Words Are Deadly, So Why Does The Flame Alphabet Use So Damn Many?
Ben Marcus has been hailed as “the most maniacally gifted writer of our generation,” and in his latest novel, The Flame Alphabet (publication date: January 20, 2012), he introduces a brilliant premise—words kill. Marcus does not mean in “the loose lips sink ships” sense of killing, but in a literal sense. In his dystopian scenario, the words of children (at first, only Jewish children) descend upon adults causing physical pain, illness, and eventually death.
When authorities finally pinpoint the cause of the mysterious plague, children are quarantined by means of abandonment. Instead of collecting the children and removing them from their homes, the children are left in possession of their homes and neighborhoods and the adults are removed. For a child, this might sound like a utopian situation, but the story is not told from a child’s viewpoint.
The protagonist of The Flame Alphabet is the narrator, a father who has been infected and is woefully inept at finding a cure, understanding his wife, and disciplining his 14-year-old daughter Esther (who required some serious parenting before the plague struck). Eventually, all language—oral, written, signed—becomes lethal to adults, and communication is impossible.
The Flame Alphabet is relentlessly dark, cynical, and misanthropic. Halfway through the book, I hated the father for his impotence, tediousness, lack of imagination, insensitivity, and stupidity. What’s worse, he seems to recognize these flaws and hates himself as well. His wife, Claire, is the most sympathetic character and he treats her as if she were dull, weak, and inferior—despite the fact that he admits several times that she is his superior. The child Esther is totally unlikable, and as other characters wandered onto its pages, I hated them, too.
If language was toxic, most of The Flame Alphabet’s readers would be gasping for breath by the end of the first chapter. It seems as if Marcus is experimenting on his audience, seeing how many words it will take before they exhibit symptoms. He is inordinately fond of describing things as “oily” or “greasy” and comparing textures to hair. The book is repetitive and inconsistent; if there are numerous ways to express a thought, Marcus uses them all, but then thoroughly neglects to develop ideas that beg for expansion and ignores concepts that seemingly require exploration.
Marcus’ contemptuous examination of religion, families, relationships, and nearly everything else that exists makes The Flame Alphabet a difficult and unpleasant read. It is available as hardcover and electronic books.