Joshua Nomen-Mutatio's Reviews > The Flame Alphabet

The Flame Alphabet by Ben Marcus
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's review
Dec 06, 2011

it was amazing
bookshelves: fiction, dystopic
Read from January 23 to 25, 2012 — I own a copy

This is undoubtedly the magnum opus of the three books Ben Marcus has released through the porous borders between the self and the world. The Age of Wire and String (1995) left me baffled and pretty impressed by its unique indexical acrobatics and budding vision of where to take the avant garde programme. Notable American Women (2002) detonated in my brain and dazzled me senseless with its maturing grip on how to show and not tell, and transfigured the form of the metafictional autobiography with both dynamite and surgical incisions. The Flame Alphabet (2012) ascends to magisterial heights, melding the mindfuck detailings that he'd previously coerced into a second nature with a form of storytelling as ancient as the first primordial grunts of mythology. It embeds a staggering amount of content concerning The Human Experience in its deceivingly spare frame (289 pages) and plotline, and does this through deftly swept-together piles of kindling for potential blazes of deep thought rather than direct philosophizing. Characters almost never pontificate and the narrative point of view is more about struggling against the ravages of disease than uncovering and tying together the essential natures of big ideas and difficult questions. It's as deep as you want it to be. And all this flows through the plot's main artery: Language is literally a virus that can strangle and bludgeon and infect the deepest reaches of human biology with horrific decay and there are various ways different factions of people try to remedy (or not) the problem. In the beginning, only the children wreak this havoc upon the adults and this set-up alone is remarkably nerve-shattering to follow. From there, things get decidely more dark and strange beyond all strained reaches of language—to say the least.

An Anxious Inquisition

I may've just been having a random explosion of anxiety, which wouldn't be totally uncharacteristic, or maybe I just had to pee or needed to put on a sweater or turn up the heat, or some combination of these and many other possible culprits of causality, but there were times during my navigation of the masterful slowburn of suspense and transcendently eerie foreshadowing that made my heart race and my palms fall atremble and clammy with cold sweat—which rather uncoincidentally brought to mind the whole central idea about language having direct effects on human physiology. Urgency and Yearning and Seeking are so tightly and expertly threaded through this from open to close—manifesting a finely-tuned dread married to a wide-eyed, page-flipping curiosity. This is a book that'll make terrified but forward-marching explorers of many who engage it.

A Few Words on the Words: Sastrean Cerebral Materialism
"Words are memes that can be pronounced."
—Daniel C. Dennett

My wiser elder brother from another mother—Chris Sastre—was kind enough to look over some infant-stage writing of mine and one of his points caused me to try to further form words for what exactly it is I'm trying to do or am doing when writing in a certain style that seems to flow unconsciously (sometimes against better instincts) from my head to the screen; a style and tone which he whittled down to the words cerebral materialism.
CS: There's a cerebral materialism to your stories that keeps me at a chilly distance upon first exposure—but they invariably warm and reward the more with each subsequent go through.

JN-M: Part of the 'cerebral materialism' is that I like breaking things down, through slow motion, zooming in on them, etc, because it gives me a deep warmth of greater understanding, I guess. Basically, I'm compelled to do this when I try to write. Same goes for the clinical or baroque or purple language. I think the point isn't to alienate or show off, it's to cast things in a different light than normally seen, because it's novel and because it's oftentimes funny, and because it makes me rethink things in a way that gives them more gravitas. It's the whole idea of 'making the strange appear familiar and making the familiar appear strange' that I think has some real emotional-intellectual value and that's the whole point of sometimes casting things clinically or purple-y or whatever.

I feel that this snippet of an exchange partially gets at the effect of the tone and style that Marcus pulls off so flabbergastingly well, and has more or less molded into perfection in this most recent effort. In other words, I found it inspiring to see someone doing something I struggle and aspire to do, giving me some sense of hope that it can be pulled off and not merely be an alienating or derivative disaster, as I often self-loathingly worry about when I make my little unhoned fictional fragments of late. It made my attempts look weak and sloppy (as they very well should, considering the lack of time and effort and the brand-newness of the whole enterprise) but in a tough love kind of way that I'm a big enough boy to be able to appreciate. Thank you sir, may I have another?

As I gazed into the gorgeous abyss of turning pages, Sastre's incisive comment about cerebral materialism gazed back at me, over and over again, each time I found myself stunned by the impressively economical and varied sentences, the elegant precision and the soothing hum of the tuning fork Marcus dings summarily upon every page. To breathe one more breath of symbols at describing the nature of this cerebral materialism: It has the effect of making the normal way we're usually unknowingly immersed in language and perception seem more comforting and appreciated by contrast, like jumping from ice cold lake water into a hot bath--the shivers of the insightful estrangment melting into a newfound sedated bliss of the familiar. Rinse, repeat.

Unfolding Themes

This is the kind of book that is, in a counterintuitive way, about Everything. Not in the way that the gigantic, 1000+ page, information-dense postmodern classics are about Everything, but in, again, that show-not-tell way that Creative Writing 101 courses preach about with regards to scenic descriptions and character traits—but The Flame Alphabet does this with underlying themes and in an ingenious way.
"Speech is civilization itself. The word, even the most contradictory word, preserves contact—it is silence which isolates." —Thomas Mann

This seems to all flower out from the fact that its central and most explicit theme is language itself and language is more all-encompassing than tends to meet the casually observant eye. Once this organizing principle was latched onto it made it hard not to be jolted by nearly every other sentence; instantaneously, vast networks upon the map of Human Experience lit up before me: The struggles and triumphs of striving to communicate exactly what we mean and how we feel to others, or even to ourselves within our own language-saturated inner monologues; the evolution of human beliefs and knowledge through religion and science; certitude v. uncertitude; the relentless mystery of consciousness; the building up and breaking down of social bonds—from the family unit to the whole of global civilization; the ills of dogmatic authoritarianism however well-intentioned; the dangers in having too much available information or not enough.

Despite all these grand, sweeping things being blared through my current mania and ecstatic praise, it should be pointed out again that this is not a book of brittle intellectual curiosities, instead it is one that plunges deep into the heart of the most central human concerns with a highly focused and sharpened plot. It is not meandering in any way shape or form. Every letter and punctuation mark feels essential and carefully plotted. It is not a philosophical wankfest at all; the author strategically creates space where such wankery is possible and the subtext brilliantly juggles the big important themes, but the story is still very much a story, packed with suspense and drama as good as any. Even in its perpetual Lynchian strangeness and White Noise-like familial dynamics, we can see our own experiences of being alive, which is basically the point of fiction and art generally, if forced to comment on that ol' "X is all about Y" scenario.

Solitary Confinement
"Dr. Lester: I've been very lonely in my isolated tower of indecipherable speech."
—Charlie Kaufman

There's an interesting fact to consider about prison. Even in the relative hell of such a place, solitary confinement is used as a punishment. Human beings are rather reliably shown to react in a less than mentally healthy way when isolated from other people for extended periods of time. There's an analogous phenomenon to be seen in the individual human mind itself; it is by its very nature a place of isolation, because despite all attempts to bridge the chasm between itself and others it ultimately cannot be shared, only approximations can be given as to its contents through two basic means—language and non-linguistic behavior. This troubles people who think too much and makes for great film premises (e.g. Being John Malkovich) but it also has broader effects. Everyone knows what it's like to feel misunderstood, whether it be through a casual conversation, a work of art, a book review, or whatever. And most people also know what it's like to feel lonely, whether through actual social isolation or a more complicated kind of loneliness usually found through mental health problems like clinical depression, in which the sense of loneliness only increases as more people gather 'round.

The fixation on language in The Flame Alphabet carries itself into a concern with these issues as well. There's a kind of palpable ache to be felt here in the yearning to connect with others as seriously and fully as possible. I've had the image cross my mind before—when feeling this combinaton of frustration and longing—of wanting to bash my skull into anothers and let our brains comingle, finally achieving a full, glorious, mutual understanding. Of course this is grotesque, but as a symbol it gets me one step closer to accurately attaching a series of words to a powerful feeling. So while our minds are inherently private things there are still degrees of feeling isolated and connected to be sought out and experienced; it's not an all or nothing situation. The most isolated end of the spectrum can actually drive people to true madness, while our strongest feelings of connection, however imperfect, are the most important and healing things in our lives. The Flame Alphabet brought all of this into a new focus, with a new heft, and all—counterintuitively, again—through its dark chambers of incredibly inventive narrative, largely drained of sentimentality and optimism. To quote a line that struck me as a teenager while watching Chris Nolan's debut flick, a little indie/arthouse effort called Following"You take it away, and show them what they had."

A View From The Beginning of The End of The World

So it's 2012, the Year of Our Lord Conspiracy Theory. Fuck the Mayan calander bullshit—humanity is more than capable of carelessly dethroning itself into oblivion or being consumed by natural forces beyond our defenses and this has nothing to do with an old collection of arbitrary dates written by people who would be stunned by technology such as the butterchurn or the printing press. But more importantly, who needs boring and wackadoo "theories" when our planet has been graced with two infinitely superior and mesmerizing apocalyptic-minded tales at the front end of the year: Ryan Boudinot's Blueprints of the Afterlife and The Flame Alphabet by Ben Marcus. Both are extremely unique in their own right but are bonded in their profoundly effective explorations of humanity's capacity for self-annihilation. Flame is an inexorable crescendo of dread and entropy, a merciless savaging of the human experiment, whereas Boudinot gives one room to breath while contemplating the prospect of humanity's final wave goodbye. Both are jaw-droppingly great books to kick off yet another year that end times prophets have marked as our last. If it must be so, at least we got some good reading in beforehand.
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Quotes Joshua Nomen-Mutatio Liked

Ben Marcus
“Without sound, celebration and grief look nearly the same.”
Ben Marcus, The Flame Alphabet

Ben Marcus
“To refrain from storytelling is perhaps one of the highest forms of respect we can pay. Those people, with no stories to circle them, can die without being misunderstood.”
Ben Marcus, The Flame Alphabet

Reading Progress

01/23/2012 "I love the cover even more now that it's right in front of me." 4 comments
01/24/2012 page 139
46.0% "Words trying to describe how good this is are a mockery."
02/13/2016 marked as: read

Comments (showing 1-50 of 133) (133 new)

message 1: by karen (new)

karen hmmm. after reading this, i am still unsure whether i would like it...

Joshua Nomen-Mutatio Yeah. It's hard to say. I could see you liking parts of it for sure. I don't really describe much of the actual content at all. Almost none. I just let myself ramble about my feeeeeeeeeeeelings.

message 3: by karen (new)

karen i will probably have different feelings. but right now i am reading melville. seamen!!!


i am so stupid.

Joshua Nomen-Mutatio But you know me, I take practically every book and give it a 'deep and serious' spin. I can't help it. Plus, it keeps me distracted from making spoilers.


Drew This is a pretty ringing endorsement. I've only read Wire and String and was definitely more baffled than impressed. This has convinced me I should probably at least try Notable American Women if I can find it...

Nate D whoa. I'm not gonna read this all until I get to submerge my brain directly in the book, but I'm totally sold already!

Joshua Nomen-Mutatio It's pretty amazing. I hope you agree.

Joshua Nomen-Mutatio Thanks, Shan. It was worth my brain almost exploding to get it out. I had so many quotations written down while reading and one review-idea after another kept springing up. It was a task to rein it all in and just settle on one of many versions of reviews. This is how reviewing my favorite books always is though.

message 9: by j (new) - added it

j my mom bought this the other day. i predict she will not like it. more pretty hardcovers for me!

Joshua Nomen-Mutatio It's pretty bleak. I'm guessing your mom is not into bleakness. It's got inventive elements that I would maybe characterize as sci-fi, if that sweetens the deal for you at all.

message 11: by j (new) - added it

j well i will be reading it either way. i just have to wait for her to "finish" and then remove the bookmark from 39 pages in.

Joshua Nomen-Mutatio Ha! Cool. I'm definitely interested to see what other people have to say about this one.

Joshua Nomen-Mutatio These three sentences are basically all I really wanted to say in my review:

message 14: by s.penkevich (new) - added it

s.penkevich How have I never heard of this until this week? Your the second GR friend to read it this week and I feel like I'll have to be a third sometime soon. This book sounds incredible. Great review.

Joshua Nomen-Mutatio It just came out a week ago, but I'd caught wind of it earlier so was ready for it.

Thanks for reading my take. I look forward to yours.

message 16: by j (new) - added it

j i saw the cover on the cover designer's blog with a note that it was an amazing book. it is definitely an amazing cover.

Joshua Nomen-Mutatio Shan wrote: "The last few pages cracked open my fragile beating bleeder. I sat in silence for roughly an hour, chain smoking. Then I made a long-distance call to my family."

That's an entirely appropriate response. See, we survived the book, still human after all.

message 18: by s.penkevich (new) - added it

s.penkevich Shan wrote: "The last few pages cracked open my fragile beating bleeder. I sat in silence for roughly an hour, chain smoking. Then I made a long-distance call to my family."

That is a high sell for a novel.

message 19: by David (new)

David I am home--on my Apple--and can now vote. And vote I just did.

Writing about literature in the Wall Street Journal? Oh, the humanity...

I will get to this book. Eventually.

Joshua Nomen-Mutatio David wrote: "Writing about literature in the Wall Street Journal? Oh, the humanity..."

Yeah, I thought that was odd too. Still a nice little piece, even though the basic idea is pretty common (yet not always followed or followed well) wisdom among writers.

Thanks for the read/click!

Joshua Nomen-Mutatio Alright, screw modesty -- I gotta brag about this:

message 22: by David (new)

David Wait a minute.

First off, how long did you spend creating a Ben Marcus Facebook account?

Secondly, when did FB add this 'I dislike this' feature? I haven't seen it yet...

message 23: by David (new)

David You better hurry up and like his comment or his feelings will be hurt.

message 24: by Joshua Nomen-Mutatio (last edited Jan 25, 2012 02:35PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Joshua Nomen-Mutatio I 'liked' it and thanked him. I was in a rush to take the screen shot in case he changed his mind and deleted it.

(And shhhh, David. Only you know the pathetic lengths I will go to feel good about myself. I thought that was our little secret?)

Krok Zero I'm gonna hold off reading this review until the book has been read by me, but I think you just singlehandedly justified the existence of Facebook.

message 26: by Stephen M (new)

Stephen M As always, great review.

I wish Ben Marcus' article was much much longer. He could of expanded a whole lot on the huge idea that a lot of amateur writers (myself included) don't get. There's a lot to be said about it because once we fully accept the "show don't tell" maxim, there's more work to be done as far as the perfect balance between the two. There have been several pieces of writing that don't offer any way into it's work because it has gravitated towards the "show" realm too much. On the one hand, the reader needs some way into the text, but the question is, where and how much does the author give or not give to the reader.

message 27: by Joshua Nomen-Mutatio (last edited Jan 25, 2012 05:40PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Joshua Nomen-Mutatio Krok Zero wrote: "I think you just singlehandedly justified the existence of Facebook."

That's how I feel, too.

For the record, this review is 100% spoiler-free. I'm talkin' clean as a whistle.

And: Hell yeah, motherfucker. You're gonna love this.

Joshua Nomen-Mutatio Stephen M wrote: "As always, great review.

I wish Ben Marcus' article was much much longer. He could of expanded a whole lot on the huge idea that a lot of amateur writers (myself included) don't get. There's a lo..."

He actually mentioned (via fb) that he had like 5,000 words left that he could've used on that article, but for whatever reason kept it real short and sweet.

I agree with your points, though, and think he could've gone into more detail. Maybe he figured 'Fuck it, it's the Wall Street Journal anyway.'

And thanks for reading, Stephen.

Manny Okay, you sold me. Does sound like my kind of thing!

Joshua Nomen-Mutatio I know linguistics is your thing and it's the most horrifying linguistics course there is.

message 31: by Manny (last edited Jan 25, 2012 11:55PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Manny That was my thought.

By the way, if you like novels about everything, have you got around to reading the Jan Kjærstad trilogy yet?

Joshua Nomen-Mutatio No, but it's been on the ever-growing list.

message 33: by Joshua Nomen-Mutatio (last edited Jan 26, 2012 12:10AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Joshua Nomen-Mutatio His previous effort (Notable American Women) is also very linguistically concerned; not quite like this, but many of the same ideas and fixations on language are present.

Krok Zero Nabbed a library copy tonight. Several chapters in. Already trying to to clean up the debris of my exploded brain.

Joshua Nomen-Mutatio Fuck yeah. I've been re-reading bits and pieces tonight. I rarely do that right after finishing a book. Really glad to hear that you got it.

message 36: by Krok Zero (last edited Jan 26, 2012 12:24AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Krok Zero karen wrote: "hmmm. after reading this, i am still unsure whether i would like it..."

I'm only 30 pages in, but I think you would certainly like it, karen. The tone is pretty similar to Zone One -- gorgeous, melancholy reflections on an apocalyptic catastrophe -- though I personally think Marcus is operating on a higher level than Whitehead. The previous Marcus stuff isn't for everyone (though I love it) but this one, so far at least, should appeal to anyone with a brain.

Joshua Nomen-Mutatio I kept thinking of one of your progress updates for The Instructions while reading this.

"Shit just got real."

Joshua Nomen-Mutatio Krok Zero wrote: "The previous Marcus stuff isn't for everyone (though I love it) but this one, so far at least, should appeal to anyone with a brain."


message 39: by karen (new)

karen i have a brain!

i mean, some would argue that, but just cuz i don't flaunt it don't mean it ain't there. reckon.

message 40: by David (new)

David karen wrote: "i have a brain!

i mean, some would argue that, but just cuz i don't flaunt it don't mean it ain't there. reckon."

No doubt. It takes brains to mastermind Operation Bold Face. Too much flotation and voting fingers begin to tire. Ennui sets in. Too little flotation and the world forgets you, like you're just another flash-in-the-pan Book Huntress.

It takes brains to find that sweet spot.

message 41: by karen (new)

karen i didn't realize i was the mastermind! i didn't even get to name it! nor did i realize it was a movement! are there members? (heh) will we mobilize!

i fear the operation will be unsuccessful. there is too much tomfoolery to fight against.

Joshua Nomen-Mutatio Just read this book, brainy.

message 43: by karen (new)

karen i willlll.

i will borrow it from work next week. i promise. and if it is great, i will buy it with money.

message 44: by j (new) - added it

j karen wrote: "i didn't realize i was the mastermind! i didn't even get to name it! nor did i realize it was a movement! are there members? (heh) will we mobilize!"

i didn't know it was a movement either, but i will be an agent or spy of some sort.

good name. i give it 6.0 stars (my highest possible recommendation!).

message 45: by MJ (last edited Jan 26, 2012 01:33PM) (new) - added it

MJ Nicholls The problem with your reviews is they're so damn convincing, they make me want to share in your intellectual niche tastes and experience the same gushing splendour demonstrated in the reviews and the subsequent ninety comments. But likewise my hype-denial receptors soon kick in, making it physically impossible to share your enthusiasm on a gut level. A dilemma! Ben Marcus is OK, I read his first collection.

Joshua Nomen-Mutatio That does sound like a problem.

This is the Ben Marcus book for people who don't necessarily like or maybe even hate Ben Marcus. At least that's how I see it. Krok seems to share the same sentiment as a fellow fan. I see a steady progression from each novel to the next that can basically be described as him becoming more "accessible" but also without sacrificing the best surreal/experimental qualities.

message 47: by MJ (new) - added it

MJ Nicholls I think the hypemachine around Wire & String put me off, but it was certainly unique and surreal. Seeing he only brings out a new book every seven years it probably won't hurt to read another.

Joshua Nomen-Mutatio Yeah, hypemachine... I've noticed you reviewing a lot of Dostoevsky lately. Seems to me that he's got his own sizable hypemachine behind him, too.

But I understand the backlash/contrarian instinct. I suffer from it as well. I hate it. It's really just an inversion of the instinct to glom on to hype and perceived popularity--they're both just mindless reflexes of unfair prejudgment, just pointed in different directions.

This is just a book I think you should fight against your instincts for.

Joshua Nomen-Mutatio Maybe just wait a few months for the hype to die down. It's at a fever pitch now because the book was just released.

I also just avoid most professional reviews in order to keep my reflexes in check, especially when a book is out that I'm interested in. I also just get tired of reading the same overviews and regurgitated attempts at cleverness from the big name reviewing outlets. Maybe I just hate critics and/or I'm jealous that they get paid to ejaculate all over my beloved things.

message 50: by MJ (new) - added it

MJ Nicholls No, I'm with you on that 100%. A writer like Ben Marcus is hardly fighting off adoring fans with a shovel. I just find it curious how certain books garner collective ecstasy from critics . . . do they have a meeting about these things? More likely they're all very experienced readers and can recognise distinctiveness when it pops up.

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