The Flame Alphabet
By Ben Marcus (Knopf)
Despite having published now four novels plus a goodly number of short stories, Ben Marcus probably remains best known for his 2005 essay “Why Experimental Fiction Threatens to Destroy Publishing, Jonathan Franzen, and Life as We Know It,” in which he took to the pages of Harper’s to defend the literary avant-garde from the sorrowful depredations of Oprah’s favorite birder.
It was a worthy cause and a good time both—experimental lit being always in need of additional champions and Jonathan Franzen being ever ripe for a smackdown. With the release, though, this winter of Marcus’s latest book, The Flame Alphabet, a dirty little secret has come to the fore: his radical leanings notwithstanding, Marcus can get conventional with the best of them.
Certainly The Flame Alphabet has its more outré bits, not the least of which is its basic premise: a world where language has turned literally toxic. But while in past books Marcus has worked to whip such notions into heady, estranging froths, here he’s decided instead to embed them in a traditional (by his standards, anyway) story of familial dissolution.
As another famous realist once wrote, every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way, and the family at the center of The Flame Alphabet is unhappy like this: upstate couple Samuel and Claire have come to realize that the speech of their teenage daughter Esther is killing them. Not just annoying them, or provoking them, or embarrassing them, but actually killing them—like bullets, or asbestos, or beta rays.
They aren’t alone in this. In fact, adults everywhere are dropping dead from exposure to children’s speech. And so, nearing death, Samuel and Claire flee their home and Esther, both eventually making their way to an institute run by a sinister scientist named LeBov, who is working on a cure for their affliction.
Even more than most writers, Marcus is obsessed with language—the false comforts it provides us; the cul-de-sacs it traps us in; the bad behavior it indulges and encourages—and at its finest The Flame Alphabet makes the notion of poisonous speech seem less an outlandish sci-fi fantasy than simply a tragic but inescapable observation:
To Claire, I was the obstacle as we battled for a foothold as parents. She would say that I offered so many listening prompts to Esther, such eager receptivity and sentence finishing, that I obliterated our daughter’s conversational flow and actually caused her reticence. One can be adversarial, apparently, through aggressive attention.
Unfortunately, the book’s best parts are balanced elsewhere by almost equal measures of tedium. Particularly in the second half, as Samuel labors under LeBov to develop new methods of communication, the story seems less a product of its characters or any particular human logic than some airtight schematic that Marcus has devised.
If the novel isn’t entirely successful as a standalone, however, the context and richness it lends Marcus’s earlier writing—in particular his strange and wonderful book The Age of Wire and String—provides more than sufficient compensation. That work presented a catalogue of records, rumors, documents from a seemingly lost civilization, using them to construct a critique of our systems of knowledge and perception. The Flame Alphabet is a prequel of sorts, offering another, more personal perspective on the same questions.
More than a body of work, book-by-book Marcus is building a world. Even accounting for the occasional misstep, it’s a fascinating project to follow.