If you like your epidemic-themed fiction cool, complex, and sickening, Ben Marcus’s The Flame Alphabet is a book you shouldn’t ignore. Its opening chapter is a terrific place to practice deep reading, too. The first two sentences will give you a taste of what’s to come:
“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.”
A blast of writerly efficiency, the first sentence introduces the necessary ingredients for a conflict to unfold: There’s three or more characters, two (or more) of them leaving without the third one knowing. The phrase may sound like the explanation of an action – we did this because etc. – but at the same time it holds back essential information: Who is “Esther”, and why do “we” leave in the first place? Why exactly wouldn’t Esther see them leaving if it’s “a school day” – and why is that even important?
Yes, it’s only a first sentence, and who’s to say all will not be explained very soon? But if you’re into deep reading, you will welcome this invitation to make wild guesses even before any other information has entered your head. There are possible plots to ponder: Is Esther to be protected from something? Are the others perhaps guilty or ashamed of something? Do they have a secret mission that Esther can’t know about? Or are they instead afraid of Esther, trying to flee from her?
All we know about the setting is that it’s a “schoolday”, which may of course be taken as a suggestion that Esther may be working at a school, perhaps as a teacher, which may imply that the “we” are two (or more) kids running away (though it would be weird if they called their teacher by first name). Or, more likely, Esther herself may be the student; and if she’s a student, she may well be the daughter of “we”.
Wild guesses are fun for a while, but if that were enough, people wouldn’t read novels but one-liners instead [insert amusing comment on the Age of Twitter here]. Most people, I guess, won’t even stop reading until at least the first paragraph is over. In a way, reading the first sentence on its own, and word by word, is a rather unusual way of reading. Should you even do it? You should. We call it Deep Reading, by the way.
Anyway, the second sentence provides us with more basic information about the “we”: There’s a second character with a first name, Claire, a wife, and there’s a first-person narrator – the implied husband. We still don’t know who Esther is, but with two characters connected by marriage and another connected to school, it doesn’t seem entirely unlikely that we’re dealing with a small family.
Apart from implying a relatable set of characters, the second sentence includes a few details that may take us directly into the heart of the conflict to unfold: For example, Claire doesn’t seem to be sleeping well. Rather, she “finally collapse[s]”, which suggests that she either can’t fall asleep normally, or that she tries not to sleep at all but merely gives in after a long battle. We also know that she does not fall asleep in bed like a normal person but “against the […] bedroom door,” which corroborates the idea that Claire in fact tries to stay awake.
And, of course, the term “double-bolted” suggests that someone has done some real work to lock someone in, or out. But who double-bolts the door, and who is the door double-bolted against? Is Claire inside, and did she lock herself in? If so, why? Or has someone locked her out, or in? Who’s threatening who?
More wild guesses: The bedroom door may be locked as a result of a married couple’s fight, or because it’s the last line of defence in a context of domestic violence; it may even be a motif straight from a horror story, where the monsters have already entered what the soon-to-be victims thought was a safe place, and are now threatening to intrude into its most private sanctuary. We have hardly met our family, and already something very unsavoury is going on in that house.
And there’s more questions to ask: Where is the narrator/husband when Claire falls asleep? By implication, he has been awake at that time. But has he watched over his, possibly sick, wife? Or was he on the outside, and did he wait for his wife to fall asleep so that he could force the bolted door open? Oh the wealth of possibilities!
And we haven’t even gotten to the most Ben-Marcus-like part of the second sentence, the suggestive list of things packed into the narrator’s “personal bag”: What is he going to do, with “field glasses, sound abatement fabrics, and enough rolled foam to conceal two adults”? Is the family going on a weird camping trip, are we going to witness a kidnapping of some kind, or is the narrator just batshit crazy?
If you read on, you will realize it’s all of these options and many more. Yes, The Flame Alphabet is one of those novels that won’t force you to decide on one reading, and if you like that amount of freedom and suggestiveness, it’s the perfect book for you, even though it will most probably also make you very, very ill.
By the way, if you think it’s silly to read just one or two sentences and make a big fuss about all the questions they presumably pose – because this will always be the case in the beginning of any novel and everything will be explained if you just read on – compare, for example, the opening of Stephen King’s 11.22.63 and see whether it will make you ask any questions at all. (Obviously, don’t actually do this. You already know it’s awful.)
(You can read the first two chapters of The Flame Alphabet in Bomb, by the way.)
The opening of William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury is the beginning of a long and arduous journey into a reader’s paradise. It’s also perfect to practice a little deep reading:
“Through the fence, between the curling flower spaces, I could see them hitting.”
Generally, a good way to kick off a deep reading is to demand something unusual from a book, and to demand it subito: So what, if anything, is remarkable about you, dear first sentence? It doesn’t reply. It plays dumb. Then it hands us a little note: “I consist of simple and unremarkable words?”
But beginning a narrative like this also points to the difference between the narrator’s point of view and ours. The use of definite articles (“the fence”, “the curling flower spaces” and “them”) suggests that the narrator refers to specific, perhaps familiar things and persons. But the reader can’t know what these are. The narrative does not gently introduce us to the world we have just entered but rather rudely shoves us into someone else’s way of seeing. We don’t know which or what kind of fence or flower bed or persons we are supposed to imagine. Perhaps we can hope that all will in time be explained, but perhaps not.
Did I say “flower beds”? This would already be an attempt to translate the narrator’s way of seeing into my own. What the narrator is actually saying is “curling flower spaces”. The words are simple enough, but then, what are they referring to exactly? “Curling flower” doesn’t seem to be a very common species of flower, so “flower spaces” seems to be the real compound here, which I can’t help but turn into “flower beds”.
Interestingly, though, the recent German translation by Frank Heibert seems to read “curling flower” as a compound instead: the phrase becomes “zwischen den Stellen mit den Rankblumen.” One can also read “curling flower spaces” as “a coil or spiral of open spaces where flowers would normally be,” as John P. Anderson does in The Sound and the Fury in the Garden of Eden (2002), p. 92.
So where I saw flowers in flower beds, another reader sees tendrils, and yet another sees empty spirals. (Anderson sees even more: “the coil or spiral suggests the snake from the Garden myth and female genitals,” he writes, and this means that “Sex is the ticket out of the garden.”)
The word “hitting” is another example of a deceptively simple word. In common usage, “hit” is a transitive verb, which means you can’t use it without an object of some kind. So what are they hitting? We don’t know. What we know is that something that to many readers would be missing doesn’t seem to be missing for the narrator. So it’s safe to say the narrator has an unusual way seeing things.
It’s similar in the third sentence:
“Luster was hunting in the grass by the flower tree.”
As a verb, “hunt” doesn’t need an object, but it still strongly suggests, on a semantic level, an object. If you tell your friends that you are going to go “hunting” in your private forest, they may very well ask “for what, pray?” and you wouldn’t be flabberghasted. By the way, Heibert’s German translation, for reasons unclear to me, chooses, instead of the obvious “jagen”, a word that I have literally never heard before: “schnofeln”.
And more: what’s a “flower tree”? Google gives me “flowering trees” galore, but is that what the narrator means? Probably. But the fact that it’s a “flower tree” instead suggests that this is another of many more variations on a special point of view that the book will graciously offer you.
Help and Happiness
So there you go. A few words in, and already plenty of chances to feel confused. It’s understandable to want to seek help. And if you google the first sentences you’ll get some explanations and even pictures for what “they” are “hitting”, and why they are hitting, and who they are, who the narrator is, who Luster is, and when and why it all happens; but I would be careful to do that just yet, because it spoils some of the fun that the book offers.
There’s warm waves of understanding in store for you if you work your way through the book and at some point suddenly grasp something that you totally didn’t think was even significant before. It may be a long journey though, almost impossible to complete in today’s world: For me, it happened after trying to read the book like any other book and giving up after ten or so pages, then trying it again and giving up again, then changing my approach and superficially browsing through the whole book once, then jumping around in it like a stray dog, and then starting it all over again, failing at that once more, then getting some help from the Internet, and then starting again.
Did I enjoy myself? No. But then, while reading the first few pages again, something amazing happened: I suddenly noticed that I saw things clearly, as clearly as I believe things can possibly be seen in books. Flower spaces and flower trees and quarters and cakes became flower spaces and flower trees and quarters and cakes. And they also became shining tetris pieces that were gently finding their own way down to the right slots, where they landed with what I can only describe as a delightful click. Everything made sense: every word was in its right place. I still didn’t get very far, though, because, you guessed it, I had other things to do. But I was happy.
Can you afford to miss this chance to be happy? Of course you can. But even if you want to go where the chosen ones go, it’s pretty difficult to take the journey all by yourself. But maybe you have to do it on your own? Of course you don’t.
Get some help: What I can recommend is a few visual displays of the book’s narrative structure that won’t spoil very much, found here. It would be awesome if on that site they actually had a real hypertext edition of the book as planned. But even this was pretty helpful to me. For a general reassurement that it all makes sense and you’re not wasting your time, there’s a fine article here. It’s on Oprah’s website no less, and it really helps, benevolently providing the timid first-time reader with a good frame of mind to get into. Because people, the risk of frustration with a book like this is just as high as the joy it gives you. And with this note, I think I have done all I can to save literature today.
Lolita (or, more precisely, Humbert Humbert’s first-person narrative after the “Foreword”) begins with an explosion of imagery, sound, and rhythm:
“Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.”
Is it a love song? An invocation of a spirit? A dissection of a name? The form is simple, but the content is remarkably complex. For example, the first line seems to create both the object of desire, a light that shines outside or above like the sun, and the desire itself, a fire that burns within the narrator’s own body; so “Lolita” seems to be both external and internal, both the other and the self; and similarly, in the second sentence, Lolita both becomes another contradiction: she (or it?) is now both the narrator’s soul – something intricately linked and well-kept within an individual’s body or being – and the corruption of this soul. Pretty confusing this, and just to my taste.
Some of you may be already put off by either its fancy artfulness or its confusing shuffle of ideas, but for those who are intrigued instead or could use a few insights to get going, there’s a fine close reading of the opening chapter on Kit Whitfield’s blog.
If you just want to get into the right mood, listen to Jeremy Irons’ reading of it.
And then there’s also a Lolita site on Genius, which not only lets you profit from other readers’ insights but also allows you to share your own observations on specific words. When I told Inigo about it, he couldn’t resist the temptation to put in a few thoughts of his own. (He is still typing, emitting sounds of both exhilaration and exasperation.) Be warned though: There’s always a slight danger of spoilers in the annotations, and sometimes people are absolutely and blatantly wrong about everything.