book review

Failing on purpose: A review of The Flame Alphabet by Ben Marcus

As an experiment in literary form, Marcus succeeds by failing. The lack of coherent plot, the deliberate masking and obscuring of story and characters, does exactly what he wants them to do. And because of that, this is very difficult book to get into, let alone enjoy.

“The lack of speech, the absence of language to build us into full people, had turned us into a kind of emotive cattle. Perhaps a raucous inner life produced shattering notes inside us, but with no extraction tool, no language to pry it free and publicize it, even if it was moronic, one sensed that the whole enterprise of consciousness had suddenly lost its way. Without a way to say it, there was no reason to even think it.”

The Flame Alphabet, Ben Marcus

It’s strange that a book called The Flame Alphabet left me so cold. Ben Marcus’ newest novel has a deeply intriguing premise, one that he aims his prodigious talent toward to make as inaccessible as possible.

In The Flame Alphabet, the world is beset by the most puzzling, devastating plague it’s ever known: language. Language kills. First, it seems it’s only the speech of children—and possibly only Jewish children—-but soon the speech fever spreads, making the speech of all children unbearable to adults. This killing language progresses, making adults’ speech and even written language toxic. Adults wither and die over weeks and months as they are subjected to speech, while children, who are immune, run rampant.

The first part of the book chronicles this rising plague through the eyes of the narrator Sam as he deals with a somewhat distant relationship with wife Claire and tries to comprehend their teenage daughter Esther. As the world begins to realize what is causing the illness, Sam follows an underground movement to make and test cures, all of which fail. Eventually Sam takes Claire and flees their home—and their daughter—in search of respite and a cure. The second half sees Sam in a research facility, as both the experimenter and the experimented-upon.

Language kills. People’s faces shrivel, their tongues harden from disuse. Even writing causes pain, even gesturing can hurt. Marcus puts forth frightening questions: what are we without language? What distinguishes us from animals when we cannot convey meaning to one another? What, even, is the point of meaning at all if we can’t express it, if it can’t be shared?

It’s an ambitious writing project: how can you tell the story of lethal language with anything other than language? Marcus writes in deliberately obscuring ways. Sam is an unreliable narrator at best, even from the start. His daughter Esther seems like a genuinely horrible person even before the toxicity sets in, and a murderous harpy afterward, and yet he adores her, wants only to be reunited with her one day. His narration is obscured by the parent’s blinding love for his child. He is accosted repeatedly by a man named Murphy, whose identity and motivations he can’t be sure of. He is experimenting at home on Claire, doing “smallwork” by making medical vapours and liquids that he exposes his ailing wife to, but he isn’t sure what’s causing the illness, or how the toxicity works, or what the end results of his smallwork will be.

Even the use of imagery throughout lends to the idea of being mired, of being unable to push through. Language is described in textural ways, thick, gluey, coating people’s faces. Piles of salt, which seem to be a byproduct of speech, build up across the landscape. Marcus’ use of language is often brilliant and evocative. At times he wobbles toward the pretentious, however; one thing in particular that struck me was the use of cursing. Some writers are able to integrate naughty words into dialogue and narrative in an organic way. Here, every time Sam refers to the researchers as “the motherfuckers” or talks about “shit,” it just feels forced, like the author thinks four-letter words are daring when used in high literary forms. A pet peeve, but one that grated at me throughout the book.

The distancing and obscuring is frustrating, as it is meant to be. In the latter half of the book, Sam is necessarily unable to tell us what’s going on in the outside world. We see only what is immediately in front of him. But this means we miss an interesting part of the story. Has there been a government response? What’s going on in other countries? What sort of emergency work is going on? How are the adults organizing the quarantining of children? How are the researchers communicating and working with each other? How, even, is Sam working with languages like Sumarian and Linear B, and how do the technicians he works with know to get him these materials? These seem like plotholes but again I think they are deliberate. The answers are obscured from our view. This limited narrator is a conscious choice by Marcus, but one that just didn’t work for me. It’s reminiscent of Saramago’s Bilndness, this unknowable plague that cripples the affected but that we as the readers can’t know much about because we’re experiencing it through the perspectives of the quarantined.

The backstory of the “forest Jew” religion is creative and thoroughly thought out. This is the best fictional religious sect I’ve read since Margaret Atwood’s Gardeners, and I would have liked to see more. Why do the Forest Jews worship the way they do? Who laid out all of the radio cable and how? What is a listener? What is a Moses Mouth? Does the plague really start with Jewish children or are they merely being scapegoated? Again, we see only what Sam knows, and Sam has been complacent in learning about his faith so we’re left with more questions than I’m comfortable with.

Finally, the book brings up an interesting question of likeability. No one in this narrative is likeable. I didn’t feel affinity or empathy for Sam, Claire, Esther (god, Esther, what a terrible, terrible child!), Murphy, or any of the nameless at the research institute. Why, for example, is Esther so loathable even before the plague starts? Wouldn’t the tearing apart of the family be more poignant if she actually seemed to care about her parents to begin with? Does there need to be at least one character with which we can identify and cheer for in a narrative? Not necessarily. Josuha Ferris’ The Unnamed put forth a captivating narrative even though I didn’t like any of the characters. But in The Flame Alphabet, the distancing pushed me away so much that I almost put the book down several times. And I think that’s exactly what Marcus wants.

As an aside, a shout-out must go to the graphic designer behind the cover. It’s one of the most beautiful, simple covers I’ve seen in years.
As an experiment in literary form, Marcus succeeds by failing. The lack of coherent plot, the deliberate masking and obscuring of story and characters, does exactly what he wants them to do. And because of that, this is very difficult book to get into, let alone enjoy. Each quibble I’ve outlined here is no doubt a deliberate choice made by Marcus. So is it worth reading? Perhaps, if you want to explore post-modern forms of storytelling and the limitations of language. But I was ultimately disappointed with the way such a promising plot was explored. By distancing us so much, we aren’t even really able to explore the philosophical, religious, and ethical questions the plot puts forth, which seems to defeat the point of the book entirely. I would much rather know what happens than think about ways in which the language of the story made the story itself disappear.

Two out of five blue pencils

The Flame Alphabet, by Ben Marcus, published by Knopf, © 2012

Available at Amazon, Indigo, Knopf and fine independent bookstores everywhere.

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