The Flame Alphabet by Ben Marcus
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
“Language is another name for coffin.”
People have suddenly developed a debilitating, and ultimately fatal allergy to the speech of children. It seems to start with Jewish families, particularly an esoteric sect that listens to sermons via shortwave radio in private lean-tos. But soon the language toxicity spreads to everyone, with the result being that no adult can stand hearing or even reading language. Symptoms include “facial smallness” (presumably, the tightening of facial skin), tongue thickening, and malaise.
The novel unfolds in three acts. The first act focuses on a single family as they struggle with a daughter’s increasingly poisonous effect on her family. Narrated in the sardonic first person voice of Sam, who does everything to help his wife, Claire, who is in denial about the encroaching disease. Their 14-year old daughter Esther’s toxic speech syncretizes with her rebellious teenager phase, making her cruel, particularly to her mother. The family slowly falls apart, even as it becomes apparent that a pandemic has taken hold of the world.
The second act finds Sam separated from his family, as the children are quarantined. He begins working with a group of researchers, trying to develop either a cure or a new way to communicate, given that speaking is no longer safe. He clashes with the leader of the research unit, who is condescending and amoral. I will not discuss the third act, due to spoilers.
It’s a hard to categorize novel. It shares its topography with horror and science fiction, but it’s not a thriller. Part One is almost a family drama, while Part Two is almost an absurdist dystopian work. The plot often pauses for pages, as philosophy, religious parables and other discursive theories are floated by either the narrator or in discussions with other characters. The beautiful brutality of the prose is what propels the book forward.
For a book that’s about the end of language, it revels in its use. The descriptions of illness are expertly culled, and cause shivers. It’s almost as if the author wants to infect the reader with the disease described in the world of the novel. It’s disgustingly, compulsively readable, highly reminiscent of the body horror of David Cronenberg’s films.
I’m unsure whether or not The Flame Alphabet is an extended metaphor about the breakdown of human communication, a Biblical allegory or a linguistic horror story. I do know that it was deeply disturbing and wonderfully written.