Friday, March 9, 2012

Ben Marcus and the Disease of Incomprehension

Nobody wants to admit that the thing they most love is the thing that will destroy them. But in Ben Marcus’ The Flame Alphabet, parents can no longer deny that their children’s speech is the source of the illness slowly stripping the life from their flesh. Samuel and Claire still love their daughter, Esther, even as her language pushes them to the brink of death. So perhaps the only way to survive together is to find a new and revolutionary communication.

Literary postmodernism has proven a tough sell for general audiences, partly because any definition of the concept inevitably turns circular. The principle starts with an agreement that gaps exist between sign and signified. Therefore all information is provisional, and individuals can never agree wholly on meaning. Concepts like linear narrative and clear action become transient. Reading becomes not an action but an immersive experience.

Ben Marcus explores the parameters of this concept by taking it to the next logical step: if understanding is optional, it’s also perilous. Particularly, the communication between the generations, between those who most need to hear each other, becomes a vector for serious illness and death. That which we most long for and depend on, our children’s voices, becomes a voyage in uncharted waters. Here there be dragons, indeed.

The result, as with all literary postmodernism, depends on the audience. When conventions of structure become impediments to experience, readers accustomed to being led by the hand will get lost. Marcus demands readers willing to fill in the gaps for themselves. In essence, we become his co-authors. Not everyone will appreciate this.

But it does lend an intimacy to the story. As Samuel, Marcus’ viewpoint protagonist, struggles to love the daughter who is killing him, we glimpse a level of introspection more conventional storytelling would deny us. Even this has its murky depths: the writing becomes so personal that we wonder if Samuel really is Marcus. And as Samuel both is and is not Marcus, he also both is and is not us.

Samuel perseveres in the face of illness, as his wife courts listless death. Their daughter takes apparent pleasure in the pain she causes, even using her words on strangers with malice. Esther’s complete inability to bond with her parents, and her lack of sympathy with others’ pain, suggests autism. (In an NPR interview, Marcus reveals he has kids, but no teenagers. With this level of intimacy, one wonders if he’s admitting a fear of the future.)

In tandem with the “speech fever,” Marcus also expounds a future vision of dark Judaism. The Jews are the first victims of this spoken illness, and speculation abounds that this may be a dark Hebrew conspiracy. The Jews are not helped by the fact that they no longer worship in the shul, but in grim solitary enclaves, secret not only from the world, but from each other. It’s an arrangement almost customized to breed anti-Semitic paranoia.

But as Samuel holds forth on his own Judaism, parallels develop. His descriptions of speech fever symptoms—blood-encrusted lips, listless shuffling gait, protruding ribs—sound eerily familiar. It feels like the sins of the past are revisited, turned outward, projected onto the world. But because we are yoked to Samuel’s viewpoint, intensely introspective but not well attuned to the outside world, we are left to draw our own conclusions.

And herein lies the problem most readers will have with this book. Marcus gives us no guidance whatsoever. Though he has a story, with action and character, he does not give us any signs of what we can trust. Is Samuel the author’s voicebox, or an unreliable narrator? Is the speech fever a legitimate fear, or a fervid speculation? We don’t know. Marcus leaves it all up to us.

Marcus seems to dare us to ask whether a book must make any sense. One of his characters, a dark, enigmatic rabbi, answers explicitly: no. Meaning comes not from the words we use, but from the interstitial ambiguities between the words. But in this, as in the rest of the work, Marcus keeps his hands off, letting us decide how much to believe. We have to tell his story for ourselves.

Many people unschooled in literary theory use the word “postmodern” as a synonym for “incomprehensible.” That’s not unfair, since postmodernism regards comprehension as an accident of form. But in publishing a book, presumably author and publisher think an audience exists. Presumably. If comprehension is optional, maybe the book is its own justification.

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