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.