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The Flame Alphabet Hardcover – Deckle Edge, January 17, 2012

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Editorial Reviews Review

Amazon Best Books of the Month, January 2012: From the dark, curious imagination of Ben Marcus comes another brain melter of a novel. The Flame Alphabet has a pandemic premise--children are slowly killing their parents by speaking--and only gets stranger and smarter from there. When Sam leaves his decaying family behind to seek a cure for his daughter’s lethal condition, he winds up in a government think tank that casually eliminates human subjects in its quest for an antidote. Stories don’t get much more horrifying than this, but Marcus’s absorbing, conversational style makes his twisted bildungsroman as difficult to put down as it is to accept. In an unimaginable situation, Sam takes the only steps that seem possible: He submits, he works, he dreams of his wife and child. This cruel, insightful meditation on societal dysfunction and individual resilience comes from a mind that must be appreciated, even if you find yourself relieved that it’s not your own. --Mia Lipman

Featured Guest Review: Jonathan Lethem on The Flame Alphabet

Jonathan Lethem was born in New York and attended Bennington College. He is the author of seven novels, including Fortress of Solitude and Motherless Brooklyn and two short story collections, and he has edited and contributed to several anthologies. His writing has appeared in the New Yorker, Rolling Stone, McSweeney's, and many other periodicals. His latest book of essays, The Ecstacy of Influence, explores the role of writers in contemporary culture.

Ben Marcus is one of the rare inventors in our literary language. We already knew this, from the outrageous stories, and from Notable American Women. When I call him an "inventor," I'm seeking a little working distance from the bland (and often dismissive) term "experimental"--for if Marcus is conducting experiments, he's conducting them out of view, and then unveiling the results as a fait accompli, like an Edison or Tesla or some other secular magician emerging from a laboratory. Marcus's work, with its powerful kinship to the visual arts and music and perhaps even pharmacology, should less be copyrighted than patented. His devices can enchant and wreck your mind. Like I say, we already knew this.

What we didn't know, and I suppose possibly he didn't either until he blew the wrought-iron clawfeet off his own prototype and replaced them with white-walls and a souped-up engine, is how thrilling it would be to see Marcus apply his gifts to something closer to traditional narrative. I say that as if it's some drab operation ("apply" and "traditional") but in fact what The Flame Alphabet has done is open up a kind of wide-screen view of the sort of crazy Ben Marcus movie that was likely always playing in his brain but which he has now taken out for wide release.

It appears that all the giddy anxiety and sorrowful vertigo of Marcus's language was only the leading edge of an implicit sense of pure story, the kind where figures in a landscape struggle to negotiate outrageous danger, loss and mystery. The book is an urban ironist's reply to Cormac McCarthy's The Road, yet in a way I think it is braver and more wrenching even than McCarthy's book (as well as, as you'd expect, more peculiar and funny, and less infused with wearisome machismo) because of the greater degree of complicity it admits, complicity with the disasters that flow through our collective world but are also locatable in each and every one of us if we're ready to meet them there.

The Flame Alphabet explodes with human drama without for one single line relinquishing Marcus's lifelong commitment to the drama of a sentence making itself known on the page. In fact, and this is surely the most brilliant thing about the book, it fuses those two notions of drama into one immutable and bizarre whole. That's what's known in show business as a spoiler, but I couldn't resist.

From Booklist

*Starred Review* Teenagers can be described as toxic, no doubt about it. But in Marcus’ speculative tale, teens are literally poisoning their parents each time they speak. This ingenious and provoking premise enables the boldly imaginative Marcus (Notable American Women, 2001), recipient of a remarkable array of major literary awards, to explore the paradoxes of family and how the need to communicate can go utterly wrong. As this confounding, heartrending plague spreads from Jewish families to the general population, gravely ill adults flee; teens, who take to terrorizing adults with megaphones, are quarantined; and society breaks down. Claire and Sam, the ailing parents of virulently weaponized Esther, belong to a secret sect of “forest Judaism,” which involves listening to mysterious transmissions emitted from the earth. Their tiny, sylvan synagogue becomes the focus of an aggressive stranger, who directs a grim work camp hastily assembled to find a cure for this catastrophic affliction at any cost. Marcus conducts a febrile and erudite inquiry into “the threat of language,” offering incandescent insights into ancient alphabets and mysticism, ostracism and exodus, incarceration with Holocaust echoes, and Kafkaesque behavioral science. Ultimately, the suspenseful, if excessively procedural, apocalyptical plot serves as a vehicle for Marcus’ blazing metaphysical inquiry into expression, meaning, self, love, and civilization. --Donna Seaman

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Knopf; First Edition edition (January 17, 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 030737937X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0307379375
  • Product Dimensions: 6.5 x 1.2 x 9.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 2.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (96 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #66,555 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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More About the Author

Ben Marcus is the author of The Flame Alphabet, Notable American Women, The Father Costume, and The Age of Wire and String. His most recent book is a collection short stories, Leaving the Sea, published by Knopf in January, 2014. He has published short stories in Harper's, The New Yorker, The Paris Review, Electric Literature, Granta, The Believer, McSweeney's, Conjunctions, and Tin House. He is editor of The Anchor Book of New American Short Stories. He has received a Guggenheim Fellowship, a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in fiction, three Pushcart Prizes, the Berlin Prize, and awards from Creative Capital and The American Academy of Arts and Letters. Since 2000 he has been on the faculty at Columbia University.

Customer Reviews

Ben Marcus' book, The Flame Alphabet, is a bit of a paradox.
The plot takes second place to the characters, who are poorly developed and lack depth.
What can I say, but this is one of the few books I have not finished reading.

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

38 of 46 people found the following review helpful By K. Sullivan VINE VOICE on January 5, 2012
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
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.
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44 of 56 people found the following review helpful By Brendan Moody TOP 1000 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on December 23, 2011
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
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.
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36 of 47 people found the following review helpful By bert1761 VINE VOICE on December 26, 2011
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
"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.
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