The International Necronautical Society doesn’t actually exist. Or, at least it doesn’t exist in the way we expect an organization to, with charters and members and logos and conventions with peel-away nametags. Created in 1999 by the novelist Tom McCarthy, Wikipedia describes the INS as a “semi-fictional organization closely modeled on European avant-gardes of the early 20th century.”
That “semi-fictional” designation feels apt (and was, who knows, maybe written by its members, of which I think there are three in official capacity, though semi-official, who knows?) for a society devoted to the failure of transcendence, the worship of matter/residues, and the signal interference that distorts communication. McCarthy’s novels ping between theory and humor, dialectics and plotting.
Garbage and morbidity, all the grotesque ways a body can break down, come into frequent play.
I mention the INS because Ben Marcus’ The Flame Alphabet has many thematic and descriptive resonances with INS compulsions (or, if we’re more generous, interests) and tics.
It also has a very generous blurb from Tom McCarthy on the back cover. This novel doesn’t have to look far to find its advocates.
The Flame Alphabet is about the day language becomes toxic. The Flame Alphabet is about the discovery that children are immune to this language toxicity. The Flame Alphabet is about what happens when adult society must sever ties with children. The Flame Alphabet is about survival in the aftermath of a language holocaust, the annihilation of (and access to) all conduits and channels for communication. The Flame Alphabet is about being trapped in the remainder, the body, the most original prison.
The Flame Alphabet is a beautiful novel.
The Flame Alphabet is a disgusting novel.
How is this possible?
The paradox begins at the level of the sentence. Ben Marcus has a great ear for sound, for sentence harmonics and rhythm, for pleasing words that coat, like the wax on a supermarket apple, disgusting meanings. The Flame Alphabet would be a pleasure to read, alone, without the burden of retention (a novel, I imagine, well suited for amnesiacs).
But meaning does ooze through the beauty, and Marcus’ meanings are as disgusting as they are horrific. Like, “if you gouged enough jelly from it, was a long, flat bone” (50), or “air was bubbling up from underground, creating shelters under skins of soil” (148), or “the text was pale blue, like a writing erupted under the skin” (81).
Language seduces at every turn in The Flame Alphabet. In fact, Marcus does most of his world-building at the level of the sentence.
This might be a problem.
How do you write a novel about the failure (and ultimate toxicity) of language? It seems dubious to do so through beautiful language. How would such a theoretically consistent novel look? How would it sound? I think first and foremost such a novel would be unreadable. It would be as ugly and incomprehensible as, well, a tract of philosophy.
I raise this concern because I’m interested in the philosophical novel—a redundancy, I admit, because every (good?) novel should have some philosophical locomotive pulling it along. But I raise it anyway because I want to search out how writers like Marcus or McCarthy get away with theory and how they don’t, what triggers the delivery of theoretical payloads and what causes said payloads to blow up in their faces.
Every work of alternative reality (is this also redundant? Even realist novels of the everyday have to erect barriers, provide cues as to where and when we are, how we, the readers, are to engage the fictional reality) must work quickly to establish its laws, its systems, its immutable physics.
In fiction, arbitrariness is deathly to the reader. This is why the dream sequence has little (non-hostile) place in narrative—dreams distract from all the work a novelist has to do to keep his reader awake and alert, paying attention. In real life, no one wants to hear about anyone else’s dreams in more than one sentence.
The Flame Alphabet begins in confusion. There’s a term for this, in medias res, literally into the middle of things. A first person narrator tells us he and someone named Claire left “on a school day” “so Esther couldn’t see us” (3). Can we infer yet that Esther is a child? She could be (and she is, so it goes). She could be a school janitor. Anyway, we find out soon enough who these people are (Sam, our narrator), how they exist in space-time relative to one another, but at first glance this opening pummels with vagueness and evasion, with implied menace and implied meaning.
The rest of The Flame Alphabet will operate similarly, dunking the reader’s head into confusing scenes, tossing unfamiliar terms at the reader like anarchist bombs, shifting forward in time and jumping back (the entire novel is meaningfully structured on the narrator absolutely necessarily existing in the distant future, post language-toxin event).
Maybe we forget as moviegoers that there was a time when we had to learn what the Force was. When a lightsaber first slid glowing from its pommel, humming like a basement freezer, and we had no fucking idea it was a future sword (okay nerds, a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away sword). Successful alternative realities seduce our memory so much we forget that we’re being seduced, forget that they traffick absurdities.
Alternative reality novels have to negotiate a reader’s confusions, which will be manifold upon entering said alt reality, while hurtling said confused reader through said alt reality.
A novel must be readable. If it fails this readability check, it’s probably novel but not a novel.
Narrative confusion/incomprehension can only be an effective source of tension for so long. (How long? I don’t know for sure. Let me put it this way: how far did you make it through?).
What do we make of the “Jew hole”? Of the secret transmission huts? Of the large network of underground Jewish tunnels? Of the radio transmissions of secret Hebrew teachings? Of the speculated hidden codes within the codes?
I resisted The Flame Alphabet when it engaged its themes of transmission, of signal interference and code detection. These didn’t feel like believable alt reality details so much as on-the-nose signalers for THEME and IDEA. They did too much work signaling at a kind of being when they should have done more work just actually being (and, you know, being believable).
Maybe the same could be said for Marcus’ characters, who work primarily as archetypes and symbols, like hot models at a comics convention booth standing in for the geek (Marcus) behind it all.
Alt reality characters are always in danger of dissolving into what the alt reality is trying to argue. An alt reality novel is always in danger of becoming didacidic. (didactic and acidic; a state of being so didactic it causes the reader indigestion [barfing]).
Related: Alt realities typically have an ideological imperative to exist—they point to Real World, non-fictional problems.
An alt reality is always a political construction.
An alt reality is always a political maneuver.
The Flame Alphabet is a novel of extracted feelings, of emotional truth arrived at by means other than vivid human observance. While these feelings read real to me, their extraction methods (and sources) read false.
Who is real in The Flame Alphabet? Does the question even matter in a novel that wants to show how seeping reality (and its receiving) is with language sludge? This is not a novel that aims To Tell How We Live Today.
This is not a pragmatic novel. This is not a novel of wisdom.
And maybe The Flame Alphabet has set itself an impossible challenge: delivering a person’s humanity divorced of language, nuance, gesture. Claire is a walking meat stick. Gray, rigid meat in a sausage casing shows more humanity.
In another novel, these characters would speak. Here, they ooze.
“Blood,” he seeped.
“Pus,” she dribbled.
“Phlegm!” he leaked angrily.
“Feces!” she discharged coldly.
For all my concerns, I admire The Flame Alphabet. I really do. I might even say I love it.
Once, I was in a workshop with Rick Moody who said that in writing the only thing that matters is the ability to write one arresting, surprising, and beautiful sentence after the other. Maybe Moody was joking. Half-joking. Coherence should matter, I think. Your sentences should never be free-floating bodies. They should enact a cohering gravity on one another. A responsibility that goes deeper than grammar.
And on the sentence level, The Flame Alphabet succeeds. It builds a world out of language, out of the most careful kind of stream of consciousness—clear sentences.
This clarity goes far with the novel’s images, which are disturbing and memorable. I won’t forget the Forsythe laboratory, with its guards’ heads wrapped in foam. I won’t forget the martyrs, tested on and destroyed with words.
But maybe this is the point. Maybe The Flame Alphabet wants to repel us precisely because it is a work of supreme language.
The toxicity is locatable. It is here.
The toxicity has already transmitted.
Provocateurs like Lars von Trier, the Danish filmmaker responsible for Melancholia, thrive on audience response. They’re Tinkerbells soliciting applause. The nature of the feelings they inspire only matters in that said feelings exist.
Like all egoists, Tinkerbell doesn’t want you to love her. She wants you to notice her.
Lars von Trier has made it his life’s work to be noticed, and Melancholia is unique (to this viewer) as his first (possibly second—I love Dancer in the Dark because of Björk while I hate it because of rhe violence von Trier enacts on Björk) film that deserves noticing.
Briefly: Melancholia is about two sisters, one depressed (Kirsten Dunst) and freshly married, one practical (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and humorless, both reacting to the imminent contact between Earth and a heavenly body called Melancholia (Melancholia arriving to our solar system apparently self-named and self-promoted, like a planetary-sized Lady Gaga).
I have dismissed von Trier for many crimes against humanity—misogyny, misanthropy, homophobia, and lazy nihilism, to name a few. Like guest-verses on a hip hop track, all of these give shout-outs in Melancholia. A Hateful Mother Figure (Charlotte Rampling, her eyes always captured in narrowed slits) delivers a withering wedding toast that makes the gay wedding planner (Udo!!! Kier!!!!) choke on his rosé. Men Tell Women What to Do & Women Listen Intently and Do As Men Tell Them To (Kirsten Dunst’s husband buys them a house without involving her in the decision—noble, I guess, and sweet, maybe, but as someone who has anxiety attacks choosing between apple cultivars, dude better ask me what I want). A beautiful woman hate-fucks a toady dude on a golf course (and she gets right to business, no time for fore!play).
Von! Trier! Hates! Humanity!
Hating globally is necessarily an exercise lacking nuance, but von Trier doesn’t work in subtle realms. Yes, Kirsten Dunst’s character declares that the universe is empty of life save for Earth, and while another storyteller might undermine such a statement or at least be skeptical of it, von Trier has no use for uncertainty. How does Dunst know the universe is empty? Well, she magically knows the exact number of white cannellini beans in a mason jar (678). “I know things,” Dunst says listlessly, and we are to take that she Knows Things on some cosmic level. The proof, you see, is in the beans.
Von Trier Knows Things too. This sort of authorial absolutism clashes confusingly with Melancholia‘s larger project—shouting from the rooftops that God does not exist, that there is no essential meaning to the Universe, and other boilerplate nihilist projections. In the absence of God, von Trier elects himself.
But can a universe that lacks the metaphysical entertain psychic bean counters and an immense planet hiding behind the sun? Why should we disbelieve in god but believe in the equally dubious psychic knowledge of cannellini beans?
The answer is simple to von Trier: the apocalypse will hurt all the more if it is for nothing. If it is inessential, if it comes out anonymously and toxically as a fart in a dark movie theater.
Von Trier expects something dangerously close to faith on the part of his audience.
Like Nabokov, von Trier is a storyteller who tells you how to read his work. This authorial handholding strikes me as antithetical to the strengths of literature and film (though don’t worry! I still love Nabokov.), specifically the infinite interpretive dances you can perform with a text. I find mystery vital to fiction, and I resist a text that knows too well what it’s about.
Leave Aboutness to the audience.
Melancholia is one of the stupidest great movies I’ve seen in a long time. It revels in idiotic, forehead-slapping moments. For example, we have to believe Alexander Skarsgaard, stupider here than in True Blood (where he plays an ancient vampire who runs an MDMA vampire discotheque), could completely misread the numerous signs of his wife’s psychotic meltdown. We have to believe that a man, having just been hate-fucked by Dunst on a putting green, would approach the obviously depressed, maybe even psychotic, bride and reason why they should try to make things work considering, run with me here, the ten minutes they’ve known each other (five of which were, you will recall, spent hate-fucking on a putting green). We have to believe that a Geocities website with neon text on a starry night background has the correct information for Melancholia’s Earth-impacting path.
But—but—my god the movie is fucking beautiful! My god Gainsbourg, desperate and shrieking as Melancholia gobbles up the earth’s atmosphere, can make my soul quiver like jell-o. My god Udo Kier as a wedding planner!
I think von Trier wants the audience to pity (instead of empathize with) the levelheaded, practical Gainsbourg as she shrieks to a fiery end, to pity her and admire the equanimity her deranged sister practices in the same situation. To pity her because her levelheadedness has changed seats with her sister’s clinical depression in a twisted version of musical chairs and become the new insanity.
But I don’t feel that way!
Briefly toward the end, Dunst emerges from the gray swamps of her depression to build a teepee with shaved willow branches. She tells her young nephew that they will be safe inside the branches, protected by a spell. This is the most magical moment in the film because it is the most boldly fictional. When they sit cross-legged beneath the branches, I imagine von Trier wanting us to read this as pathetic, the lamest kind of delusion. But I admired that teepee’s fictional audacity. I believed that in a universe where planetary bodies hide behind the sun, teepees could cast protective force fields.
Like that teepee, the best fiction protects what makes us puny humans vital.
In an effort to increase productivity and morale, middle managers at JonathanVolk.org have taken inspiration from our North Korean anti-capitalist business partners to make the following mandatory:
Expressive note-taking at meetings (vocal hmms and ohhhs are highly encouraged if not [yet] mandatory)
Fun!ny anecdotes that teach lessons (anecdotes should be drawn not from personal falseories but the collective treams [recall: dream truths] found in the hagiography of our Chief Exalted Officer [CEO] and co-founder Jonathan Volk, distributed at new employee orientation in scroll form)
Pre-approved modes of diversity (before submitting diversity proposals to your supervisors, please check the List of Virtuous Modes of Being; if you cannot find your mode on the List, we suggest you submit proposals in-person at the nearest Restart Center)
Roller coasters (the existence and fun!ness of; not to be conflated with the dangerous riding of)
Fun! (per JonathanVolk.org’s Style Guide, fun! must appear with corresponding punctuation in all copy)
As always, if you see something, say something (so long as you’ve received say something approval–forms must me submitted five weeks in advance; please factor in the three month Contemplation period for pre-approval for pending approval)
Today CEO and co-founder of JonathanVolk.org, Jonathan Volk, asked us to share something about ourselves. He asked us to be specific and vivid. At first we were afraid. Some of us cried, but we knew well enough to make these criers feel immediately horrible. Some of us suggested hobbies and we mocked them for caring too much. Some of us suggested we share our class photos and that we each write a word these photos conjure:
We all agreed this was a good exercise into hating each other specifically and measurably.