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Featured Guest Review: Jonathan Lethem on The Flame Alphabet
Jonathan Lethem was born in New York and attended Bennington College. He is the author of seven novels, including Fortress of Solitude and Motherless Brooklyn and two short story collections, and he has edited and contributed to several anthologies. His writing has appeared in the New Yorker, Rolling Stone, McSweeney's, and many other periodicals. His latest book of essays, The Ecstacy of Influence, explores the role of writers in contemporary culture.
Ben Marcus is one of the rare inventors in our literary language. We already knew this, from the outrageous stories, and from Notable American Women. When I call him an "inventor," I'm seeking a little working distance from the bland (and often dismissive) term "experimental"--for if Marcus is conducting experiments, he's conducting them out of view, and then unveiling the results as a fait accompli, like an Edison or Tesla or some other secular magician emerging from a laboratory. Marcus's work, with its powerful kinship to the visual arts and music and perhaps even pharmacology, should less be copyrighted than patented. His devices can enchant and wreck your mind. Like I say, we already knew this.
What we didn't know, and I suppose possibly he didn't either until he blew the wrought-iron clawfeet off his own prototype and replaced them with white-walls and a souped-up engine, is how thrilling it would be to see Marcus apply his gifts to something closer to traditional narrative. I say that as if it's some drab operation ("apply" and "traditional") but in fact what The Flame Alphabet has done is open up a kind of wide-screen view of the sort of crazy Ben Marcus movie that was likely always playing in his brain but which he has now taken out for wide release.
It appears that all the giddy anxiety and sorrowful vertigo of Marcus's language was only the leading edge of an implicit sense of pure story, the kind where figures in a landscape struggle to negotiate outrageous danger, loss and mystery. The book is an urban ironist's reply to Cormac McCarthy's The Road, yet in a way I think it is braver and more wrenching even than McCarthy's book (as well as, as you'd expect, more peculiar and funny, and less infused with wearisome machismo) because of the greater degree of complicity it admits, complicity with the disasters that flow through our collective world but are also locatable in each and every one of us if we're ready to meet them there.The Flame Alphabet explodes with human drama without for one single line relinquishing Marcus's lifelong commitment to the drama of a sentence making itself known on the page. In fact, and this is surely the most brilliant thing about the book, it fuses those two notions of drama into one immutable and bizarre whole. That's what's known in show business as a spoiler, but I couldn't resist.
This book started out so great, specifically in Part One. I read the first third of the book in one sitting. Read morePublished 12 days ago by Emma Welsh
I read the most incredible short story by Ben Marcus in the October 19, 2015 issue of The New Yorker, entitled "Cold Little Bird. Read morePublished 13 days ago by katydid
The Flame Alphabet is the first book I read by Ben Marcus. After doing so, I quickly purchased and read everything the internet told me he had written. Read morePublished 17 days ago by Noah
I don't know why I kept on reading this book. It's does have merit in pointing out the divine nature of language. Read morePublished 3 months ago by Buffalo Gal
Just a lot of painful experiences. Mr. Marcus seems to really like describing human pain and misery, which, to be fair, he's good at, but it becomes tiring.Published 3 months ago by Sanjay V. Gopinath
When I finally finished, I thought to myself "What in the heck did I just read?" I had heard of this on NPR and it sounded interesting so I went ahead and ordered it for... Read morePublished 7 months ago by Cinnamon
This was a good idea that was terribly painful to get through. It was so bad that I almost preferred walking on the treadmill with nothing to read rather than keep reading this,... Read morePublished 7 months ago by Joel Kramer