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The Flame Alphabet (Vintage Contemporaries) [Kindle Edition]

Ben Marcus
2.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (94 customer reviews)

Print List Price: $15.00
Kindle Price: $9.98
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Sold by: Random House LLC

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Book Description

In The Flame Alphabet, the most maniacally gifted writer of our generation delivers a work of heartbreak and horror, a novel about how far we will go, and the sorrows we will endure, in order to protect our families.
A terrible epidemic has struck the country and the sound of children’s speech has become lethal. Radio transmissions from strange sources indicate that people are going into hiding. All Sam and Claire need to do is look around the neighborhood: In the park, parents wither beneath the powerful screams of their children. At night, suburban side streets become routes of shameful escape for fathers trying to get outside the radius of affliction.
With Claire nearing collapse, it seems their only means of survival is to flee from their daughter, Esther, who laughs at her parents’ sickness, unaware that in just a few years she, too, will be susceptible to the language toxicity. But Sam and Claire find it isn’t so easy to leave the daughter they still love, even as they waste away from her malevolent speech. On the eve of their departure, Claire mysteriously disappears, and Sam, determined to find a cure for this new toxic language, presses on alone into a world beyond recognition.
The Flame Alphabet invites the question: What is left of civilization when we lose the ability to communicate with those we love? Both morally engaged and wickedly entertaining, a gripping page-turner as strange as it is moving, this intellectual horror story ensures Ben Marcus’s position in the first rank of American novelists.

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

Product Details

  • File Size: 2655 KB
  • Print Length: 306 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage (January 17, 2012)
  • Sold by: Random House LLC
  • Language: English
  • Text-to-Speech: Enabled
  • X-Ray:
  • Word Wise: Not Enabled
  • Lending: Not Enabled
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #418,516 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)
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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
36 of 44 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Insightful analogy or fever dream? 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
5.0 out of 5 stars The Flame Alphabet 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
1.0 out of 5 stars This book practically recreates its own central premise 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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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars
Very brilliant and totally absorbing.
Published 7 days ago by nycprof
4.0 out of 5 stars Four Stars
Lovely design
Published 22 days ago by Danielle K.
1.0 out of 5 stars Just not great,
This book gave me a visceral reaction... that's all I can really say. Just not great,
Published 1 month ago by Katie M Swanson
1.0 out of 5 stars Excellent cover art, great story concept, disappointing execution.
Every page was a chore.
Published 1 month ago by Mackenzie Goodman
5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars
great book
Published 2 months ago by Chabela Ramirez
2.0 out of 5 stars Two Stars
The book is just plain weird!
Published 2 months ago by RM
4.0 out of 5 stars Good sci-fi read
Good sci-fi read. Oh so depressing at times, if you are looking for up beat don't look here. Very smart and well written, depressing or not I wanted to see what happened to the... Read more
Published 2 months ago by margaret morris
1.0 out of 5 stars Sad, Vague, Not worthwhile
I read this because it was listed as a modern book similar to Lord of the flies that i loved from childhood. First of all the book is very slow. Read more
Published 2 months ago by Jamal G.
2.0 out of 5 stars Started out wonderful!! The concept of language being a toxin ...
Started out wonderful!! The concept of language being a toxin or a plaque was a gem of an idea!. But please pass it on to Steven King. Read more
Published 3 months ago by J. M. Tast
4.0 out of 5 stars Weird darkly comic bleak fable that points out how loss ...
Weird darkly comic bleak fable that points out how loss of a sense of community and lack of substantive communication can destroy civilization. Not for everyone
Published 3 months ago by Alan B. Newman
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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.

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