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The Flame Alphabet (Vintage Contemporaries) Paperback – November 13, 2012
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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.
--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
*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 --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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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.
But note I did finish it.
Then, it goes completely off the rails. I wasn't expecting hard science, but shortly after it begins, it seems to make no sense whatsoever. There's no logic to anything that happens. This wouldn't be so bad if it didn't seem to be the focal point of the book. Large portions of the story are about the main character and the people around him trying to figure out what is going on, which they never seem to do. There is no moment where what's happening with the illness and its various cures makes sense.
What's worse though is the main character. At no point did he ever seem to know what he wanted or why he was doing what he was doing.
*This may get into spoilers. Though who cares? You shouldn't waste your time reading this anyway.*
He spends all his time talking about restoring his family and saving his wife and kid, but he starts by experimenting on his wife (hurting her in the process) and neglecting his kid. Then, he leaves his kid and his wife. Then, a long time passes where he does nothing to find them. Then, they just fall in his lap again, and AGAIN he leaves his wife to die or worse. His motivations never make any sense, and his actions never match his supposed motivations.
And it isn't even entertaining. Much of the book, he describes how he's trying to fix the problem, and it's an obvious waste of time. Even the character acknowledges that it's a waste of time, and yet, we're treated to chapters of intricate descriptions of how the character is wasting his time.
This book is a waste of time.