Book review: Marcus, Ben, “The Flame Alphabet.” Vintage Books, New York, 2012
Treasures or Terrors?
Is raising children the most fulfilling thing we can do? Or is it the biggest disappointment? Do we love our children like crazy every minute, or do we just hang on because we feel guilty? Are our families draining away our will to live?
Ben Marcus wrote a book in which the downside of families tips the scale down far enough to call it a horror novel. Or you could call it sci-fi, or maybe fantasy, or maybe just stream-of-consciousness rumination on how the American family, once the pillar of stability, is becoming a madhouse of anguish.
In some stereotypes, we hear mothers, sometimes with the backs of their fingers on their foreheads, tell their children, “You con’t know how you hurt me when you talk like that.” But in Marcus’ book, the words of children literally kill their parents. All language is toxic. Only children can bear to talk at all. Adults die from language. All communication is cut off and only hermits, and then only the hermits who never think out loud, have any future.
And yet, people still want to be with each other, and with their children, even though it is sure death. There is a whole book about this. It’s all agony. To me, even reading it was agony. Marcus lambaste’s the very idea of language, but he uses some of the best writing I’ve ever endured to criticize language. If everybody in the world he creates is suffering, he makes sure the reader feels it, too.
Art is art because we interact with it and it changes us. It doesn’t owe us any pleasantries. I recommend this book because I can confirm it’s art, but certainly not because it’s going to make anybody feel good.
As I endured my way through the pages of examination of contemporary family life, I also wondered how well it would fit with the changing nature of all things. After all, the United States was primarily an agricultural country until World War II. Families were different then.
I also wondered if Marcus’ view would fit even today with all classes of people. I think his view was primarily a middle-class view. Rich people probably don’t suffer such total ambiguity toward their children. They know how to groom their assets and minimize their liabilities. Many working families nowadays don’t even have time to raise their children, let alone anguish over them.
Nevertheless, Marcus’ book treats an important contemporary development in the way modern people survive. Read “The Flame Alphabet” at your peril, but read it anyway!