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.

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