Ben Marcus: “The First Venom”

11/17/2011 § Leave a comment

Originally published in Harper’s, December 2011.

Normally, the Readings section of Harper’s is fairly good at providing a snapshot into the various opinions and stories developing around the world, presenting brief context and then transcripts, condensed essays, or lists of data dumps from which we can draw our own conclusions. The fiction doesn’t always stand up as well, particularly this excerpt from Marcus’s upcoming novel, The Flame Alphabet, for it leaves the reader wondering if the larger novel is meant to be an allegorical or metaphorical commentary on the nature of words (similar to his last novel, 2002’s Notable American Women, which followed a cult of people sworn to silence). At first glance, when Marcus writes that “In the months before our departure, most of what sickened us came from our sweet daughter’s mouth,” the assumption is that he’s talking about a generational divide, in which older people just don’t understand teens, and, at worst, get discomforted by a casual speech that they see ripping humanity apart. A little further on, once it becomes clearer that Esther’s parents are becoming physically ill, the reader concludes that Marcus is expressing the aging process through the use of language: “But our joints were hardening and our muscles were tight, and when I bent over I could no longer easily breathe…. We were every day stiffening, growing sicker, paler, more exhausted with what Esther could not stop doing.” (“Doing” in this case would be “aging,” which is a perfectly fine thing in moderation, but which will inevitably kill us all.)

But no, according to the description for The Flame Alphabet, we’re instead dealing with an “intellectual horror story” — the sort that will always be outsold by a more edgy Palahniuk or accessible Simmons — and we’re facing a civilization-ending event, in which words have become toxic, and communication therefore threatens to kill. (It’s unclear how far Marcus intends to take it; after all, Esther’s parents can still talk to each other, and in a worst-case scenario, wouldn’t we just write things down?) Didn’t Stephen King already touch on this when he used cell phones to transmit some sort of zombie virus in Cell, punishing those most vapid of talkers? It’s hard to tell, because this is just a four-page excerpt, one that spends much of its time establishing the situation through the addled remembrances of the father, Samuel, who quotes Biblical warnings (“Beware your name, for it is the first venom,” which I don’t think is actually what Revelations says, though it’s a catchy line), awkwardly attempts to self-diagnose the wasting lethargy and odd bites (“Animals took the blame up and down the coast”), and eventually breaks down to unwieldy historical precedents:

In our reading of Galen we had not yet connected several mentions of disease originating in the child’s mouth. Herschel’s cone, termed by Vesalius, describes the spray radius of speech, a contact perimeter for exposure, and this we did not know. Nor did we know that an acoustical rupture is observed in Herschel’s cone by Paracelsus. Or that 1954 saw a medical exhibit in Philadelphia featuring the child-free detoxification hut, a prototype only, never adopted. Or that in the end Pliny had shielding nailed to his walls and sought immortality by banning children from his presence, dying just days later.

There’s a reason why people prefer the dumbed-down version of The Walking Dead (as opposed to the superior comic); this isn’t much fun to read. It’s smart, therefore it smarts, and I wish the rigidity of Marcus’s structure left a little more room for things like, say, humanity.

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