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Book Review: The Flame Alphabet by Ben Marcus

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Near the end of The Flame Alphabet, Ben Marcus’s rhapsodic apocalyptic novel of a world where language has become toxic, Sam, the narrator, commenting on a fable of a young bird blindfolded as a rite of passage, says: “I am no fan of stories, perhaps because they seem more like problems that will never be solved…” And although in many respects, The Flame Alphabet may be the most accessible of Marcus’s books, he will find few fans among readers who, like Sam, prefer problems with solutions. Certainly there is a story here. Certainly that story seems to be saying something about language, communication, and human socialization, but just as certainly, exactly what that story is saying may indeed seem like a problem that will never be solved.

Set in an America where adults are becoming mysteriously sickened by the speech of children, the story chronicles one man’s attempt to find an antidote and save his family from the growing menace. Sam and his wife Claire seem a normal family with a young teen age daughter. Or at least they would be, if it wasn’t that every time the girl speaks–indeed, every time they hear any child speak–they are sickened. Claire is wasting away, drying up, calcifying. And it isn’t only them–all the adults all over the country are having the same problem. Sam, an amateur, is doing his bumbling best to find a cure.  

They are members of a sect of Reconstructionist Jews who worship secretly in huts in the forest, where they listen to sermons piped in electronically from holes in the ground. It is suggested that at least some people think that the sickness originated with these Jews and that somehow there are answers to be found in these hidden “Jew holes.” Whether this is an anti-Semitic society looking for scapegoats is never really clear. Much of what is done to deal with the problem is at least a metaphoric allusion to Nazi solutions, final and otherwise. Children are carted away to unknown destinations on buses. People are forced out of their homes. People are used in medical experiments. These measures, however, are not particularly aimed at the Jews.

If at first the sickness is caused by the speech of children, gradually all language—written or spoken, indeed any form of human communication from any source–becomes poisonous. While this would seem to suggest that Marcus is saying something about the existential betrayal of language, it would also suggest that using language to make a point about the failure of language is doomed to fail. It goes beyond language: “This was not a disease of language anymore, it was a disease of insight, understanding, knowing.”

The book, in a sense, becomes the ultimate example of itself. Of course it provides no definitive answers; no answer is the answer. Like the blindfolded bird in the story which learns to live with the blindness, we must learn to live without the noise of language. Yet when it comes right down to it, Sam, like Marcus, turns to language. This is the ultimate paradox for the writer. Language is as likely to confuse as not. Words don’t work, but what else does he have?

On the other hand, if in fact Marcus is maintaining the inadequacy of language it is as likely as not that everything I have just said is inadequate. In the end, what can one say about The Flame Alphabet with any definitiveness? Certainly nothing definitive about what it all means. Any reader looking for definitive would do well to look elsewhere. On the other hand the reader, happily willing to be teased out of thought by the venom of language, will find The Flame Alphabet one of the most interesting books of recent years.

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About Jack Goodstein