by Sarah Smarsh ’05SOA
The Flame Alphabet
By Ben Marcus
Knopf, 304 pages, $25.95
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Stories are dangerous, Murphy warns. “Because they happened long before we were born,” he sneers at Sam, “we somehow decide they are extraordinarily important and we shut our brains down, we turn into imbeciles, we let the past start thinking for us. That’s sickness.” Adapting, it seems, will require letting go of narratives — ideas, even — and becoming whatever exists without them. Mental energy is precisely the wrong treatment for a problem rooted in thinking; it’s no coincidence that smart people are the first ones to see their faces shrink and pucker.

When the underground radio signals cease, Sam is left with himself, and millennia of hackneyed human notions are suddenly silent. “I was alone out there, and any channel of insight would have to be one I manufactured myself.” This struggle against cliché, which recalls Ben Lerner’s 2011 fictional portrait of a young writer, Leaving the Atocha Station, permeates the story and the narrator’s telling of it, and this question of expression is as fascinating as the plot.

Along the way, discomfiting imagery — a child tapping menacingly on a car window, urine the consistency of pudding, salt crammed into mouths in accordance with an ancient remedy — keeps one from lingering too long on any given page. Some of the most disturbing scenes occur after Sam’s hypotheses land him a research gig in the laboratory complex of some mysterious authority. Amid horrors, he must wonder: for whom am I working? For whom is language working? Sam’s tale is one of a man who tries and hopes, but his tone is defeatist and sarcastic. (Marcus has reported laughter at some readings, but The Flame Alphabet is most definitely not a comedy.) Sam acknowledges his scientific failures, sometimes shifting into the second person to address the unknown reader. Fine, he asserts for much of the novel, I don’t need to communicate; I only need my family to be reunited. “My shame would be safely contained inside what was left of me. Barring some miracle, I’d never be able to tell this story. It could die with me.” But he did tell that story, of course, through hundreds of pages of prose — the one irony that seems to escape this self-aware character.

Whether he speaks or doesn’t speak, in some way he dies. It’s scriptural Esther’s conundrum: does one stay quiet against impulse, or to follow that impulse without regret?

Sarah Smarsh ’05SOA is an assistant professor of English at Washburn University, in Topeka, Kansas, where she teaches nonfiction writing. She compiled and edited the 2011 essay collection and art catalog A Waiting Room of One’s Own, and has written for the Huffington Post and Village Voice Media.

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