A devastating illness sweeps the land. Speech has become toxic. It seems to have started with Jews but it spreads to all others. Only children are immune. Words are a disease to the body, a pollutant to the environment - leaving behind an accumulating salty waste. As the toxin evolves, it's no longer limited to speech, but extends to writing and gestures as well. All forms of communication are noxious, lethal. Adults are wasting away. Without initially comprehending the consequences (only later is speech consciously used as a force of terror), children keep talking, their words physically debilitating adults even in the rare instances when their meaning is not acrimonious. Eventually, children are abandoned to makeshift quarantines - communities from which all adults have fled. The adults are whisked away to a research facility. There the survivors attempt to devise a new safe method of communication.
Samuel (Sam) is the reader's window into the experience. He's a middle-aged Jew, married to Claire. Together they have a fourteen-year-old daughter, Esther. Classifying Sam as a Jew shouldn't normally be necessary. Here, however, it's essential to the story. Sam's brand of Judaism is "reconstructionist" focusing on a "covert method of devotion" complete with very peculiar worship practices and tools. No effort is made to explain or rationalize this strange faith, but it's pivotal to the story. This in no small way contributes to the surreal unsettled nature of the book.
The author portrays the symptoms and effects of the illness in vivid detail. Significant portions of the narrative recount in disgusting detail the putrefaction of the adults' bodies. One doesn't suspect the author of being exploitative, but rather overly morbid. This quality reaches well past the symptoms of the illness, however. The author's representation of marital intimacy and familial relationships is starkly unromantic. There is a base, almost abhorrent or dirty, quality to sexual relations. More broadly, the body itself or flesh is depicted in a repugnant way. Family interactions are necessarily dysfunctional, strained and painful - even before speech became physically harmful. The narrator posits that fatherhood is just another word for failure (or "something done badly"). In another instance, a father only recognizes his daughter with certainty when she regards him with expressions of disgust or contempt.
Sam is something of a miserable, wretched character, and, as witnessed through his perspective, the rest of his family is as well. Reminiscing about birthday parties, Sam's focus is on unsupervised babies ravaging his house, parents stinking up his bathroom, and everyone making a mess on his rugs. Esther is an ungrateful, resentful child. She coldly requests money and privacy for her birthday. She argues that all fond memories are romanticized fabrications. She likens being called "sweetie" to being vomited upon and can't abide niceties. This antipathy is not one way. Despite the existence of some fundamental family loyalty, they are a veritable resentment triangle, each harshly judging the motivations of the others. Such pervasive negativity leaves a bitter taste in the mouth of the reader. There's also something perverse in this stereotypical portrayal of the Jew with a martyr's complex (as personified in Sam but also highlighted in one of the strange Jewish sermons exhorting followers to "take blame for affliction").
Apart from the unpleasant negativity, the story's disparate elements never gel into a cohesive whole. Part 3 provides no resolution to the story, just appended anecdotes. Sections of the novel falter over internal inconsistencies and improbabilities (particularly part 2). There was also a disjointed quality to the text (e.g., repetition, subtle changes in voice). One assumes there must be some insightful analogy veiled in the "demon speech" and the strange Jewish faith, but is there? Or could this be just some surreal fever dream? "The Flame Alphabet" is an ideal candidate for praise like "daring" and "mind-bending" or "sanely insane" (what?) - incomprehensible yet implying profundity. Criticism is easily and inevitably dismissed as resulting from ignorance or misunderstanding. Those who don't appreciate it just don't get it. Any fault lies in the reader.
I had no desire to finish the book. Actually completing it provided no reward for the effort. My advice, approach cautiously. My earnest wish, good luck.
At first glance, Ben Marcus' The Flame Alphabet, in which speech itself is the cause of an debilitating and ultimately fatal illness that causes the collapse of society, would seem to be a post-apocalyptic novel of an unusual kind. It is that, but it's also something more, as one realizes when the narrator reveals that he is an adherent of a bizarre (and completely fictitious) form of Judaism that involves solitary, secretive worship at isolated synagogue huts to which radio sermons are transmitted, sermons that are to be heard in silence and never discussed, not even with others listening to them at the same time. The disturbing strangeness of these practices, and of the way the language virus is described, make the novel as much a work of surrealism as a post-apocalyptic fiction. That surreal atmosphere does not, however, rule out moments of skillful psychological realism, with which Marcus captures the desperate desire of his characters to maintain the rituals of daily life even as the simplest communication becomes dangerous.
The language problem begins with children, whose words are all of a sudden physically painful. There's an obvious metaphor here for the pangs of child-rearing, and to some extent Marcus makes use of it. Narrator Samuel's daughter Esther was a hostile, unsentimental teenager whose relentlessly analytical rejection hurt her parents even before every word became a literal infection, and their arguments are recognizable without becoming trite or tedious. But as a metaphor and only a metaphor, the language virus would be unrealistic and hollow; instead, it has real bite. Samuel's wife Claire gets sicker and sicker, like a terminally ill patient waiting to die, and his efforts to take care of her and to stay in communication with their poisonous daughter are both touching and upsetting. (The attempt to throw Esther a birthday party, in a broken world with no neighbors, no presents, and almost no food, is a tour de force.) However odd the concept, this is a real post-apocalyptic novel, with a pessimistic bent.
Eventually Samuel finds himself in a sort of research center where survivors are trying to find a form of communication that won't sicken them. (By this point the written word and body language are as infectious as speech.) The methods by which they work around their inability to interact, even creating a sort of culture, reveal something about human ingenuity, and also about the vitality that participation in a community provides: without language, the people at the center are intellectually, emotionally, even physically reduced. Like many contemporary novelists, Ben Marcus is aware of the postmodern vogue for declaring communication impossible, or at least incredibly complicated. His invented form of Judaism, with its emphasis on mystic truth as something private that can't and shouldn't be shared, reflects similar ideas in certain religious traditions. Without denying the existence of failures of communication (even before things fell apart, Samuel wasn't good at dealing with his family), Marcus shows how important it is, imagining a world in which its impossibility is literal rather than an academic concept. Meaning may be an illusion, but it's a necessary one, and mystery, like the questions surrounding the man or men named Murphy or LeBov who keep(s) crossing paths with Samuel... well, mystery is overrated. A little of it in a basically orderly society is one thing, but when it's the only constant, life is little better than a nightmare.
In time there's an important discovery at the research center that gives the commentary on our drive for community a darker edge, but like many literary post-apocalyptic novels this book is less about its plot than about the evocation of its grim world and the insights into our society that the difference provides. And this certainly is a novel of eerie and powerful images: parents hiding in concealed rooms, hoping to catch a glimpse of a child with whom they can no longer interact; television programs silenced and the actors' face digitally smeared so audiences can stand to look at them; a desperate effort to receive a radio signal by sending it through the mouth-- desperate, and impossibly successful. Running through all these images, of course, is the need for input, for something to take in and respond to and wrap your life around. It's understanding the importance of that need, and reflecting it through a fantastic yet profoundly human conceit, that makes The Flame Alphabet such a sharp, dark, and moving novel.
A bizarre plague, spread by language itself, is destroying humanity. Only children up to a certain age are immune. The contagion is somehow related to an obscure Jewish sect, whose members worship in little forest huts, receiving bizarre communications from obscure (and possibly fictitious) rabbis. Claire and Sam are among these people, desperately trying to cope with their daughter, Esther, whose venomous tirades are rapidly destroying them. So far, strange but vaguely believable. Then the story descends into some kind of literary madness. The problem, it seems, is language itself. Maybe thought itself. Sam crawls through unlikely adventures, searching for meaning, and things get progressively stranger.
I wouldn't want to spoil the plot for you, but I don't think there is one. The writing is apocalyptic, symbolic, but symbolic of what? That consciousness itself is doomed? I really have no idea. This is one book you'll have to read for yourself.
Author Ben Marcus writes well, his use of language original and imaginative, but he doesn't tell a good story. This one had great possibilities, but after the initial chapters became progressively unreadable. I could hardly force myself to finish the book. I think the novel will appeal to a small group of people, but it was too obscure for me. I can't recommend it. Reviewed by Louis N. Gruber
on July 15, 2014
Beautifully written, if not overwritten. I found the story line to be of minor significance relative to the writing itself, which is sublime (the storyline is unlikely to be appreciated as humorous by anyone not a jew or honorary jew -- it really is deeply, culturally bound and poke u in the eye darkly funny, but outside NY, perhaps not). The author has a true talent for putting words together, esp in this age of minimalism. Here, the words are put together to describe nasty things, but nonetheless, they are brilliantly composed and aesthetically placed in chains as if in a sentence museum. Rather than complete the book, I re-read the first 100 pages, more slowly the second time around, indulging myself by reading aloud when the house was empty, and felt I was given a rare treat by a master. This fellow should stick to short stories, 50 pages max. He would be the master of the genre, at least in terms of craft.
I heard this author interviewed on PBS and was intrigued with this premise. The voices of the children have come to make the adults physically ill. Who has not had the experience of being torn by the anguish of the changing of an adolescent and the basis of deep love for that child. I did not enjoy the character of the mysterious man who has come to enlist the father of the family, and I tired of the world's reactions to the crisis. Perhaps this story would have been more effective as a short story or novella?
"The Flame Alphabet" describes a world in which language -- both oral and written -- become toxic, weakening and ultimately killing the hearer/reader. Reading this book, I could very much empathize with the characters, because I felt as if the life was being sucked out of me. It was one long, hard slog through this relatively short book.
That I disliked this book so much is a particular disappointment, because I am fascinated by dystopian novels, as well as by books about language. Thus, I was really looking forward to reading "The Flame Alphabet." Ultimately, I had to force myself to finish it.
The book really has no plot and, unlike the previous reviewer, I believe that most good dystopian fiction (e.g., many of the novels of Margaret Atwood, "The Children of Men" by P.D. James, "Blindness" by Jose Saramago) are built on their plots. What was the source of the cataclysm? How were people dealing with it? What does the future look like? These are the important questions a novel of this type needs to address. Of course, there can be some good dystopian fiction, such ad Cormac McCarthy's "The Road" that isn't about plot, but the source of the destruction of society is not relevant to that novel; the whole book is about the journey through the world of two characters.
On the other hand, when you start with such an interesting premise as the growing toxicity of language, there is so much potential to develop interesting, thought-provoking theories and plot developments. "The Flame Alphabet" did none of these things. Rather, it nearly bored me to death.
on April 4, 2015
This was a good idea that was terribly painful to get through. It was so bad that I almost preferred walking on the treadmill with nothing to read rather than keep reading this, but I forced my way through anyway, just to be done with it.
The story takes place in the near future, at a time when the sound of children speaking has become toxic. Eventually, all language, even printed text, follows, and Sam and Claire find themselves with no alternative but to abandon their teenage daughter, Esther. Even though they have to leave her, Sam refuses to give up on somehow keeping their family together, even though Esther's vocal teenage rebellion is slowly killing her parents. The rest of the book meanders through Sam's fruitless struggle to find a cure and to continue practicing a form of Judaism where he goes to a solitary hut in the woods and uses an organic device called a Listener to hear sermons from an underground orange cable that apparently spans the entire world, even though earing the sermons is also killing him.
There are a lot of problems with this book, but the basic ones are that there's never a reason why language became toxic, so the main plot is never resolved. Since it's not a plot driven novel, it then has to depend on the characters, but Sam is the only character given any kind of development, and he's just not that interesting. This book was a waste of my time.
The obvious comparisons have already been made. When reading `The Flame Alphabet' you will see obvious influences from notable novels like `Blindness' and `The Road'. You will feel an atmospheric vibe reminiscent of `Children of Men'. The whole idea, this epidemic crafted by Ben Marcus, derives itself from such beginnings.
Like others have also mentioned, this novel is less successful as a whole.
`The Flame Alphabet' tells of a world stricken with the dreadful reality of poisoned speech. Adults are becoming increasingly more repelled physically by the speech of their children. Words in general begin to deteriorate the health of grown men and woman, and the children seem not only immune to this newfound plague, but they also seem to enjoy their power over their elders. First, the epidemic strikes the Jewish community solely, but soon everyone is affected. The children are eventually syphoned off and the adults are sent to structured facilities to work on a cure. The novel focuses on one man in particular; Sam. Sam's wife Claire is especially fragile, and their daughter Esther seems especially malicious in her speech.
Where Marcus loses us is in his overtly wordy and repetitive narrative style. He loses his point by striving too hard to drive home points that don't need all the extra weight to make stand out. He bogs down his own narrative in many places, especially in the 2nd section of the book, but dwelling on unnecessary details.
That being said, the prose is rather intriguing, and the idea of speech being so powerful that it can maim and kill is a great way to address the growing problem with speech development in our society. Still, his central theme feels lost a bit in his approach, and I can't help but feel that a different writer may have been able to advance his concept all the more. There is no depth of spirituality, like that found in `Blindness', despite Marcus's obvious striving. There is no depth of familial bonds, as expressed in `The Road', despite Marcus's strict focus on Sam and his family. Instead, we have a sharp thought that is delivered in a rather uneven tone.
I loved parts of this book, especially the 1st section, but the 2nd section was ill-constructed and the final, 3rd section, feels underdeveloped.
on February 23, 2012
What can I say, but this is one of the few books I have not finished reading. The book was one long metaphor for the disasters this country's children have become based on parents who spoil and indulge them and allow them to spew toxic venom from their mouths. Finally, in this futuristic novel, the vile, contemptable things children say to their parents has become a real poison and parents across the country are dying. I also did not understand the wierd Jewish rituals about going to a hut and listening to sermons from a rabbi with a gel like transmitter. I am going to have to rely on other's reviews to find out the ending because time is too precious to waste on a book that could have been better served as a short story. There is a lot wrong with this country and the wasy parents indulge their children in today's society is a shame. The premise of this book revolving around toxic speech finally doing physical harm instead of just emotional is a good one, however, Marcus is too long and meandering. His prose is repetitive and even down right boring in places. Sorry, but I gave up.
on June 28, 2012
I had such high hopes for this book....it had a great premise...speech causing people to become ill/die. Esther is your typical teen, rebelious, mouthy and just plain rude, when she talks, it makes her parents Claire and Sam very ill, to the point that Claire almost dies from the affliction. Interesting premise, but the books takes a very weird turn, at one point, the intimacy between Claire and Sam dwindles, and Sam goes to a place called the Coffee Cart, and finds sexual partners to have trysts with. It just did not fit into the story and in some parts I just felt dirty. By the end of this, although it was only 289 pgs long, it felt like 500 pages, and I could not wait for it to end. There was no pay off in this at all. I think that the author is a good writer, but I think that he took a great story and turned it into drivel. Unless you are into stories that take weird turns, I would pass this one up.....