject matter, but I could do different things. One of them was I could move much, much faster and find possibilities in a scene that in the past weren't available to me because I was just going in circles.
So that if I kept the clock ticking, and I marched through time, and I changed the day and I changed the week and I changed the month, I found that I was more pressured to make things change. And I really love change. I think it's what defines narrative.
At first it was a little hard to write these bland sentences, but I kind of enjoyed how odd it felt. It made me felt very naked and weird and inferior, like I was somehow shirking a big responsibility. But at the same time that was exciting.
Jill: That goes along with what you were talking about earlier, about wanting to make things more creepy or more uncomfortable.
Marcus: That's a good point. So, for good portions of the book, really for the whole first draft, I would have word-count goals. And another thing that I found hugely helpful was something my wife, Heidi [Julavits], who is also a writer, told me. I was talking to her about my work at one point, and I said, "Yeah, I didn't even get to where I am because I was rereading all day." She said, "Oh, God, you reread?" Then she said, "Why don't you just literally mark where you are at the end of the document and when you turn it on in the morning just pick up from there? Read the last sentence, but then just pick up." So, that's what I did for more or less the whole book. I would not reread very much.
Every few months I would stop and read the whole thing. But what was liberating about that is that I found I would gain an extra three hours in the workday because I would just charge off and hope it was connected, and I found actually it was. It always was. It wasn't like I suddenly forgot the story.
But I used to reread compulsively, and I'm sure I will again depending on the project, because I think I was superstitious that it would help me inhabit the texture and the tone of the language, that if I reread and reread and reread that I would ingest the magic powder that would allow me to produce one more good sentence that day. It was fucking nuts. So, I didn't do that in this case.
Jill: One other thing you said in the Harper's piece was,
If language is poisonous in The Flame Alphabet, maybe in our world it is not poisonous enough. Or maybe it is not so easy to weaponize, and that's part of what one tries to do with fiction. It's difficult to arm a narrative with agents of derangement, something so vital it gets in our blood, like a drug. But I like trying.
Can you talk a bit about that quote?
Marcus: Well, it's not new to say that all around us, language gets debased. Some people make art with it, right? But mostly we buy food with it, or have fights with it, or insult each other with it. We use it in all these very common ways that are necessary.
But if you're a painter, it's not like you walk around and everybody is drawing little doodles to each other and constantly communicating through these little bullshit doodles. For the most part, your craft is for you. Now I'm sure painters would disagree, and that they feel visuals have been spoiled by pop culture. But I would thus say it's been less spoiled. [Laughter] But on the other hand, that's what's special about language is everybody uses it. And then here comes literary language, which is so different.
I think that, to me, ever since I was a kid language has been insanely powerful. The saying, "Sticks and stones may break my bones and names could never hurt me," was never true for me. I remember hearing that and thinking, Well, that's just bullshit. Because when I got teased it physically hurt. In some sense writing for me is about using language that does have that effect. Writers I love do that, too. I don't think it's some unusual approach.
So, it's not about critiquing the banal use of language, because I'm happily a full-on banal-language user. I use it banally all the time in my life. But for better or worse, it's the medium that I use to give myself the most intense feelings or try to give those to others. I just think it's an incredible technology. I think it can unlock huge amazing spaces inside people. So, that's the idea I guess of weaponizing.
Some of this is a little bit grand to talk about, weaponizing it and all that. Somebody recently asked me, "What do you mean by weaponizing?" I realize that it's a bit of a highfalutin metaphor, but it's nice to be reminded of the power of language, and I love reading writers who do that for me.
Books mentioned in this post