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The Flame Alphabet
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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 novel about how far we will go in order to protect our loved ones.
The sound of children's speech has become lethal. In the park, adults wither beneath the powerful screams of their offspring. For young parents Sam and Claire, it seems their only means of


In The Flame Alphabet, the most maniacally gifted writer of our generation delivers a novel about how far we will go in order to protect our loved ones.
The sound of children's speech has become lethal. In the park, adults wither beneath the powerful screams of their offspring. For young parents Sam and Claire, it seems their only means of survival is to flee from their daughter, Esther. But they find it isn't so easy to leave someone you 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 foreign world to try to save his family.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Language kills in Marcus’s audacious new work of fiction, a richly allusive look at a world transformed by a new form of illness. Outside Rochester, N.Y., Sam and Claire are a normal Jewish couple with a sullen teenage daughter, Esther. But Esther and other Jewish children begin to speak a toxic form of language, potentially deadly to adults: with “the Esther toxicity... in high flower,” Sam watches in horror as the disease spreads to children of other religions, quarantine zones are imposed, and Claire sickens to the point of death. Heeding the advice of enigmatic prophet LeBov, Sam manufactures his own homemade defenses against his daughter’s speech. But he and Claire are soon forced to abandon Esther in order to save themselves. The novel’s first part plays like The Twilight Zone as a normal community becomes exposed to this mysterious infection. The second part reads like a Kafkaesque nightmare as Sam, separated from Claire, winds up in an isolated research facility, where he is put to work creating a new language that will be immune from the virus. The third part finds Sam living in the woods near his home, where he becomes a haunted creature out of a Yiddish folk tale. Marcus (Notable American Women) proves equally inspired in sketching Sam’s underground religion of “forest Jews” who pray in individual huts and receive sermons via a special gelpack called a listener. Although characterization plays second fiddle to vision here, in LeBov, a silver-tongued, authoritarian, flimflam man, Marcus has retooled a classic American archetype. Biblical in its Old Testament sense of wrath, Marcus’s novel twists America’s quotidian existence into something recognizable yet wholly alien to our experience. (Jan.)
From the Publisher

"Crackles with vicious intelligence."—Entertainment Weekly
"A harrowing tale. . . . Sends chills down the spine."--The Seattle Times
"Fascinating. . . . A horror story that plays with the power of words."--The Plain Dealer
"Laden with metaphor. . . . It reads like a dream, complete with all the associative richness that comparison might suggest."--The New York Times Book Review
"An exciting page-turner." —The Philadelphia Inquirer
“A rich testament to Marcus' gifts” —Los Angeles Times
“A well-oiled heartbreak machine.” —New York

“In the guise of a horror novel (albeit one written by a supremely intelligent literary novelist), Marcus has delivered a subtle meditation on the necessity as well as the drawbacks of human communication . . . in searing, sometimes hallucinatory prose.” —Richmond Times-Dispatch
"Thrilling, boasting an erudition and an obsessiveness that smacks both of Jorge Luis Borges and of Darren Aronofsky."--The Boston Globe
"As I read The Flame Alphabet, late into the night, feverishly turning the pages, I felt myself, increasingly, in the presence of the classic." --Michael Chabon
“Marcus succeeds in creating a parallel universe that mirrors a side of human social life that might be more comfortably concealed.” —The Columbus Dispatch
“An apocalyptic nightmare. Its vision is eerie, droll and heartbreaking, both lavishly written and haunting to behold. . . .[Marcus’s] use of language could hardly be more vibrant.”—Portland Press Herald “Some of the most thoughtful and moving writing I’ve ever read about family life.” —Michael Jauchen, The Rumpus
“Disturbing and remarkable.”—LA Review of Books
 “This novel will cause many mouths to open. Dialogue will ensue. People will have something to say.”—Cleveland Plain Dealer
“A mystery, a compulsive page-turner” —Salon
“The Flame Alphabet has the force of a nightmare, a testament to Marcus’s skill.” —NPR
"Ben Marcus is the rarest kind of writer: a necessary one."--Jonathan Safran Foer
“The Flame Alphabet is less about linguistics than the decay of relationships, the fracturing of familial loyalties, and the everyday heartbreak of human estrangement.”—The Millions
"Ben Marcus is a genius, one of the most daring, funny, morally engaged and brilliant writers, someone whose work truly makes a difference in the world."--George Saunders
“A brutal, wonderful book, streaked with the sickly brown and gray hues of Philip K. Dick and David Cronenberg.”—The Onion, A.V. Club
“A truly strange, original vision of a post-linguistic world.” —Slant Magazine
“Freakishly sad and incredibly good.”—Bookforum
“An authentic meditation on the sacred cruelty of communication that will leave his readers speechless.”—San Francisco Chronicle
“You will not read too many books like this in your life. —The Financial Times
“For all its surreal touches, it packs an emotional wallop.” —Wired

Library Journal
Fierce, scary, hurtful, unsettling, and brilliant, this new work by award-winning novelist Marcus (Notable American Women) reminds us that language is dangerous and that we'll do anything to protect our children, even when they are (literally) killing us. In the world imagined here, a terrible epidemic has descended: whenever children speak, adults sicken and eventually die. At first, only Jewish families are stricken, stirring echoes of history's uglier sentiments. But soon every adult is affected. Near death, with her ailments graphically described, Claire still longs for daughter Esther, a standard-issue obnoxious teenager who's hardened with the knowledge of her power. A scene of her crouching over a fallen man, pouring poisoned words into his ear, is positively chilling. But what terrifies Esther's morally tough father, Sam, is that soon Esther will be an adult—and subject to the same horrors as her parents. When a quarantine is called, Sam and Claire prepare to leave, but Claire collapses, and Sam must go on alone; he ends up in a creepy laboratory where a cure for language toxicity is being sought. What keeps him going? The vision of his family. VERDICT Highly recommended, though not for those wanting easy thrills; demanding writer Marcus wants us to think. [See Prepub Alert, 7/18/11.]—Barbara Hoffert, Library Journal
Kirkus Reviews
Beware of children--their language will kill you. That's the premise of this offbeat disaster novel from Marcus (Notable American Women, 2002, etc.). Had something bitten them while they slept by the ocean? That would explain, think Sam and Claire, their itchy skin and lethargy. But how come Esther, their 14-year-old daughter who'd napped beside them, is doing just fine? Then a pattern emerges in their upstate New York community. Adults are getting sick while kids stay healthy. The symptoms include shortness of breath, facial hardening and immobilized tongues, all caused by children's speech. Narrator Sam and Claire belong to an obscure Jewish sect. Their synagogues are two-person huts that enclose holes for transmission cables; there they listen to anti-language sermons that advocate a freakish quietism. The virus is its horrifying, unintended actualization. A prominent medical researcher, LeBov, blames "the toxic Jewish child." His canard doesn't goose the plot, but the novel's first, better half is nonetheless compelling. The panic spreads. Sam and Claire are victims twice over. They have pampered their beloved Esther. Now the teenager turns on them, maliciously spraying them (and others) with words. Marcus is at his best evoking their physical decline and helpless unconditional love for their brat--warmth amid the ashes. In time there's a mandatory evacuation order for adults; children are quarantined. On their way out of town, officials detach the desperately sick Claire from her anguished husband. In the novel's second half, Sam is a researcher in a medical lab, tasked with creating "a new language to outwit the toxicity." This is dull and clinical, though the appearance of the sharp-tongued anti-Semite LeBov perks things up momentarily; he points out that Jewish researchers are needed for their "conductive" skills. A short final section has Sam back at his hut coping, barely, with a grim post-apocalyptic world. Marcus has imagination to spare, but the religious Jewish theme is not a comfortable fit with a raging epidemic, and the suspense ebbs away.

Product Details

Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date:
Vintage Contemporaries
Sold by:
Random House
File size:
2 MB

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.

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.

Meet the Author

Ben Marcus is the author of three books of fiction: The Age of Wire and String, Notable American Women, and The Flame Alphabet, and he is the editor of The Anchor Book of New American Short Stories. His stories have appeared in Harper’s, The New Yorker, Granta, Electric Literature, The Paris Review, McSweeney’s, Tin House, and Conjunctions. He has received the Berlin Prize, a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Whiting Writers’ Award, a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in fiction, three Pushcart Prizes, and the Morton Dauwen Zabel Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He lives in New York with his wife and children.

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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 pages...it 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...
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
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.
RD3325 More than 1 year ago
Very hard to get into. I quit half way through.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The story had potential but just couldnt deliver. It seemed scattered like an incomplete train of though.
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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.
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Not worth your time