Ben Marcus, while an excellent prose stylist, has never written a book with a “traditional narrative.” His latest, the uber-hyped Flame Alphabet, has only metaphorical plot struts (children’s voices become toxic to adults), but “It has a plot, and a protagonist, and at times it even threatens to become a thriller,” which makes it, as Lennon sees it, a hybrid of experimentation and traditional narrative. As should be expected, by virtue of Marcus’s extensive experience with experimentation, and null experience with narrative, the traditional implodes and the experimental succeeds. The implosion, says Lennon, takes with it the thrill of Marcus’s sentences, his greatest strength. I was on the fence about Flame Alphabet. Now I am not.
The Fat Years, by Chan Koonchung, reviewed by David L. Ulin (L.A. Times)
Chan Koonchung’s first novel to be translated into English imagines 2013 in China, after a devastating economic collapse has crippled the rest of the world, and the Chinese government, thriving according to the Chinese government, has loosened its grip on its people. As the narrator says, “90 percent, or even more, of all subjects can be freely discussed, and 90 percent, or even more, of all activities are no longer subject to government control. Isn’t that enough?” It’s simultaneously a satire of contemporary China, in which only being censored a little would be a big improvement, and the West, where freedoms of speech and information are fiercely protected, but most citizens are too lazy to take advantage of them. David L. Ulin sorts this all out, as well as the role of atmosphere in fiction.
This thriller about face-reading and con artistry appears to be brash and melodramatic, if this line—spoken by the deceptive, seductive female lead—is any indication: “The real reason we have faces is to hold back what we’re thinking from the world.” That rather soapy philosophy hints at a narrative less rigorously realistic than perhaps a novel about the quite-real science of face-reading should be. But it could also be fun.