The essential premise of the breathtaking new novel by Ben Marcus is this: language is toxic. The very same language device—mere words—can’t do justice to a review of the incredible and heartbreaking The Flame Alphabet.
As the book opens, the narrator, Samuel, and his wife, Claire, are getting ready to forever leave their home in a small town in upstate New York. They are to leave their teen daughter Esther behind, for it is her speech that is slowly killing Sam and Claire. Esther will be taken care of in a special quarantine with other children, they are promised. It is a sign of just how bad things have gotten in the bleak landscape that hundreds upon hundreds of families are split asunder this way, choosing to slink away from their toxic children, trusting that the authorities will know best what to do with their most precious assets.
Given its cause, the plague is hard to diagnose at first for obvious reasons—nobody could have imagined that one’s own children can sicken you to death. The effects of the disease are disfiguring, and pretty much everyone around shows signs of it. The face shrivels up over time, the tongue hardens and crusts over, and food is merely fuel. The afflicted get by on the bare minimum staying alive, ironically enough, for the sake of the children.
What’s also special about Sam and Claire is that they are Jews who don’t attend weekly services in a communal synagogue, choosing instead to get their sermons through a small device that is shrouded in complete privacy in the middle of the forest. Sam has built an entire hut around this little speaker—it’s one of the many tasks that must be performed to be a part of this religious community. There are presumably many such Jews taking in sermons like these from Rabbi Burke—“Forest Jews,” as they are somewhat disparagingly referred to by the wider public.
When the language plague is first discovered, it is initially diagnosed only as prevalent among the Jews. When a plague of this magnitude descends, all the crazies emerge from the woodwork. One of these is Sam’s “neighbor,” Murphy, who is convinced that the secret to the cure lies in this Jewish sermon box set deep in the woods. Murphy is a cunning chameleon-like scientist who morphs into yet another evil villain, running an entire laboratory dedicated to finding the cure for this disease.
Through a series of circumstances, Sam finds himself working at this laboratory, Forsythe, trying to reinvent the alphabet and eventually finding out that he was recruited primarily to figure out the workings of the sermons’ vehicle.
By visiting history, Marcus claims that the story of a child poisoning its parent has been brought up before. From “Pliny comes the idea of a child who speaks the poisonous word, who uses certain mouth shapes to spread pestilence,” he writes. Given the novel’s broad outline and story details, it would be tempting to classify it as science fiction or dystopian fiction, and it certainly has elements of each. But Marcus kneads something entirely different here with the material he has. By focusing on one particular man and the most basic of his familial interactions, he makes the story at once universal and immediate. The reader is very invested in learning exactly what happens to the trying yet lovable Esther and in supporting one man’s basic mission to keep his family together.
Marcus, who does not have a teen daughter himself (even if he is a father), lays out the dynamics of the teen-parent relationship succinctly yet so powerfully that the book also succeeds in packing quite an emotional punch without one trace of melodrama. “When I thought of Esther alone in the house, without us, I pictured her being waited on by…us,” Sam says. “Facsimiles of us. Robot usses.” Every heartbreaking sentence captures Sam’s essential dilemma: Is saving himself worth the cost of not having his daughter around?
Marcus combines a stunning story with just brilliant writing. Every word is just pitch-perfect. Here, for example, is Marcus’s take on one simple word parents often exchange with one another: “Hello was the perfect word. It began and ended all contact, delivering us into private chambers from which we could enjoy other people in textbook abstraction, without the burden of intimacy.”
Marcus, who is widely considered one of the more daring and unconventional writers of our time, has said that one of his primary motives is to have the reader “feel things.” He definitely accomplishes this task in this atmospheric, disturbing, yet strangely uplifting novel. It forces us to confront many of life’s basic questions, including the definition of love and the role of faith in our everyday lives. “One’s faith was meant to yield actionable material at times like this, I always thought, when one’s own imagination had failed, when nothing seemed possible. Wasn’t this why we accommodated an otherwise highly irrational set of beliefs?” Marcus asks.
The bleak story in The Flame Alphabet sounds pretty close to improbable, so it’s hard to imagine it actually happening in reality. Although as Marcus writes: “Given what’s happened, the impossible is just a blind spot that dissolves if we move our heads fast enough. History seems to show that the impossible is probably the most likely thing of all.” He has a point there, of course. Shudder. If such a scenario were indeed to unfold, one would want nothing more than the love of a man like Samuel to make it through to the other side—each and every one of us should be that lucky.
“Letters, Montaigne said, are a necessary evil,” writes Marcus in The Flame Alphabet. Often times when they are used to good effect, they can be more than just that. As this stunning novel proves so well, letters can also be strung together to create necessary art.