Thursday, May 24, 2012

Battle of the Books, Spring 2012, Second Round :: The Flame Alphabet by Ben Marcus vs. Everyone Loves a Good Train Wreck by Eric G. Wilson

The Flame AlphabetEveryone Loves a Good Train Wreck
The second round of the Spring 2012 Fantastic Reviews Battle of the Books continues with The Flame Alphabet by Ben Marcus against Everyone Loves a Good Train Train Wreck by Eric G. Wilson. Whichever book I most want to keep reading after 50 pages will advance to the semifinals.

The Flame Alphabet: Alfred A. Knopf hardcover, January 2012, 289 pages, cover design by Peter Mendelsund. Ben Marcus is a highly regarded mainstream author who often employs surrealism, but The Flame Alphabet is his first outright science fiction or fantasy novel. It reached the second round by defeating Mark Chadbourn's The Burning Man in the opening round.

The Flame Alphabet is set in the near future, as an epidemic that has somehow made children's speech toxic to adults threatens to wipe out society. The book began with our narrator Sam and his wife Claire fleeing their teenaged daughter Esther to save themselves. Then we flashed back to when the epidemic began, and they initially resisted believing that Esther was the source of their illness. The flashbacks continue over the next 25 pages, as Sam and Claire finally admit to themselves the truth. The epidemic is spreading, although seemingly concentrating initially on Jewish populations. Much of pages 26-50 are spent describing Sam and Claire's peculiar sect of Judaism, in which they go to a secret hut to listen to transmitted sermons, which they are forbidden to discuss even with each other.

Everyone Loves a Good Train Wreck: Farrar, Straus and Giroux hardcover, February 2012, 210 pages, cover photo by Simon Lee. Eric G. Wilson is a professor of English at Wake Forest, who has written seven previous non-fiction books. Everyone Loves a Good Train Wreck got here by prevailing over The Stolen Bride by Tony Hays in the first round.

Everyone Loves a Good Train Wreck discusses why so many of us are fascinated by terrible things like graphic horror movies. Wilson analyzes the question through personal anecdotes and quotations from authors in many different disciplines. The first 25 pages of the book mostly framed the question, while the next 25 pages largely focus on whether morbid curiosity is a healthy or dangerous instinct.

The Battle: Over the second 25-page section, The Flame Alphabet has settled into its story. It is heartbreaking to watch Sam and Claire start to feel better and optimistic while Esther is away at horse camp, only to relapse as soon as she returns. I continue to find the dialogue and interactions with Esther very effective. I am a uncertain about the significance of the family's odd form of Judaism, but it certainly ties in somehow to the book's theme of the hazards of language:
The true Jewish teaching is not for wide consumption, is not for groups, is not to be polluted by even a single gesture of communication. Spreading messages dilutes them. Even understanding them is a compromise. The language kills itself, expiring inside its host. Language acts as an acid over its message. If you no longer care about an idea or feeling, then put it into language. That will certainly be the last of it, a fitting end. Language is another name for coffin.
While not all of the passages in The Flame Alphabet work for me personally, I am still very interested to see where Marcus is going with all this.

The second 25-page section of Everyone Loves a Good Train Wreck grapples with the issue of whether morbid curiosity is a good thing. Wilson cites psychologist Colin Beer on the pro side, with a point that relates interestingly to The Flame Alphabet, that morbid curiosity is a byproduct of the sense of imagination that evolved as mankind developed more sophisticated communication techniques:
If Beer is right, then, our morbid fixations are connected to an essential component of language and imagination alike: the ability to relate to others in ways beneficial to a group. The trait most useful for forging these human relationships is empathy, the capacity to identify with the pleasures and pains of another. Our attraction to the macabre is on some level a desire to experience someone else's suffering.
This begs the question: why does our sense of empathy cause us to want to experience the pain, rather than only the pleasure, of others? Wilson doesn't answer, but moves on to the related question of whether experiencing the pain of others can play a cathartic role, or only triggers more violence.

I find this discussion rather cursory, with the most interesting parts often buried in the endnotes, and I wonder if I would get more out of the academic sources Wilson cites than I do out of this book. Since Everyone Loves a Good Train Wreck is intended as an overview for laymen of a subject that others have examined in greater detail, I suppose it's to Wilson's credit that it leaves me wanting to read more. I came to this book, however, expecting it to be of interest to horror fans. Now I think it's better suited as an introduction to people who are not horror fans, and thus haven't already thought these issues through just as deeply as Wilson does here.


The Flame Alphabet moves on to the semifinals, to meet either James Renner's The Man from Primrose Lane or Throne of the Crescent Moon by Saladin Ahmed.

To see the whole bracket, click here.

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