The Flame Alphabet

The Flame Alphabet

2.6 16
by Ben Marcus

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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

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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.

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Editorial Reviews

In Ben Marcus's chilly yet passionate novel, The Flame Alphabet, the world ends not with a bang or a whimper but because of lingering collateral damage from daily speech — communication as a killer. Marcus, author of Notable American Women and The Age of Wire and String, imagines a sudden universal plague, originating with Jewish children, in which the words of the young render adults sick and then dead. The ghastly symptoms include retching, speech fever, yellow skin, and bruising around the mouth. Victims eventually turn into "leaking sacks of mush."

A man named Sam relates the particulars of the affliction, stage by stage. He also chronicles the erosion of his relationship with his wife, Claire, and their twinned resentment and love of their teen daughter, Esther — a defiant, sentimental hell-beast typical of the species — whose words would be knives even without the arrival of a seemingly inexplicable epidemic. As Sam struggles to preserve his loved ones, the narrative continually turns in on itself to share in ever more poignant detail the paralysis of the family unit. The wider crisis is described just well enough to imbue the novel with the necessary semblance of reality, but no more than that.

The particulars of Sam's faith stand out in sharp relief against this backdrop of crisis, and the two seem linked by a second fabulist element in the book — a network of secret huts through which Jewish couples receive "religious transmissions." The complex process by which Sam and Claire assemble the necessary equipment, attaching uncomfortably fleshy "listeners" to the orifice in the hut floor, would make William Burroughs smile in recognition.

The huts may serve as Marcus's bleak yet humorous comment on the eccentricity of religious ritual, but they also function as an important part of the plot. A man named Murphy believes the huts may hold the solution to the plague and has been "canvassing Jewish families?cornering, manipulating, extracting." After meeting Sam supposedly by accident, Murphy stalks his family and gives him The Proofs, an eccentric collection of documents documenting historical cases of deadly language. Murphy wants Sam to give up the secrets of the huts. This needling presence often sparks more reaction from Sam than his wife or daughter, because Murphy is an acceptable outlet on which to vent his anger, grief, and frustration.

Eventually, Sam's town is evacuated, left to the children, and Sam in turn abandons Claire, finding his way to Rochester, New York, where he begins work at a laboratory devoted to finding an antidote. The lab is run by a "toxicologist by training," the brilliant Anthony LeBov. There, Sam devises language tests to see if "the alphabet could be thinned out, shaved down, to trick the brain somehow." Meanwhile, LeBov seeks more robust but ethically corrupt solutions that involve extractions from children. He also goads Sam to help recreate a Jewish hut so he can access "a territory of wisdom we don't own." LeBov's often grotesque delight in his own cleverness makes him profoundly unsympathetic. However, Marcus wisely also shows us LeBov's human side: exhaustion from overwork and a willingness to conduct experiments on himself.

When, against the odds, Claire appears at the same facility, Sam makes a series of disastrous choices that lead him to escape LeBov in a nightmarish journey down through an orifice in LeBov's Jewish hut. The orifice opens up onto a series of tunnels that he hopes will lead him home and back to Esther. The consequences of his decisions for Claire, and thus later Esther, are terrible and form the real revelation of The Flame Alphabet.

The dying fall of Sam's retreat from solutions other than those of the most personal nature helps explain the sometimes meandering opening to the novel. Sam knows he is becoming more like LeBov than he ever imagined and creating misery in pursuit of a cure for his soon-to-be- adult daughter, even as he uses emotional terms like "secured possession" and "extraction shed." The dreadful clarity that often accompanies moments of transgression, when a boundary is crossed that cannot be uncrossed, haunt the final pages. What narrator would hasten to reach the end of this particular story?

The Flame Alphabet is not really about language or the search for a cure to the ravages of words, but about the efforts of a father to cope in the face of impossible circumstances. The unfolding, grim personal tragedy is unfolded for the reader to interpret much like the Hebrew letter Sam dissects and pins in LeBov's laboratory. His story is a harrowing, unrelenting, and painful read. It is also a masterful examination of love and of endurance that may make many readers think more carefully about the words they share.

Jeff VanderMeer is the author of The Steampunk Bible. He is currently working on a novel entitled Borne. With his wife, Ann, he recently edited The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Fictions (Atlantic).

Reviewer: Jeff VanderMeer

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Product Details

Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
6.86(w) x 9.72(h) x 1.22(d)

Read an Excerpt

By early December we huddled at home, speechless. If we spoke it was through faces gripped in early rigor mortis. Our neighborhood had gone blank, killed down by winter. It was too cold even for the remaining children to do much hunting.

I don’t know how else to refer to their work, but sometimes they swarmed the block, flooding houses with speech until the adults were repulsed to the woods.

You’d see a neighbor with a rifle and you’d hear that rifle go off. The trees stood bloodless, barely holding on in the wind. We sat against the window and waited, spying out at the children when they roved through. The children— they should have been called something else—barking toxic vocals through megaphones as they held hands in the street.

I hoped they wouldn’t turn and see us in the window, come to the door. I hoped they wouldn’t walk up the lawn and push their megaphones against the glass. And always I hoped not to see our Esther in these crowds, but too often there she was in the pack, one of the tallest, bouncing in the winter nighttime fog, breathing into her hands to keep warm. She’d finally found a group of kids to run off with.

If there was an escape to engineer we failed to do so, even while some neighbors loaded cars, smuggling from town when they’d had enough. The quarantine hadn’t been declared, but in our area they weren’t letting children through checkpoints, except by bus. Basic containment. If you wanted to leave, you left alone.

Even so, bulky rugs were thrust into trunks. Items that required two people to carry. Usually wrapped in cloth, sometimes squirming of their own accord, a child’s foot poking out. A clumsy game of hide-and-seek, children sprawled out in cargo carriers, children disguised as something else, so parents could spend a few more minutes with what ailed them.

Claire retired as my test subject. She stopped appearing in the kitchen for night treatments, declined the new smoke. When I served infused milk she fastened her mouth shut. If she accepted medicine from me she did so unwittingly, asleep, whimpering when the needle went in.

I couldn’t blame her, falling away like that, embracing the shroud of illness. But I did. I conducted nightly campaigns of blame and accusation, silently, in the monstrous internal speech that is only half sounded out, a kind of cave speech one reserves for private airing. In these broadsides Claire spun on a low podium and absorbed every accusation.

If I prepared a bowl of steamed grain and left it on the table for her, salted as she liked it, pooling in the black syrup, she passed her spoon through it, held up a specimen for study, and could not, just never could, finally slide it in her mouth. For Claire I cut cubes of meat loaf, and at best she tucked one or two in her mouth, where she could suck on them until they shriveled to husks.

Claire no longer slept in her bed and she seemed too listless even to maneuver to the crafts room, to the guest room, to anywhere she might be able to fall unconscious in private.

I was always trying to offer her shield, a modesty curtain, so she could come undone alone and unseen. She shouldn’t have to collapse in hallways. If necessary I helped her along, at least to a corner, where I could erect a temporary blind.

Once I found her asleep in the bathroom, one eye stuck open, leaking a speckled fluid. I crouched down and closed the eye, blotted it with my shirt. It opened again and she whispered at me.

“Hi there.”

I looked down at her and she blinked, perfectly alert.

Claire must have thought she was smiling, but that was so far from a smile. With my fingers I tried to change the feeling, to reshape her mouth. I couldn’t have her looking at me like that.

Her lips were cold and they would not stay where I arranged them. Her face had the weight of clay.

“Go back to sleep” was all I could think to say, and I draped a bath towel over her, leaving her to rest on the cold tiles.

At home I took charge of what remained of our dwindling domestic project, the blending of food into shakes, the cleaning of all our gray traces. I formed a packing plan, a strategy with regard to the luggage, mapped a route to outskirt lodging. Our pajamas, robes, towels, dishrags, these I washed every day, closing myself in the laundry room where the hot engine of the machine drowned out noise and thought. Against the hum of the washer I was, for a little while, nobody much, and this was how I preferred it.

I left Esther’s warm, folded clothes in her bedroom. Often they went untouched. Or later, after Esther had plowed through the house before returning to her gang, I’d find the pile toppled onto the floor, a heap of black crumbs, like someone’s ashes, dumped over it.

Claire’s robe went mostly unwashed, because she didn’t like to take it off, and if I ever found her half asleep and staring into nowhere from her resting place, she wouldn’t respond when I asked if I could do any laundry for her, she’d just smack her lips to indicate thirst.

“It’d be nice to have fresh clothes, right? I could clean these and have them right back to you.”

I tugged at her robe and she pulled away from me, threw an arm over her face.

“Your robe will be nice and warm out of the dryer. We could get you covered in extra blankets in the meantime. It’ll be nice to be clean. You’ll feel better.”

I spoke to Claire as if she understood me, but she only stared. I spoke to her through a stiff, heavy face that seemed fitted on my head solely to block me from speaking. I sounded like a man underwater.

As our tolerance departed for the speech of children, so, too, did our ability to speak. Language in or out, we heard, produced, or received. A problem any which way.

To keep Claire hydrated I’d have to peel back her hospital mask,  prop her upright, and press the sippy cup straw through the gluey seal of her lips.
I lowered the mask when she was done and flowery welts of orange juice soaked through the fabric.

When it was time to clean her, I filled a bowl with warm water, settled it over a towel at her bedside. With a washcloth I soaped her neck and face. She lifted her chin, gathered her hair out of the way. I squeezed little pools of water over her throat. I placed another towel under her feet, then lifted and washed each leg, rubbing as softly as I could, watching the little streaks of redness follow my cloth.

Claire’s legs rose too easily in my hands, as though they’d been relieved of their bones.

With the last of the water I reached into Claire’s robe and washed her stomach, the skin that once held her breasts. I peeled her from the bed so I could wash her back, pushing the washcloth under the robe, feeling each hollow between her ribs, a sponginess I did not want to explore. Then I settled her back down again, pulled up her covers, lifted the mask from her mouth so I could replace it with a clean one.

She forced a smile, but a shadow had spread under her gums, a darkness inside her mouth.

When I brought her soup, warmed the long bread she loved, or offered Claire some of the candies that usually she could never refuse— baby amber globes with a cube of salted caramel inside— at most she would roll over, heave, pull the quilt above her head.

It was only when the front door swung open and Esther came in the house sweating, crazed, in clothing I’d never seen, that Claire sat up, drawing on some last reserve of power. She always wanted to catch sight of Esther, to watch her from a doorway, so she followed her from room to room, keeping her distance, and Esther tolerated the stalking. You could see in her whole body the effort she made to endure this attention she loathed.

Esther had changed. Her face was older, harder. Filthy from her outings, but spectacularly beautiful. Of course I must think this, I’m her father. Fathers do not easily succumb to assessments of ugliness where their children are concerned. Esther had never been a cute child, but she’d grown threateningly stunning in the last few months. She let her mother watch from a safe perimeter and she was considerate enough not to turn on her with speech, to stop and speak until Claire fell. Esther saw her mother in doorways, looked away, said nothing. It was her greatest kindness to us, that silence. I will always appreciate the restraint she showed in those last days.

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What People are saying about this

Tom McCarthy
The Flame Alphabet drags the contemporary novel—kicking, screaming, and foaming at the mouth—back towards the track it should be following. Ben Marcus makes language as toxic as it is seductive— a virus that comes from much closer to home than we suspected.
Michael Chabon
Echoes of Ballard’s insanely sane narrators, echoes of Kafka’s terrible gift for metaphor, echoes of David Lynch, William Burroughs, Robert Walser, Bruno Schulz and Mary Shelley: a world of echoes and re-echoes—I mean ourworld—out of which the sanely insane genius of Ben Marcus somehow manages to wrest something new and unheard of. And yet as I read The Flame Alphabet, late into the night, feverishly turning the pages, I felt myself, increasingly, in the presence of the classic.
Jonathan Safran Foer
Ben Marcus is the rarest kind of writer: a necessary one. It's become impossible to imagine the literary world—the world itself—without his daring, mind-bending and heartbreaking writing.

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The Flame Alphabet 2.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 17 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I greatly enjoyed this read. It ranks as one of the weirdest that I have read in a long time, sure. But, the use of words and language were fantantastic; it had the expressive power of poetry and the compressed force of short fiction with a creepy, organic, off-kilter steam-punkish sci-fi atmosphere. It is a mistake to read The Flame Alphabet looking for conventional plot and character. I thought it was pretty obvious from the first chapters that this book was going to fall into the "none of the above" bin for traditional novel, sci- fi or not. An alternate reality, where language and meaning itself are toxic, is relayed by a 'survivor' who is guilt ridden by his failure to communicate his love to his wife and child. His only goal is to bridge that divide but the tools of communication are lethal, adults susceptible, and children virulent. The whole story explores the power of language and does it wonderfully, through a strange and rich and expressive and disturbing and rewarding journey. It is not a novel for lovers of plot, its a novel for lovers of words. It seeps into your brain and works wet, messy, mysterious magic.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
If you are hoping for character development, plot, or an over riding message, this novel is not for you. The author freely changes style which is jarring. The characters are under developed and the plot contains more serious questions than answers. This novel made me wish it caused physical illness so I could put it down and not muscle through to the end. Which was not good.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book is terrible, I can't get past the first hundred makes no sense and just plain stinks...don't waste your money or gift card on this one...i gave it 1 star only because you can't submit a review without choosing a star...
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Not worth your time
teacher312 More than 1 year ago
I read this book as part of a book club group. To a person, none of us liked it. The characters never really developed, the storyline went nowhere, and we all struggled to even complete it. There are so many better books out there, don't waste your time!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
After waiting with great enthusiasm for this one, I am sad to say that I am disappointed. Ingenious concept, but Perotta doesn't leverage the Sudden Departure theme to make this the page turner it could have been. The character development is-- as would be expected from the author--relatively rich. But where's the story? It ambles along only to meet a narcoleptic end. It was a bit like Little Children with all of the characters' names changed.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
RD3325 More than 1 year ago
Very hard to get into. I quit half way through.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The story had potential but just couldnt deliver. It seemed scattered like an incomplete train of though.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book has a very interesting premise, but has repeated imagery that isn't explained well. It got too far into internal ramblings, and the last few chapters go absolutely nowhere. I am fairly disappointed with the story overall.