Tag Archives: Ben Marcus

The Flame Alphabet & Mourning Diary

18 Jul

I recently finished “The Flame Alphabet” by Ben Marcus. A well written dystopian novel that was hard to finish due to the abundantly putrid descriptions of faces drying up, black junk in people’s mouths, and such. I love the idea of the novel however, about language and text becoming toxic, and killing people. Because it is! Expect for the killing people part… language is so overrated. In particular it is children that are toxic in this story. And integral to the story in a way I don’t understand, are a lot of strange Jewish practices and bizarre religious behaviors. As far as I can tell, Marcus isn’t describing any true Jewish religious practices but rather, a new construction, one that is secret and revolves around orange cables and huts in the forest. I have no qualms about putting down a book if I don’t like it, but I wanted to finish this one, it felt worth it and it was, despite the appalling scenes or, perhaps because of them? I haven’t read anything quite this gross before, although “Blood Meridian” comes to mind. I’m trying to think of something more intelligent and literary to say now, but there’s nothing coming.

Here are some passages: “Spreading messages dilutes them. Even understanding them is a compromise. the language kills itself, expires inside its host. Language acts as an acid over its message. If you no longer care about an idea or feeling, then put it into language. That will certainly be the last of it, a fitting end. Language is another name for coffin.” (“If you no longer care about an idea or feeling, then put it into language” ! How magically cynical is that?? I love it.)

“One’s faith was meant to yield actionable material at times like this, I always thought, when nothing seemed possible. Wasn’t this why we accommodated an otherwise highly irrational set of beliefs?”

“A list of speech rules filled the inside cover. A caution to ration one’s I statements, suppress reference to oneself, closing off a small arsenal of the language. The various speech quotas scientists were proposing now, even if they didn’t believe it would matter. Grammatical amputations. A list of rules so knotted that to follow them would be to say nearly nothing, to never render one’s interior life, to eschew abstraction and discharge a grammar that merely positioned nouns in descending orders of desire.”

“Those were quiet nights. Claire and I took breaks outside, bathing our faces in the cold November air. Our neighborhood was chilled and flat and all green growth was gone. I loved it so stripped down and frozen. There was something sculpted to the shapes, as though our streets had been carved from ice, colored with pale dyes squirted from a dropper. I loved the frost on the cars at night and the steam that flowered in marble-smooth shapes from the yards, like perfect gray ghosts made of balloon material. To be outside without our coats in such cold raw air was exquisite. Sometimes puffs of breath rose from a porch down the street and we heard the muted voices of our last neighbors. But usually no one was out, and if there were light it was the blue glow of the streetlamps. These lamps only sharpened the darkness, radiating a pure blue smolder that made the night feel stronger. A final absence of light that would take hours of sunshine to boil off.”

“The man returned the same sort of smile professionals are trained to give no matter what you’ve said. I could have threatened his life, my own. I could have asked for the bathroom. I’d get the same lunatic smile.”

“But my ignorance did not slow my mind from its suspicions, and these held a vivid persuasion of their own.”

“I’ve lived these winters before, speechless, waiting. They bring one too close to the doings of one’s own mind, some which–I finally believe this–must remain unheard, must have their meaning amputated until they’re reduced to babble. A careful listener to such interior speech is not rewarded.  These winters fail to blot the mind, and what now could the mind even be for, since its fears and lies cannot be shared? Often I have wished that the toxicity, when it came, had reached deeper, into the unspoken speech we stalk and hound ourselves with.”

*

I also finished “Mourning Diary” recently which is Roland Barthes notations on suffering after the death of his mother. My husband picked this up for me at the library. It’s the first time he’s done that, and I looked at it and thought, “this sounds depressing”, but the gesture was so sweet, and I thought, why not read it? So I did. Barthes wrote short notes on cards for about 2 years after his mother passed away. I was struck by how close he was to his mother, she seemed like a lover almost, the way he talked about her, although I doubt this was the case. I was also struck by how much he talked about worrying that he was not suffering enough…

We’re getting into a Barthes kick over here and have his books all over the shelf, so there will be more updates on the man and his writing. Here’s a good article on Mourning Diary.

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