IN HIS 1967 ESSAY “The Death of the Author,” Roland Barthes announced the revolutionary overthrow of the writer by the reader. Building on the idea that “it is language which speaks, not the author,” Barthes argued that a ceaseless proliferation of meaning always piles around every sentence, always exceeding the intention of its particular “scriptor,” thus enthroning the reader as the ultimate arbiter of meaning. This newly empowered reader — a figure engaged in a “truly revolutionary” and “anti-theological activity” — was, Barthes thought, “that someone who holds together in a single field all the traces by which the written text is constituted.”
Forty-five years later, what may seem most revolutionary about Barthes’s essay is what it takes for granted: that there are readers at all for literary fiction, let alone that there’s a “someone” interested in doing the hard work of holding all these traces together inside her head. In an era where everyone has a novel waiting to come out, authors are legion; it’s the reader who seems, well, dead. If anything threatens to kill the author today, it’s not that the reader might interpret her work in subversive ways — if only we were so lucky! — but that the reader might not care enough to try in the first place. What to do in this situation has been the subject of what we might as well call a debate between Jonathan Franzen and Ben Marcus, waged for about a decade on the pages of The New Yorker, The New York Times, and Harper’s. It’s also the backdrop against which we must understand the successes and occasional fumbles of Marcus’s disturbing and remarkable new novel, The Flame Alphabet.
For, at first blush, The Flame Alphabet seems as if it’s perfectly pleased with the death of the reader, as if it hopes for nothing more than to murder those very few remaining who bother to buy books at all, throttling them with a suffusion of pus-covered words and sentences. The Flame Alphabet is a pointedly disgusting book that will tickle your gag reflex with its bony, sore-covered finger. Reading Marcus’s fetid prose will clog your nostrils, enflame your throat, jam your every orifice with a thick and soupy, cold and gloppy, not to mention barbed and burning, meal of unpalatable, oddly shaped sentences.
Jonathan Franzen might regard this as a problem.
And yet, if I properly understand the aims of The Flame Alphabet, my description should not count as an insult, but as deep praise. The Flame Alphabet deforms language in dazzling new ways, frequently surpassing Marcus’s previous books — The Age of Wire and String, The Father Costume, and Notable American Women — at the level of the sentence. Quite strangely, though, at the same time that Marcus expertly smothers the reader under a lovely barbed pillow, he whispers sweet compliments into his victim’s ear. That is, for all its gorgeous rankness, The Flame Alphabet is not quite as successful as it might be. In adopting the literary form of the post-apocalyptic thriller, a form emphasized by all of the novel’s packaging — from its blurbs to its book trailer — it concedes too much to Franzen. Better a clean death, I say. Better the dignity of silent asphyxiation.
Marcus begins his 2005 Harper’s essay, “Why Experimental Fiction Threatens to Destroy Publishing, Jonathan Franzen, and Life as We Know It: A Correction,” by noting that “it’s not politic to suggest that the brain is ever involved in reading … Mentions of the brain imply effort, and effort is the last thing we are supposed to request of a reader.” Defending “experimental writers with no sales, little review coverage, a small readership, and the collective cultural pull of an ant” from the derision Franzen has increasingly heaped upon them, Marcus takes great pain to emphasize that so-called experimentalists and realists might easily live side by side, each harmoniously plying his wares in the literary marketplace, since “there are pleasures and challenges to be had in both approaches.” No need “to get out the flamethrower.”
Despite these polite assurances, it’s not hard to discern what Marcus thinks of those potential readers whom Franzen hopes to court. They’re people who believe that “‘Contract’ … means only something you sign and honor, and not also what a muscle does when a body is tensed and afraid.” Circa 2005, Marcus’s binaries couldn’t be starker: Franzenites uphold the status quo, contract their muscles in fear when confronted with the slightest difficulty. Marcusians upend convention and fearlessly look into the abyss of innovative language.
What Marcus finds difficult isn’t William Gaddis’s prose, but rather reading “narratives … punched out from the same old factory templates.” Fiction produced from such templates are
bad for literature, and maybe that’s why literature is fighting for its very life, because compromise is mistook for ambition, and joining up is preferred to standing out. Maybe literature is fighting for its very life because its powerful pundits have declared a halt to all artistic progress, declaring it pretentious, alienating, bad for business.
Marcus mentions, among other essays, a New Yorker “Shouts & Murmurs” piece in which Franzen fantasizes that a package sent to his apartment from the experimental press FC2 might in fact be a terrorist bomb, before realizing that experimental literature is harmless after all. Thus Franzen paradoxically suggests that experimental fiction — say Marcus’s amazing debut, The Age of Wire and String — is both impotent in today’s literary culture and (because it terrorizes readers) responsible for literature’s declining popularity. Marcus’s position has an equally startling core contraction: the very popularity of factory-produced literature is what most threatens the literary, why it’s “fighting for its very life” in the first place. For Marcus — despite his claims to catholic tastes, his embrace of both convention and the flouting of convention — it’s only ever language itself that is the hallmark of the literary. Plot, character development, topicality, all such Franzenite pleasures and comforts, are compromised factory pap.
What is most fascinating about The Flame Alphabet is that it has both the features of a freshly manufactured piece of expensive corporate hardware and all the jagged style of an avant-garde terrorist bomb. On the one hand, Marcus’s sentences in The Flame Alphabet are just as challenging as those of his previous works; but these sentences get tethered to the trappings of plot, character, and world in ways that seem designed to entice mainstream readers. This is where the trouble begins.
The Flame Alphabet tells the story of a family torn apart by a plague of language. Sam and Claire live with their daughter, Esther, in what may or may not be New York City, when the language of children, for reasons that remain mysterious, becomes toxic, putrefying the bodies of adults. In vivid scenes reminiscent of various post-apocalyptic fictions — from The Road and Zone One to Oryx and Crake, all of which owe debts in turn to avant-gardists such as Acker, Ballard, Beckett, and Burroughs — rabid children, intoxicated by their murderous new linguistic power, roam the decaying ruins of civilization. The wilted remnants of the adult world flee to places like Rochester, where they regroup and try to defeat the language plague, which quickly spreads from children to all language-users.
Sam and Claire also happen to be “forest Jews” who worship at a hole dug into the earth, sometimes referred to as a “Jew hole,” where they listen to secret sermons, broadcast over a mysterious device called a “listener.” The language plague and forest Judaism are connected, but in ways that are ultimately unexplained. A redheaded man named Murphy — who turns out to secretly be a Mephistophelian figure named LeBov — menaces and manipulates Sam, hoping to squeeze from his desiccated and bony body the secrets of forest Judaism.
When the novel opens, Sam and Claire have decided to abandon their home and their daughter:
We left on a school day, so Esther wouldn’t see us. In my personal bag, packed when my wife, Claire, had finally collapsed in sleep against the double-bolted bedroom door as it was getting light out, I stashed field glasses, sound abatement fabrics, and enough rolled foam to conceal two adults. On top of these I crammed a raw stash of anti-comprehension pills, a child’s radio retrofitted as a toxicity screen, an unopened bit of gear called a Dräger Aerotest breathing kit, and my symptom charts.
This opening passage contains in miniature all the strengths and the weakness of The Flame Alphabet, illuminating the circle Marcus is trying to square.
Here and everywhere in The Flame Alphabet, Marcus worships not at a “Jew hole” but rather at the altar of the noun-phrase. Behold its glory: “enough rolled foam to conceal two adults,” “a raw stash of anti-comprehension pills.” Other sentences, drawn almost at random from the novel, provide additional specimens: “The technology of the hut was a glowbug setup.” Or: “You’ll gain no satisfaction through tests of the air or water, was a sentence making the rounds.” And the brilliant: “Speech from the faces of children was rendered in ugly rushes of color, with each color coded on a wheel to some kind of distress.”
Marcus’s verbs hang their heads, ashamed at their inadequacy in the majestic face of their nounal and adjectival brothers and sisters. The joint between Marcus’s subjects and objects is creaky and always threatening to break. As a result, his sentences often crumble into beautiful chunks that float free of reference, either to our world or to a coherent fictive one. A phrase like “ugly rushes of color” glows, but floats unattached to any phenomenon. If Marcus’s linguistic play and Nabokovianly autonomous noun-phrases clip the slender string linking signifier to signified, how can The Flame Alphabet convince us that there’s something menacing about its imagined world?
In a strategy that mimics the book’s central conceit, Marcus self-consciously toxifies his language, daring the reader not to notice the referential status of his vocabulary. After roving, language-drunk children launch their reign of terror, we learn that
Esther was thriving in the world she must have always craved, where the washed-out idiots of preceding generations had finally been banished, rags crammed down their throats … How much time did Esther have before her own face was touched, before her tongue hardened and grew cold in her mouth?
There is obviously an allegorical dimension to Esther’s devilish thriving — as though Marcus’s linguistically toxic children were analogous to Franzen’s imaginary bomb-throwing avant-gardes, making literal the fantasy of a language that kills — but, more to the point, notice the studied ugliness of phrases like “crammed down their throats” and “her tongue hardened.” Marcus’s repressed verbs occasionally return with a staccato fury, through they’re just as often suppressed as participles. For example: “Whatever I drank was so heavily salted, my mouth became scoured. At the urinal I peed a heavy, white pudding. But I lacked the strength to discharge all of it.” And: “The time was best judged, if it needed to be judged, by how thirsty I was, and now my tongue was as dry as a sock in my mouth.”
Sentence after sentence, Marcus crams rags down the reader’s throat, dwells on infested and grotesque bodily discharges, conjures images of the most depraved forms of human suffering. The result is a novel that is, as many reviewers have glibly and unreflectively pointed out, a genuinely unpleasant reading experience.
At its best — and it is often at its best — this grotesque mélange evokes an intensely apocalyptic mood, creating indelible image after indelible image. At times, though, this style devolves into a kind of technobabble, without the usual charm of pseudoscience or science fiction. “Anti-comprehension pills” are mentioned, but don’t really matter much to the development of the plot. Nor, for that matter does a “Dräger Aerotest breathing kit” come to be any more significant than it is in the opening passage of the novel, quoted above. The specific doctrines and beliefs of “forest Judaism,” though expounded on at length, don’t become a coherent worldview or actually seem to matter much, either to the plot or our understanding of any version of real-world Judaism. In a work of science fiction, such references resolve over time into our sense, however approximate, of a coherent fictional world. At times, throughout The Flame Alphabet, it seems as if Marcus loves the sound of these words so much that he doesn’t see any need to make them add up. To the degree that he tries, he constructs a world in broad and evocative strokes.
The breadth of these strokes matters because, at 300 densely packed pages, we begin to wonder how Marcus’s gestures toward plot and the delineation of characters with distinct motives will play out, what it will all mean. Sam ends up in a Rochester laboratory working to devise an alphabetic script that might bypass language toxicity, and suddenly gains an expertise in ancient languages and typographic systems. The mystery and menace of Murphy/LeBov dissolves. After LeBov forces him to submit by threatening Claire, Sam escapes from Rochester by — literally — jumping down a “Jew hole” at precisely the moment when we might imagine him to be most invested in staying behind. His experimental new Hebrew alphabet, meanwhile, which he describes as the most important thing in his life, similarly drops from view. In the final pages, Sam is briefly reunited with his daughter, Esther, before she also (more or less randomly) leaves their forest hut. The Flame Alphabet continually promises narrative cohesion and coherent plotting, without quite delivering. If these are concessions to the reader — an infusion of the thriller’s spirit into relentlessly experimental prose — we might wonder whether it might not have been better for Marcus to have fully and uncompromisingly embraced the terroristic patrimony of Acker, Ballard, Beckett, and Burroughs.
For it seems to me that for all its strengths and successes, The Flame Alphabet simply doesn’t work as a thriller or a study of character or a portrait of family life or a political parable. We’re not frustrated with its plot or characters or world in a way that challenges our conventional expectations, as we are when we read Barth, Barthelme, Fowles, Pynchon, and Saunders. We end up feeling that Marcus’s sole interest lies in language. Near the end of his Harper’s critique, Marcus admits as much, expressing his hope that the author of The Corrections and likeminded writers would “go ahead and surrender the language part of their work, and make their entertainment without it. Then writing could be practiced by writers: people who are still thrilled by the possibilities of language and not so concerned that more people play paintball than read.” What is specifically excluded from Marcus’s definition of “writing” is writing as the study of character, as the construction of plot, as the imagining of an exciting and different but coherent world — all the areas where The Flame Alphabet stumbles.
Now may be the time to mention that I basically agree with Marcus, that his attack on Franzen is often spot-on, but that I think he’s wrong in his overweening emphasis on language as the site of artistic progress and writerly authenticity. What we need is an avant-garde that innovates not only at the level of the sentence, but also at the level of plot, character-development, and world-building, an avant-garde that doesn’t concede these domains to manufacturers of factory templates but rather reclaims them, instead of adding them as halfhearted concessions or using them to package books in ways that smuggle the good stuff (i.e., language) to skeptical readers.
Of course, one might retort that paintball-loving individuals with disposable incomes will be no more interested in an avant-garde of plot than they are in an avant-garde of the sentence. What then to do?
The answer can be found hidden in Marcus’s Harper’s essay when he writes that
my ideal reader’s Wernicke’s area is staffed by an army of jumpsuited code-breakers, working a barn-sized space that is strung about the rafters with a mathematically intricate lattice of rope and steel, and maybe gusseted by a synthetic coil that is stronger and more sensitive than either, like guitar strings made from an unraveled spinal cord, each string tuned to different tensions.
Marcus’s delightfully Wes Andersonian description of these jumpsuited code-breakers underscores the fact that readers aren’t born, but made, or rather trained. In other words, unspoken in this debate is the relevance of the university as a patron of experimental writers, the absence of state support for the arts, and the huge growth of income inequality in the United States and other OECD countries. It’s in the research university — the “powerful cultural institution” Marcus finds himself futilely “scanning the horizon” for — where Marcus can write, if not full time, then enough of the time to be able to be described as a writer who also teaches rather than a teacher who occasionally carves out time to write.
What Marcus seems not to see, and what Franzen makes enough money to be able to oppose, is the role of institutions in shaping mass tastes; this is where both go wrong. For it should be the job of our educational and cultural institutions not simply to shelter sophisticated writers from the market but also to train the great mass of readers to understand and appreciate the literature that they produce. In lieu of caps and gowns, we might instead hand out canary yellow jumpsuits at our graduation ceremonies.
Under such utopian conditions, we might begin to revisit — to imagine again, and revel in — the crisis of the author’s subordination to the omnipotent reader that Roland Barthes announced in what seems today like another world. Language would, again, finally be able to speak, and do its very best to kill us.