The Flame Alphabet

Ben Mar­cus
  • Review
By – February 7, 2012
The Flame Alpha­bet by Ben Mar­cus reads like a bad dream. Not a bad book, but a night­mare. Not a night­mare to com­pre­hend, but a night­mare to imag­ine. Con­fused yet? Just be glad these words are only tem­porar­i­ly scram­bling your brain: in Marcus’s world, they would be caus­ing facial shrink­age, hair loss, blind­ness, and worse.

With The Flame Alpha­bet, Mar­cus con­jures up the world’s first lit­er­ary epi­dem­ic. The sound of children’s speech has become lethal to every­one over the age of eigh­teen, and chil­dren are wield­ing their new­found pow­ers with hell­ish ecsta­sy. Even­tu­al­ly, it is all lan­guage, writ­ten and spo­ken, that threat­ens to destroy mankind.

The out­break of lethal speech begins with Jew­ish chil­dren — or so the news feeds claim. The Jews are a tricky group to pin down, how­ev­er, as the reli­gion has dis­persed in such a way that no one knows who is Jew­ish any­more. Jews pray alone, con­cealed in huts in the woods, lis­ten­ing to under­ground broad­casts of ser­mons bare­ly com­pre­hen­si­ble through an orange radio wiring that sprouts from a hole in the ground and dis­ap­pears again.

In this ter­ri­ble future, fam­i­lies are slow­ly being destroyed by par­ents’ repul­sion to (their children’s) words. To bring this motif to life, Mar­cus works to destroy the tra­di­tion­al nar­ra­tive as we know it. His nar­ra­tor, Sam, is Marcus’s mouth­piece for cir­cu­lar, often repet­i­tive, hard to grasp lan­guage. Sam is deal­ing as best he can con­sid­er­ing his daugh­ter is killing him— yet it is hard to feel empa­thet­ic, as Mar­cus clouds Sam’s speech with metaphor, describes sin­gle moments in excess, and turns action into inac­tion before any one moment becomes too tan­gi­ble. The detach­ment the read­er feels from the text there­fore unfor­tu­nate­ly extends itself to the char­ac­ters as well. At times, it can be as try­ing to ingest for the read­er as one imag­ines it is for the char­ac­ters liv­ing the sto­ry.

Still, Ben Mar­cus is clear­ly set­ting him­self up to become a force in the realm of exper­i­men­tal fic­tion. While The Flame Alpha­bet feels more like a test­ing ground, there is a fer­vor in Marcus’s writ­ing that could cer­tain­ly, in future works, lead to tru­ly explo­sive (but hope­ful­ly not apoc­a­lyp­tic) results.

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