Ben Marcus’ The Flame Alphabet is an ambitious book. And it’s pretty okay. It’s got some things going for it and some things going against it. It says a lot while being economical—it checks in at a little under 300 pages—but also gets tripped up by the author’s rhetorical meandering. It is thrilling at times, but too often plods along like a Molina brother. It is a novel with a premise so rich—and an author so talented, so hailed—that a literary flourish seems inevitable, but ultimately fails to live up to its own lofty conceit.
It’s not often that a good book can still disappoint.
In The Flame Alphabet, a couple (Sam and Claire) is affected by an epidemic caused by, well, toxic language. (It gets complicated.) Those affected get sicker and sicker and sicker, their faces shrinking, bodies drying; a spot under the tongue hardens, eliminating the possibility of speech. Getting the sickness is simple: any intake of language, be it from a conversation or the newspaper or the radio, will make the subject irretrievably ill.
This sickness is at first caused and spread by children—who are somehow immune to this until they reach adulthood. To make things stranger, Sam and Claire belong to an obscure and somewhat secret sect of Judaism that involves a synagogue hut in the middle of the woods (I believe Marcus refers to it as “forest Judaism,” appropriately enough). Their worshipping involves, solely, listening to the radio transmission of two rabbis—they do not know either man—in this hut, having sex in the hut after listening to the transmission, and swearing two things: to never come to the hut alone, and to never tell a soul—not even their daughter, Esther. Forest Judaism, as it happens, becomes the subject of some wild and strange conspiracy theories as the epidemic spreads, some wondering if their inherent secrecy renders the Forest Jews culpable.
Esther is, like her peers, completely immune to this disease, able to speak and listen and read and write without retching. This makes her presence in the novel quite interesting, actually. She is at the age where communicating with her parents is a total drag, the age when all she wants in the whole world is some goddamn privacy, and not to tell her parents about her day—because none of it would interest you anyway, and the parts that interest me wouldn’t interest me because you don’t know me that well—and just eat dinner and go hang out in her room in peace. (It is no surprise that the most exhilarating/poignant moments in The Flame Alphabet come when Sam/Claire—the book is written from Sam’s perspective, by the way—wage these little wars with Esther before everything goes awry, trying to eat dinner with her while playfully being playfully engaging.) The introduction of the sickness, however, throws a wrench in all of this; were she to speak, she would only hurt her parents.
Going much further into the plot would serve little purpose. Marcus takes the reader to interesting places, weighing the consequences of such an epidemic—who has the power? who gets blamed? where lies the antidote?—in a powerful, but ultimately unfulfilling manner. Sam becomes an amateur apothecary, coming up with home-crafted medicine to give his wife and himself.
When Marcus spends pages and pages discussing the science of the language toxin, and the mad scientists who seize control when everything goes to pot, the reader loses sight and feel of the book’s heart: Sam and Claire and Esther. The family unit, dissolved by the sickness, tries to come back together in a completely different world—one without language of any kind, communication eroded to the purest, most instinctual, intimate form: mammalian inference. The reader feels the gut-punching discomfort brought on by a fumbling, sad attempt at intimacy between Sam and Claire—the absence of language not helping to conceal Claire’s disappointment at her husband’s inability to get it up. Likewise the lose-lose dilemma felt by the parents re: their daughter: do we banish her from our lives to preserve our own vitality?
Listen, read The Flame Alphabet. Moments like those recounted above are powerful in a very rare way; Marcus has the command of language and plot to bring you to your knees as a reader. And a few characters—LeBov/Murphy come to mind—are hauntingly well developed and won’t be soon forgotten. It’s Marcus’ awkward forays into a dark and weird and kind of uninteresting apocalyptic world that ultimately undo all the good work he does in The Flame Alphabet, taking time—or at least focus—away from the more palpable, moving issue: Sam’s family, and how a lack of language might reveal their fatal flaws. Those moments are so intoxicatingly good—in plot and language, in every way—that it’s only natural to want more of them.