No one can seem to get over the fact that Ben Marcus, the scion of avant-garde literature and its most impassioned defender, recently published a fairly traditional novel, “The Flame Alphabet.” It has all the trappings of normative fiction — a plot, emotionally developed characters, even some good old-fashioned drama.
But all that convention belies what is still uniquely Marcusonian: the surreal setting, this one taking place in a post-apocalyptic New York; the obsessive focus on language and its ability to do tremendous harm; and, above all, the cultish sect the book follows, in this case an enigmatic sect of “Forest Jews.”
“I’m taking liberties here,” said Marcus, 44, sitting in a café near the New York Public Library. “It’s meant to be playful, but also subversive, immensely subversive.”
Marcus, who is Jewish, has never written about Jews before. But in “The Flame Alphabet,” he saw an opportunity to take his writing in a new direction — not unlike the new path he’s taken by employing traditional narrative techniques.
“I’m afraid of complacency,” he said. “Taking a brand-new technical approach,” he thought, “might help me uncover new material.”
Indeed it has. The world Marcus has imagined in “The Flame Alphabet” only loosely resembles the world we know. The Judaism practiced by the novel’s protagonist, Sam, surpasses the strangeness of even the most esoteric Jewish sects of yore — be they the Pharisees or the followers of Sabattai Zevi.
Sam and his wife, Claire, gather weekly inside a hut built in their backyard, where they tune in to sermons piped through an extensive underground network. The speeches they hear — inchoate sermons they can’t even understand, but which they must obey — make several non-Jews suspicious. After all, the central plot is driven by the outbreak of a deadly disease caused by a mysterious malfunction of speech. Everyone who hears it, except for young children, begins to suffer a ghastly, horrific death.
Some of these things are obvious allusions to real-world phenomenon, like anti-Semitism and the potency of language. But if you go looking for conclusive arguments about what Marcus means, you’d be searching in vain. He says he simply wants to explore the imaginative capabilities of ideas found in the real world, rather than make any grand polemical points.
“The idea there there’s a calculation being made is a little bit of a fallacy,” he said.
Still, it is not as if his work lacks intent, or focus. On the contrary, he underwent an extensive research program that had him reading reams of Jewish philosophy, including the works of Gershom Scholem, and spending hours in the New York Public Library’s Dorot Jewish division. “The book really did teach me a lot, in that sense,” he said, referring to Jewish thought.
There are moments when that self-cultivated erudition shines through, like the occasional reference to Rabbi Schachter-Shalomi, the real-life spiritualist and Jewish Renewal guru, or in the nod to Mordecai Kaplan, the founder of the Reconstructionist movement. But in a much more significant way, Jewish ideas permeate the entire book.
There is, for instance, the kabbalistic idea that language can never grasp the essence of the divine, and that God, moreover, is the ultimate unknowable. Even the central metaphor of the book — that language can become toxic — is in part inspired by the idea that all of the Hebrew Bible expresses God’s will.
That idea, when twisted by the novel’s antagonist, an anti-Semite named Murphy, leads him to believe that Jews are the ultimate source of the toxic language outbreak.
“The flame alphabet was the word of God, written in fire, obliterating to behold. The so-called Torah,” Murphy muses at one point. “We could not say God’s true name, nor could we, if we were devoted, speak of God at all. This was basic stuff. But it was the midrashic spin on the flame alphabet that was more exclusive,” he goes on. “Since the entire alphabet comprises God’s name, Burke” — the Forest Jews’ chief rabbi — “asserted, since it is written in every arrangement of letters, then all words reference God, do they not? That’s what words are. They are variations of his name. No matter the language.”
Marcus makes clear that he is not putting forth his own views of Jewish thought — the ones just quoted are, quite clearly, the malicious thoughts of the novel’s despicable villain. But he found in the richness of Jewish thought a trove of narrative possibilities.
“I didn’t want to create this from scratch,” he said of his fictive Jewish cult. “To me, Judaism was in some way the most adaptive” religion.
Marcus said he approached Judaism in the book the same way he approaches all religions, as “beautiful, complicated fictions.” Marcus studied philosophy as an undergraduate student at NYU, and, though raised a secular Jew, he was born to a nominally religious father, a Jewish mathematician. His mother, a lapsed Catholic, is a literary critic. He married a Jew, the well-known author Heidi Julavits.
Marcus is suspicious of Judaism’s supernatural claims, but he is not out to pick a theological fight. Instead, he wants to use Jewish concepts to goad his imagination. What if, for instance, Judaism is correct and there are things that our minds are incapable of grasping, like the nature of God? And if God is incomprehensible, what happens if we break that rule and try to understand him? Perhaps, Marcus’ novel implies, our entire language might become infected with a power so great it will destroy us.
Of course Judaism was not all that inspired “The Flame Alphabet.” And Marcus, now firmly rooted in New York’s literary establishment — with steady bylines in The New Yorker, Harper’s and The Paris Review, as well as a professorship at Columbia University’s creative writing MFA program — seems most poised to attract a secular, literary audience.
What has surprised most Marcus devotees to date is not the Jewish content, but the traditional narrative form. “I was expecting, based on his two prior books, that it was going to be structured by less obvious modes of fiction,” said Michael Chabon, the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist and a close friend of Marcus. “It was a shock to me” how traditional the novel is. “A very pleasant surprise. But it’s still identifiably Ben Marcus.”
Marcus’ editor at Knopf, Jordan Pavlin, said much the same thing: “It’s an intellectual horror story,” she said, “and it does feature a more traditional narrative. But what I find so fascinating about ‘The Flame Alphabet’ is the idea at the heart of it: that we will perish by what we love: language. That the very thing that sustains us will be our undoing.”
Marcus distances himself from the oft-repeated “experimental” moniker. It may be true that “The Age of Wire and String,” his 1995 postmodern first novel that put him on the map, was highly obtuse. It featured 41 mini-novels, almost poem-like, that together created a surreal and plotless portrait.
His second book, “Notable American Women,” from 2002, was more traditional in terms of plot and character development. But even then the world it created was entirely new, and strange: it followed a fictive feminist cult, dubbed the Silentists, somewhere out in Ohio. Like “The Flame Alphabet,” it involves a plot to rid speech from the earth.
But Marcus’ most enduring legacy to date may be the essay he wrote for Harper’s magazine in 2005, titled “Why experimental fiction threatens to destroy publishing, Jonathan Franzen and life as we know it.” In it, Marcus skewered his fellow novelist, the best-selling author Jonathan Franzen, who had recently attacked experimental fiction. Marcus felt compelled to defend it.
Given the turn Marcus’ own fiction has recently taken, perhaps it is not surprising that Marcus is in a less pugnacious mood. “It wasn’t about Franzen’s fiction, which I much admire,” Marcus says about the essay now. “But several positions he had taken I had deeply disagreed with.”
Anyway, he never did call his own fiction experimental, he said, and has distanced himself from that label before. “I don’t sit down and say, OK, let’s aim for this point on the realism-experimental continuum. I don’t think there’s any writer who works like that. In my fiction, I just try to write what’s interesting to me.”
Marcus tactfully avoided taking positions on some Jewish ideas, as well. When asked what he felt about the Jewish idea that some things, like the nature of God, human language cannot express, he said he in no way drew a conclusion in his novel. But when pressed — Did he, Ben Marcus, have a position? — he relented.
“I’m a writer, so I’m fated to believe that language, if used with poetic precision, will continue to undercover new layers of human experience,” he said. “It’s the foolish courage of a writer to deny it” — that there are some things language cannot express — “and still try anyway.”