THE FLAME ALPHABET

(Knopf, 2012)

When I finished writing The Flame Alphabet, Tom McCarthy’s novel C had just come out, with a dazzling jacket by Peter Mendelsund.

This confirmed what I’d been suspecting: Mendelsund is a tremendously strong, intuitive designer. I’d already drooled over a few of his jackets, including the Kafka reprints he recently completed.

  

And then when I met him, and we spoke a bit, I learned he was a passionate reader, a deep reader. He knew The Flame Alphabet inside and out—had read it as closely as I ever could have hoped. While we never spoke about what the design would be (what on earth would have been the point?), I knew then that my mission was very simple. I would stay the hell out of his way and let him do his thing.

He makes beautiful, inviting jackets, of course, but they are also wickedly smart, and they reflect a deep respect for the book. I felt fortunate to be in his hands and had no need to try to interfere with directives or images of my own. The resulting jacket is sumptuous and inviting. A picture of it makes it look three dimensional. Lots of people who saw a digital reproduction were convinced that each jacket was handmade with construction paper. They worried how it would hold up to the fondling of book buyers.

One thing I admire about the jacket now is how something ornamental and pretty needn’t have very much meaning, yet at the same time this one does feel resonant with the book, and not just because of the flames. Peter clearly resisted echoing the darker overtones of the book, and there’s some wonderful irony in the jacket as well (which becomes more clear after you’ve read the book). So this was a completely happy experience for me, and I very much hope to work with Peter again.

Ben Marcus, author

Let me say at the outset that it is a massive honor to be affiliated, in any small way, with a book by Ben Marcus. When his editor, Marty Asher, first told me that Ben had a new novel coming up on the Knopf list, I started bouncing, uncontrollably, on the balls of my feet. This annoyed Marty sufficiently that he agreed to let me design the jacket, just to get me out of his office.

Marcus’s latest novel, The Flame Alphabet, is as engaging to read as it is difficult to describe. It is, on its face, a disaster thriller—a work of apocalypse lit. It tells the tale of an epidemic and the wide-scale grief that follows in its wake. The author poses the question: what would happen if language—all language—became toxic? What would happen if words poisoned speakers, listeners, writers, and readers? The results are thrillingly (and movingly) cataclysmic as well as allegorically rich and instructive.

Folded into this end-of-days scenario is an extremely moving commentary on parenthood and the loss implicit in loving and raising children. (The language disease first manifests amongst the young, who leave their homes and roam, in feral gangs, leaving behind their sickened parents to suffer—as all parents of growing children inevitably do—a most painful admixture of revulsion and longing.)

The Flame Alphabet is also (and this is where things start to get truly weird) an oblique meditation on Judaism. The narrator worships in a Jew hole, an underground shul in which “forest Jews” perform their rites and receive coded transmissions through lubricated orange cables snaking out of the ground. (Still with me?) The esoteric, kabbalic traditions are particularly relevant to the narrative—most pointedly in reference to the power of the alphabet as a vessel of meaning and divine providence. (The Jew as the historical scapegoat is also referenced.)

Stirred into this mix is a whole bunch of other metaphorical vectors and fantastical details too wonderfully absurd to mention out of context.

So how does one graphically represent all these strands when trying to build a book jacket? Well, it turns out that one doesn’t.

I began with complex typographic explorations.

The book’s narrator toils to invent new semantical forms, using a variety of methods and materials with which to counter the rampant new linguistic toxicity. Mirroring him, I began the jacketing process by making ideograms, symbols, glyphs. I attempted to invent typographic characters, re-constructions of older letterforms. One such experiment was a vaguely Hebraic symbol. (A reconstructed, crying Aleph?)

There were also several experiments involving the sephirot (the kabbalic emanations of the infinite).

But the end results in all these cases were too cryptic, and too grim for such a vibrant book. Instead, I ended up borrowing a single, simple image from the text: that of a bird. Birds seemed to be an important part of the central parable—an important, accessible metaphor. So I tried making a bird. That is to say, I attempted to construct a jacket out of feathers.

As it turned out, the feathers looked better upside down; they became the eponymous flames.

      

In the final analysis, Ben’s jacket ended up looking more decorative than explanatory. And much to my surprise, that was ok. The jacket, in all its disorienting colorfulness, just sorta works. (At least I hope it does.)

The first and most important job a book jacket performs is to beckon to the potential reader; to glimmer and entice the browser. If a book jacket does not succeed in this primary task, it fails completely. In the end, if nothing else, I hope the jacket helps this book (which ranks amongst the finest, most original and probing pieces of fiction I’ve read in my time at Knopf) find the widest possible audience.

Peter Mendelsund, designer

One comment

  1. It’s quite brilliant and it’s really interesting to read about how the book translates itself into images, and what those images were; the succession of thoughts. The Kafka covers are beautiful too. I wish more people would write about the relationship between words and pictures, and how and why what colours and designs are chosen. This seems a highly poetic response, more like a work of art from a work of art.

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