Review: Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell

>>Published: August 2004

>>Finally got around to it: February 2012

Sixsmith,

Dreamt I stood in a china shop so crowded from floor to far-off ceiling with shelves of porcelain antiquities etc. that moving a muscle would cause several to fall and smash to bits. Exactly what happened, but instead of a crashing noise, an august chord rang out, half-cello, half-celeste, D major (?), held for four beats. My wrist knocked a Ming vase affair off its pedestal—E-flat, whole string section, glorious, transcendent, angels wept. Deliberately now, smashed figurine of an ox for the next note, then a milkmaid, then Saturday’s Child—orgy of shrapnel filled the air, divine harmonies in my head. Ah, such music! Glimpsed my father trotting up the smashed items’ value, nib flashing, but had to keep the music coming. Knew I’d become the greatest composer of the century if I could only make this music mine. A monstrous Laughing Cavalier flung against the wall set off a thumping battery of percussion.

***

Crossing oceans and spanning hundred of years, from a Pacific voyage in 1850 through present times and extending into an imprecise future where humanity has managed to come within a breath of extinguishing itself, David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas is an exercise in linked narratives, the nature of man and man’s predication towards both good and evil, and a parable about the existence of an eternal soul that passes between bodies through time and place.

Employing a pyramid structure—five chronological half-narratives, one apex narrative, then the concluding halves of the first five narratives completed in chronologically descending order—Cloud Atlas is frustratingly ham-fisted. Embracing artifice over architecture and emotional resonance, Mitchell’s linking narratives are hollow excursions. Independent of one another, they offer academic (and creatively bankrupt) windows into several lives, including that of an American lawyer crossing the Pacific in 1850, an investigative journalist with an environmental conspiracy on her hands in the 1970s, and a manufactured clone facing execution in a potentially far-off corporate run future dystopia. Together, they form a tepid examination of our cyclical and reactionary natures, and very little else.

Long have I been a proponent of grand, planned-to-the-Nth-degree narratives, but Mitchell’s stories never achieve the same heights as his clear ambitions. Cloud Atlas abandons all semblance of character for the sake of this narrative conceit, and fails dramatically as a result. Focusing too much on style and diction (to a degree that destroys all interest in the narrative with its impenetrable, terribly written apex story, “Sloosha’s Crossin’ an’ Ev’rythin’ After”), Mitchell’s expansive, proto-science fiction epic is a hot mess that crosses the line from affecting specific styles for the sake of the narrative into being a painful, half-baked prototype.

Cloud Atlas is a noble failure, but a failure nonetheless. Mitchell is an intelligent writer with grand plans, but his third novel is evidence not of a storyteller, but of an academic humanist. His thesis is sound, though not terribly original. However, it is in the creation of his world and his characters where his brilliance fails to convince.

Review: Immobility, by Brian Evenson

>>To be published: April 2012

“What’s in these?” asked Horkai, more as a way to slow Mahonri down than out of any real curiosity.

“Records,” said Mahonri. He stopped, turned around. “What we have here is the history of the human race, a record of births and deaths for hundreds and hundreds of years.”

“Why?” asked Horkai.

“What do you mean, why?” Mahonri responded. “Humanity is important. All these things must be preserved so that, when the time comes, humanity shall know what it has been, is, and will be.”

“When the time comes for what?”

“When the time comes for humanity to return.”

***

Josef Horkai isn’t having all that much fun. Brought out from a thirty-year cryogenic slumber and paralyzed from the waist down due to a mysterious illness in his spinal cord, an illness that will kill him unless regularly (and painfully) treated, he emerges into a sparsely populated world with nothing but a mission, a pair of mules, and the constant threat of death looming overhead. Maybe not his death—maybe humanity’s, or maybe his two stalwart and intellectually truncated companions—but death nonetheless.

Horkai is tasked by Rasmus, the enigmatic leader of this last-of-humanity shelter called a “hive”, to go forth into the wasteland carried on the backs of two mules—test-tube human simulacrums named Qatik and Qanik—and retrieve a mysterious canister of seed, which, according to Rasmus, is essential to their survival. The journey will take Horkai and his mules through the toxic remains of the world, and past what little of society still exists in the wake of “the Kollaps”. Despite his paralysis, only Horkai is genetically equipped to withstand the brutal wasteland environment. His two mules are sacrifices so that this paraplegic anti-hero can accomplish his mysterious mission.

What the Kollaps was, what sparked it, and the direct fallout from the event, are not Evenson’s primary focus. Instead he uses the aftermath of this seemingly global catastrophe (likely nuclear, though details remain uncertain through to the very end) to tell a tale of a violent man’s limited purpose in a world where the only necessity is to find a way to kickstart humanity all over again. Horkai’s past is alluded to in snippets of exchanges between him, Rasmus, and the unlucky few he comes into contact with along his journey on the backs of his two sacrifices, but even then, details are never concrete, never entirely trustworthy.

Immobility is a test of brevity. With effective and conventional writing, Evenson offers up an are-they-or-aren’t-they zombie/vampire/Mad Max-style narrative. Immobility doesn’t bring an exceptional use of tone or language to the folds of the post-apocalyptic story. Minimalism is more the game on display. Evenson uses the setting to great effect to show both the essential quality of a blunt instrument in a world gone to shit, and to show that same character’s uselessness in the possible future that might grow from his actions—and to illustrate, as we’ve come to expect, that in such a setting, knowledge will always hold the wild card over brute strength.

Through the objective certainty of his mules and their acceptance of the roles they must play in Horkai’s journey, the predictably opposing sects of science and faith, and a lone wasteland holdout with no name, Evenson offers some quiet philosophizing that is not often seen in this genre—at least, not with any degree of subtlety. Immobility never goes too far astray in this manner, nor does its narrative ever become obstructed by the rather large red herring at the core of the tale—the how and the why of Horkai’s ability to survive without protection in the wasteland’s toxic air.

From beginning to end, Evenson shows impressive restraint, never giving more than we need, never leaving the reader pissed off at what we aren’t told. It stumbles a bit from time to time—specifically with its all-too-revealing-yet-not-at-all dream sequences—but they do not negatively impact the story’s rhythm. In the end, however, that’s a minor quibble—an overused crutch in a lot of science fiction. Regardless, Immobility is a solid, fun, post-apocalyptic tale.

Review: Scored, by Lauren McLaughlin

>>Published: October 2011

>>Finally got around to it: February 2012

“Clamdiggah,” the tall one said. “I give her two chances.” He raised his voice to ensure she heard him. “One, she’s swinging around a pole in a few years. Two, land mine food.”

The freckled one laughed with a tinge of embarrassment. “Man, that’s cold.”

“She does have a sexy walk, though,” the tall one went on. “Hey, you know you have a sexy walk? And I’m okay with the race thing. Seriously. No? Still not interested? What about now?”

Imani could feel their eyes on her as she willed herself to walk, not run, away from them. As the sound of their chuckling faded, a single thought cheered her: one day the score would be universal. There would be eyeballs everywhere, even in that haunted pathway. You’d need a score to go to college, a score to get a job. Maybe you’d even need a score to go to high school. Privilege would be wiped out, and boys like that would get what they deserved.

***

The gamification of the future continues in Lauren McLaughlin’s Scored. Best described as Nineteen Eight-Four by way of a Machiavellian Xbox Live Achievement Points-style meritocracy, Scored presents, for your consideration, Imani LeMonde and Diego Landis (those his name is mistakenly written as McLune on the book’s jacket flap): a scored girl with unlimited future potential—providing she tailor her associations accordingly—and an unscored boy with uncertain ambitions and a mysterious way about him.

ScoreCorp is paving the way for future generations. In Somerton High—a ScoreCorp sponsored institution—the scored are a band apart. The camera eyes around the school and surrounding town are watching their every move—their grades, their actions, and their associations, both in and out of school. Maintaining a score of ninety or above is the path to a higher education, scholarship, and employment in the field of your choice. Scoring in the seventies or eighties means retail sector, or possible military service. Dropping down into the sixties and below and you risk “lowbie” status. And like humans and our capacity to compartmentalize emotional scarring, one’s score is easily tarnished, but difficult to reinstate to its prime.

Scored is a bit of an uneven product. Taking inspiration from Orwell and Huxley, McLaughlin’s quiet little dystopian is more academic exercise than narrative. Using Imani and Diego’s different upbringings and opposing worldviews to provide ample room for debate, McLaughlin isn’t as interested in plot or character development as she is in addressing established dystopian parables within a contemporary framework.

The setting of Scored is more unsettling than its ideological contemporaries due to its accessibility. Rather than positing a future society that may or may not ever come to pass, Scored is our world, with one simple difference that changes how people determine their associations, their friends, and whether or not to sacrifice one another on the altar of upward social momentum.

Scored is a fun, simple read with an appealing ideological premise (recycled though it may be). The interplay between Diego and Imani is biting and amusing, though Imani’s about-face change of perspective comes with too little time in the narrative to be truly effective. It’s also worth noting that this is the first YA novel I’ve read in some time to use the word “fuck” so casually. The lack of conceptual originality works in the book’s favour as a means of prompting discussion between the characters, but the short running length and truncated running-into-a-brick-wall ending left me wanting more than what I’d been offered. Lauren McLaughlin’s Scored is a delicious first course—but that is all it is. Without acknowledgement and fallout from Imani’s decisions, it feels less like a complete story and more like the first act of a grander tale.

Review: Mr g, by Alan Lightman

>>Published: January 2012

>>Finally got around to it: February 2012

“Such little lives,” said Belhor. “Wouldn’t you agree? But there is also something of grandeur in them. Not in the individual lives. The individuals are just tiny specks, nothing. But in the monstrous jellied masses of them, the crowds, the communes, and planets, there is something of grandeur. They have thoughts. And they strive.”

“They strive for what they might attain,” I said. “And they also strive for what they cannot attain. Most of them yearn for immortality. They want to live forever, even though they do not know what forever means.”

Belhor and I were walking together through the Void, just the two of us. He, as I, could hear the voices. “Yes, it is strange,” he said, “that they wish for immortality. As far as they know, immortality could be unending torture and excruciating pain.”

“But they understand very well its opposite,” I said. “They understand mortality.”

“That they do,” said Belhor. “They see death and dying all around them. They see other living things grow old, parents and loved ones. They see skin become brittle and dry. They see their ability to move slowly decrease, hearing and seeing diminish, internal organs fail one by one. Disease.”

“You always describe things so grimly,” I said. “Death is the way of all matter.”

“It is your law,” said Belhor. “It is what you wanted.”

***

Einstein’s Dreams author Alan Lightman offers an unconventional take on God: as a youthful renaissance soul; the Peter Parker-esque apple of his Aunt Penelope and Uncle Deva’s eyes, naturally gifted in music, mathematics, and physics. Mr g’s take on God is that of an ambitious, somewhat childlike creator who, on an impatient whim, decides to create the universe.

Each chapter in Mr g deals with another aspect of creation to be considered when designing a universe from scratch: “Time”, “Space”, “Matter”. Even basic operational laws and principles of action and reaction are matters of consequence and consideration for the young artist-cum-scientist.

The God portrayed in Mr g is less the omniscient, omnipresent force of Christian mythology and more a curious philosopher. He approaches creation as a means of giving his own existence a purpose; it is not about us, about unnamed mistakenly sentient beings created not purposefully but as a natural reaction to the basic articles of existence, as decreed by God. Rather it is about his existence, with his aunt and uncle, and the undefined parameters of immortality. Mr g does not philosophize the whys and wherefores of God’s existence—only that he does exist, and that his existence is as meaningless as any other until he chooses to create a universe (or series of universes) to which his presence is of great importance.

Yin and Yang—the light side of the force and the dark side: with the creation of the universe and life within, there is also the creation of a counterweight for God—the enigmatic Belhor (see also: Belial, Baalial, Beliar). Belhor, though somewhat troublesome, is not presented as the fallen angel to God’s throne. He is, in Mr g, God’s philosophical other half—the question to his authority. Where, regarding the creation of sentient life, God might say:

“Tell me, what do you think is the meaning of these creatures? What would you say is the meaning of their lives?”

And Belhor would respond:

“What meaning could they have? They amuse me. That is their meaning. But whether they have meaning in and of themselves? That would be giving these little things far more credit than they deserve.”

Mr g is ambitious in concept, but not in scope. The philosophy presented is not particularly new or unconventional. However, it is in the humanizing of a creator as an artist with need of a canvas, as lacking definition until choosing to define existence for his self, where Lightman’s novella finds its surest footing.

Similar in tone to Kevin Brockmeier’s The Illumination, Mr g is physics-and-spirituality-light from Pantheon: easily digestible yet engaging. There’s just enough fuel for curiosity and speculation in Mr g to hold one’s attention through to the end, but not so much as to drive away non-believers or anger the devout. A well struck balance.

Review: The Maladjusted, by Derek Hayes

>>Published: September 2011

>>Finally got around to it: February 2012

I tell him I have a mental illness.

“Do you hear voices?”

“No, but sometimes I feel a bit maladjusted.”

“Do you hallucinate?”

“I don’t think so. I once was convinced that the ozone layer was going to rupture and that everybody would die. I’ve since read that the ozone layer is starting to heal itself. So I feel better.”

“I hear voices,” he says, matter-of-factly. “If I can concentrate on my moves I can drown them out. do you know what I am talking about?”

“I think so.”

“Let’s play chess.”

“All right.”

***

A myriad of misunderstood individuals—some misanthropic, others magnanimous, all maladjusted, mistrustful misfits of varying degrees.

(I promise to not do that again.)

Kidding aside, there is a definite level of misanthropy running through the sixteen stories in Derek Hayes’ The Maladjusted. His characters—be they ESL teachers in Taipei, glory-day mid-twenties court hogs, or the office malcontent who snipes the backs of everyone (praise be to the glory of inter-office email)—are frayed wires. Passive extremes that assume the worst about the world around them—that bottle up emotions, constructing fabricated exchanges and, in the process, wrapping their insides up in knots. There’s a thick vein of humanity apparent in each of these stories, though it is the shadow parts of ourselves we’re happier to pretend don’t exist.

In “That’s Very Observant of You”, Melanie is incapable of confrontation, of simply telling another person, honestly, how she feels. Her neighbours are out to make her life miserable, parking in her spot without care or remorse; the attractive waiter at the Lucky Dragon restaurant insulted her with a simple remark—but it wasn’t so simple, it was cruel, and damaging, and driven into the heart of her. Only these things aren’t true. Melanie is fearful, socially inept, unable to express the simplest of thoughts or concerns to others because she is so spiteful towards herself.

James, protagonist of “In the Low Post”, is the inverse of Melanie—outgoing and asinine, and hanging out with a crop of kids half his age. In his mid-late twenties, James isn’t willing to give up the golden years ghost, holding to his sock-stuffing rank as master of the basketball court. He isn’t afraid to speak his mind; no, what James is quietly terrified of is that indescribable moment when the high school kids he calls his “soldiers” look to this aging office jockey and realize how sad and incapable of moving on he truly is. This is the moment he knows is coming—his transition from idol to cautionary tale.

In “Green Jerseys” and “Maybe You Should Get Back Here”, assumptions are life changers—decisions made about people, through fear, misunderstanding, or general ignorance that move their protagonists, by their will or the will of others, into entirely new positions. In both cases, unsettled and alone.

Hayes is yet another example of the strength of Canadian short story writing. There’s little wasted text in The Maladjusted. Hayes embraces the same punctuated absurdity that sold me on last year’s Up Up Up and The Odious Child. Similar to those two titles—especially Black’s The Odious Child—Hayes exhibits a compassionate contempt for each of his characters. They are parts of him, of people, family, and friends he has known, but damaged and, in some cases, with seemingly little hope for their futures.

Like all collections, some of the stories are stronger than others: “The Maladjusted”, “That’s Very Observant of You”, “In the Low Post”, “Maybe You Should Get Back There”, “Tom and Wilkie”, and “Shallowness” are the strongest in the collection, while “An Empty Tank of Gas”, “The Revisionist”, and “My Horoscope” are the unfortunate weak links. However, even the weaker stories in The Maladjusted still shine. This is a thoughtful, introspective collection that, from time to time, was a bit difficult to read—there’s a bit more of Melanie in me than I’d care to admit. Still, highly recommended.

*And as a production side-note, the header for “The Revisionist” is wrong in my copy. It is “Shallowness” instead. A small, niggling thing that watch out for, in case a reprint is in order down the road.

Review: Three A.M., by Steven John

>>To be published: March 2012

I had been twenty-eight the last time I saw the sun. Fifteen years ago. And that had just been a chance parting in the mist. It took months for it to go from clear to hazy to socked in. I was so used to it that it rarely occurred to me just how different things were. But those first days—those had been horrible times. Everyone gripped by a sense of despair. Suicides ran rampant. Fear was everywhere. As the sickness spread and they started shutting down cities, quarantining us by the thousands, the fog started in and changed everything. Fucked everything up.

***

Thomas Vale, ex-military turned halfhearted private investigator, is trapped. A decade and a half earlier, an undefined disease began laying waste to the world outside his city. As a thick, mood-setting fog rolled in, the city found its self inexplicably protected, an island world in a sea of disaster.

Like all good noir, Steven John’s Three A.M. starts with a dame in a bar and a fifty thousand dollar murder mystery. With a running count of only 304 pages, it doesn’t take long for the story to spiral into corporate conspiracy, wrongful imprisonment, and unexpected sexual encounters as Vale attempts to discover who killed Samuel Ayers and why, and to understand the origin of the fog that has enveloped his city.

Three A.M. has a lot going for it in the beginning: a good (albeit somewhat clichéd) noir tone—with whisky, smokes, and shakedowns everywhere you turn; and interesting science fiction mystery that Dark City’s up the atmosphere in some pretty explicit ways; well dressed mystery men stalking up and down all too vacant city streets. Not to mention the character of Vale, who’s not without his fair share of one liners and comic assholery.

As fantastic as that all sounds, about two-thirds of the way through I hucked the book across the room and didn’t get back to it for a solid hour. I can forgive a lot of ridiculous things, providing a book and its characters have a tight enough hold on me. I’m the first in line to give props to a book that tries its best but just doesn’t seem to stick the landing. However, character assassination and tonal destruction, those aren’t such simple things to overlook.

Now, I’m going to dive into some pretty specific spoiler territory here, so if you’re still interested in picking up Three A.M., I would probably stop reading.

Still with me? Fantabulous.

Just past the book’s middle, some fairly significant events happen. We discover things aren’t so cut and dry, and what at first seemed like a pseudo-noir take on the zombie genre—with the infected and diseased swarming the world outside the fog-protected city—is quickly overturned and exposed as a massive wool-over-the-eyes-of-the-world operation. To protect the people in the city from a truth that they would surely not be able to handle (which is a nice way of saying that the kids have lied themselves into a corner, and would rather keep lying than admit to mom and dad who really broke the window with the baseball… yes, I know it’s a stretch of a metaphor—let me have this). In discovering this, Vale is set up to be the fall guy in the case of who killed Samuel Ayers… except that, given certain revelations, no one would seemingly miss Ayers because the project he was working on was so secretive and important, yet all his contacts seem confined within the operation surrounding this city—and no one would really miss Vale, given that the city exists off the map, out of, well, any other jurisdiction in the world. It may as well not exist, and the same goes for him and the unfortunate deceased. So the depths of this plan to frame Vale for this murder strikes a hollow chord… because it doesn’t really matter to anyone but Ayers’ family that Ayers is dead, and his family has already been targeted by those in control. In other words, there seems to be little purpose to the frame job at the climax of the tale, except as a convenient way to reveal to Vale things he never could have known otherwise.

All that’s fine—it’s a hiccup on the road, but it doesn’t derail the novel. No, what takes Three A.M. out behind the woodshed with a rusty shovel and no remorse is the following:

They drew ever nearer. Had to be six, seven choppers at least. Big birds. The forest thundered with their roaring blades. Then, a few hundred yards off, powerful shafts of light pierced the canopy above and began to streak the forest floor. Rebecca screamed and threw her arms around my neck. Her voice was carried away as the rotor wash began to stir the air around us. Three and then four different beams strafed the forest, and I caught glimpses of still others far off to the sides. The howl became deafening. The lights were scarcely a hundred yards away, bouncing around among the trees, illuminating the night.

I looked down into her eyes and saw not fear but a great sadness and resignation. She pulled my ear down to her mouth and called out above the din, “I’m so sorry, Tom. I’m so sorry.”

I looked at her, holding her cheeks between my hands and shook my head. Then I pressed my lips to hers and her mouth opened eagerly. Her hands were on my back, my thighs, my ass, and then up my shirt. She peeled off my jacket and then pulled her own sweater over her head.

What follows is some explicit, awkward, forest-floor sex, chased almost immediately by a complete disregard for the book’s established tone—and the tone of the characters, for that matter—as Vale’s inner monologue goes from borderline hard-ass wisecracking PI to puppy love with a woman he barely knows. And, oh yeah, they decide to get it on, in a forest, while loud, threatening helicopters are combing the ground for them—ostensibly, so they can kill them several times over. Because when your life is threatened and you’re hiding from giant, sweeping beams of light and helicopters loaded with weapon-toting commandos—when staying low to the ground, not moving, and not making sounds are probably in your best interests—it’s probably not a good idea to get your fuck on.

Oh, and it ends with: “Will you stay in me for a while?” Again, while lying on the forest floor, and not at all fearing for their lives. Which makes them either incredibly cocky, or rock-solid stupid. I haven’t decided yet.

Steven John isn’t a bad writer. For a first-time author, he’s got some decent chops for humour and I really dug the setting of Three A.M. But the degree to which the story and characters fall apart post-mid book revelation make it impossible for me to give this title a pass. I’d like to see him take another stab at the genre, but with a clearer sense of tone and purpose.

Review: The Flame Alphabet, by Ben Marcus

>>Published: January 2012

>>Finally got around to it: February 2012

In the months before our departure, most of what sickened us came from our sweet daughter’s mouth. Some of it she said, and some of it she whispered, and some of it she shouted. She scribbled and wrote it and then read it aloud. She found it in books and in the mail and she made it up in her head. It was soaked into the cursive script she perfected at school, letters ballooning with heart-dotted i’s. Vowels defaced into animal drawings. Each piece of the alphabet that she wrote looked like a fat molecule engorges on air, ready to burst. How so very dear.

The sickness washed over us when we saw it, when we heard it, when we thought of it later. We feasted on the putrid material because our daughter made it. We gorged on it and inside us it steamed, rotted, turned rank.

***

The toxicity of language: by no means a new concept, Ben Marcus’s fourth novel, The Flame Alphabet, fully embraces the idea of language as a purifying destructive force. Using Schindler’s List-style imagery, the abolishment of vocal interaction, and a pronounced depiction of the role reversals that take place between adults and children in a world where children wield the most devastating weapon of all, The Flame Alphabet is, put simply, an unnerving read.

Sam and his wife Claire are sick, dying with every word their little girl, Esther, speaks, sings, or whispers. The language of children is infecting the world with bird flu-like efficiency, their parents the initial targets. At first, it’s believed that this linguistic virus is Jewish in origin, but it is not long before the illness spreads beyond those of the Jewish faith and to the general populace, with only children immune to the plague of their words.

Narrated from Sam’s point of view, The Flame Alphabet is divided into three parts: the discovery of the toxicity of children’s words; the reversal of parent-child roles and the examination of the plague’s origins at the Forsythe compound; and the aftermath, as Sam returns to what remains of his quarantined former life and the family he seeks to rebuild.

The Flame Alphabet is not entirely successful as a cohesive piece of literature. It’s ambitious and exciting in its allegorical foundations, but its more unsettling nature is somewhat undone by a plot that periodically loses steam. In particular, Sam’s arrival at the Forsythe compound and his research there—attempting to discern the nature of the linguistic plague and whether or not there remains any safety in language whatsoever—is in conflict with the speed by which he engages in a purely physical relationship with a woman named Marta, and in the midst of such devastation and the hardships he has experienced in his own life. Though there is metaphorical weight to this—that when language fails, physicality and carnality must fill the void—from the perspective of the narrative, his actions reach beyond the boundaries of acceptability, and in turn, do irrevocable damage to his character.

Marcus’s thesis surrounds the nature of the demanding and often misunderstood relationships that develop between parents and their children. Though parental love is often unconditional, the struggle to connect with one’s offspring in their early formative years, as teenagers and young adults, is often fraught with vitriolic sparring. At its most basic level, this conceit gives purpose to The Flame Alphabet’s early chapters—as Esther enters into her own and begins to seek out her individuality, her actions and words begin to cut those whose sole purpose in life is to love and care for her. Think teenage rebellion with verbal weaponry.

As the narrative progresses, the immunity of children and teenagers takes on a more sinister light: they are not magically impervious to the disease they so wilfully spread—it is their ignorance that saves them. Denotative versus connotative language: the surface meaning of words is not where the danger lies, rather it is within the deeper meanings and symbolism of language—a degree of understanding that comes only with age and experience—that the threat exists. The more we bear witness to, the more horrifying our world will become.

Once understood, the metaphor helps drives the narrative into even darker territory, where children are harvested for the uncertain cure within, bled dry, so to speak, so that their parents and elders might live. The role reversal—the adults surviving off the blood, sweat and tears of their children—is compelling, though tarnished by the Bond villain-esque mannerisms of the mysterious is-he-responsible-or-is-he-just-some-anti-semitic-child-harvesting-dick LeBov.

The Flame Alphabet survives on the strength of its allegory. Marcus’s writing is fast and loaded with imagery; the detailed depictions of the dead and dying, their bodies wasting away beneath the toxic assault of language, is difficult to stomach and gives urgency to his narrative. It is only in the second half of the book where the nature of the metaphor fails to give proper respect to the perceived integrity of its protagonist. Perhaps that is the biggest complaint I am able to lodge against The Flame Alphabet—that its allegorical ambitions far outstrip the book’s narrative structure.

***

To add a brief footnote: though I do recommend the book for what it is—as a well written dissection of denotative and connotative language, and as an examination of the demands and misunderstandings inherent in the roles played by children and their parents—I do not advise any new parents give this a read. I am not a parent myself, and even I found it difficult to stomach the necessity of parental neglect for the purpose of survival that exists at the heart of this tale. Fair warning—it pulls no punches. The crux of this book is a parent’s worst nightmare.