Book review: ‘The Flame Alphabet’ by Ben Marcus
Spend too much time with 24-hour news networks and it’s easy to feel that exposure to that much talk can make you sick. Taking the idea a few steps further, author Ben Marcus imagines a world in which language becomes fatal in “The Flame Alphabet,” a powerfully strange and frequently disturbing work that examines the power of words in a new, apocalyptic way.
Similar in grim, end-times spirit to Colson Whitehead’s zombie-pocalypse novel “Zone One,” Marcus devises a world increasingly ravaged by “language plague” that first manifests itself in the sounds of children’s voices, which steadily cripple parents as they struggle for breath, become dehydrated and waste away with each word they hear. Marcus has said in interviews that part of his motivation for the book stemmed from becoming a parent and looking to explore if the love and loyalty he feels as a father could ever be stretched too far.
As the suburban couple Samuel and Claire discover with their steadily more lethal teenage daughter Esther, a parent’s love never entirely runs dry, no matter the cost.
Of course, given Marcus’ track record as a writer, the story isn’t nearly as simple as that. His deceptively slim debut “The Age of Wire and String” was steeped with enough mind-bending experimentation that it became a work easier to admire than understand, and the twisted follow-up “Notable American Women” featured a character named Ben Marcus and a cult known as the Silentists. Though “The Flame Alphabet” carries a far more conventional structure, Marcus’ imagination fills his plague with so many arresting yet confounding details that the reader is left to puzzle over their meaning, as if it goes beyond words.
But if you’re willing to allow for those mysteries, there are rich pleasures in Marcus’ words. Wildly inventive in his imagery, Marcus sends drifts of salt to cover the land as the disease takes hold, frozen birds plummet from the skies and hellish packs of children roam the streets and attack helpless adults with the tone of their loud, poisonous voices. Samuel watches his daughter taking part in the latter, and though Esther’s teenage surliness feels over the top in a book that struggles with well-rounded characters, it’s easy to see the parallels in the horror of parents watching their child age into someone unfamiliar, even dangerous.
To further contribute to the book’s surreal churn, “The Flame Alphabet” exists in a modern yet disconcertingly alien suburban New York where Judaism has been chased underground, and Samuel and Claire worship in huts in the woods connected to a sprawling subterranean network of wires. In keeping with the language-as-power theme, the couple tunes into sermons through a hole in the earth connected to a “listener,” an odd and strangely alive-seeming device that must be tended, lubricated and buried by these “forest Jews” to guard their faith. Sidelong glances to religious persecution from history multiply, with Jewish children briefly scapegoated as causes for the plague, and hastily-built quarantine and research facilities recall Nazi concentration camps.
As the world continues to deteriorate in the plague’s deadly silence, Samuel’s family splinters apart while he strikes an odd relationship with a cult figure named LeBov, who has a curiously deep understanding of the disease that borders on mystical. As the crisis worsens, it’s interesting that Marcus never concerns himself with a governmental response, and instead sends Samuel through a post-plague wasteland to an all-powerful research facility in Rochester, N.Y.
Though Samuel narrates the story’s progression with an almost clinical detachment, he joins LeBov’s team in trying to develop a new, untainted language. While his efforts in playing off the Hebrew alphabet inspire its own bafflingly inventive rabbit hole, LeBov’s true plan for combating the disease reveals something more sinister.
Not unlike the mad genius chefs who become adored by their fellow cooks for impossibly imaginative flights into molecular gastronomy and previously unconsidered flavor hybrids, Marcus has a well-deserved following as a writer’s writer. But what he’s cooked up here isn’t for everyone’s tastes. As arresting and even poetically sad as “The Flame Alphabet” can be, its lack of a readily approachable core in its characters sometimes leaves the book feeling cold, and it struggles to build momentum. Still, it’s a rich testament to Marcus’ gifts that in a story about the death of language, his words frequently come together in ways to be savored.
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