Ben Marcus’ fourth novel, The Flame Alphabet, uses well-worn myths as a way to expose and explore the pressing questions that we often forget thrum at the heart of our most common traditions and rituals.
The Flame Alphabet, Ben Marcus’ first novel in a decade, opens dramatically en medias exodus. Somewhere in upstate New York, loudspeakers bark into the air as quarantines go into effect and scores of parents cram their cars with anything they can salvage. For the first few pages, it all seems like your run-of-the-mill apocalypse until you realize these evacuees aren’t running away from some typical chemical leak or natural disaster. They’re fleeing their children. More accurately, they’re fleeing their children’s speech, a pathogen grown so toxic that the mere act of listening to a non-adult now comes laced with physical pain, retching, and the onset of “speech fever.” The community swarms with militias of shouting kids, and mothers and fathers, rapidly turning into “dark lumps of flesh moving through plasma,” have got to go.
Scrambling among the evacuees, packing a survival kit that includes “sound abatement fabrics” and a “noise dosimeter, hacked to measure children’s speech,” is Marcus’ narrator, Samuel. For Sam and his wife, Claire, their particular distress seems to be coming from the language of their daughter, Esther, a tween so self-possessed and cruelly articulate that even her most mundane stories about school can drive her parents to cower in terror or retreat into the bathroom to vomit. “Pain is too soft a word for the reaction,” an ailing Sam notes at one point about Esther’s potent speech, “Crushing was more accurate, an intolerable squeezing in the chest and the hips.”
For readers of Marcus’ previous books, a family drama that’s also centrally concerned with language will no doubt sound familiar. And in The Flame Alphabet, Marcus revisits a number of the images and obsessions coursing through Notable American Women and The Age of Wire and String. Hidden holes in the ground secrete cryptic voices, language and the human mouth are painted in all their physical glory, and the story ends up deriving much of its energy from Marcus’ startling abilities as an engineer of English syntax. Gone from The Flame Alphabet, however, are the types of narrative intrusions and formal gestures that distinguish Marcus’ earlier books. This is Samuel’s story to tell, and even as he watches his family life dissolve, even as he explains his arcane religious background as a sectarian “Reconstructionist Jew” or details the history of language poison as far back as Pliny, even as he finds himself doing dubious research in the hopes of creating a new, non-lethal language to save his family, Marcus keeps the point of view doggedly consistent, almost downright conventional.
This narrative streamlining shows Marcus’ understanding that, on one level, The Flame Alphabet is telling a deeply traditional story. After all, Sam’s dilemma—a man who loses his family and tries to cope with it—is as old as the Book of Job. But it would be a mistake to think that Marcus’ choice to forego formal innovation here signifies a lack of ambition or thematic seriousness. Rather, The Flame Alphabet is a novel that revisits well-worn myths as a way to expose and explore the pressing questions that we often forget thrum at the heart of our most common traditions and rituals: how is language intimately connected to the construction of power and authority? How can words—choppy breaths pushed through membranes and teeth—affect the heart so profoundly? In what sense do the stories we retell ourselves literally make us? And how might the family be the site where all of these questions go down?
Samuel confronts many of these questions himself over the course of the novel. After the initial set up, Marcus brilliantly tracks backward to chronicle the months before the evacuation. As the language disease spreads, Sam watches as all the rituals that once stabilized and structured his life come under attack. The simplest family acts—birthday parties, picnics, the family dinner, asking, “How are you”—become defamiliarized battlegrounds. Even Esther’s mundane summer camp stories teem with steely Freudian contempt:
“Esther looked heavily guarded, as if to say, I have been at horse camp and I have changed considerably, in ways you could never understand, so let’s not waste each other’s time, you old asshole. Stay away from me, you tiny, silly creatures, for you have not been to horse camp.
Out of consideration for her privacy, I did not strive for eye contact.”
These beautiful, brutal sections of The Flame Alphabet contain some of the most thoughtful and moving writing I’ve ever read about family life. Chapter by chapter, we watch as Esther’s viral logic and turns of phrase leave Sam and Claire overwhelmed and reeling. The small responses they muster are alternately sad, funny, petty, deferential, and desperate. When Sam looks for comfort in other areas of his life, he finds them crumbling as well. Attempts at intimacy with Claire become cold and awkward. Soon, she’s a shell completely hollowed out by illness. And when Sam seeks religious solace (he worships at a non-descript forest hovel by tapping into sermons broadcast via a hermetic underground network), he finds none.
Despite intense heartache, though, Sam stubbornly kicks against the pricks of his family’s disintegration. He won’t let Esther go in this story, and his narration of these numerous painful experiences is really a last-ditch effort to delay the inevitable separation. Here, narrative structure becomes a longing backward glance as Sam refuses to say good-bye to his daughter. It’s a painful, accurate mirror of his own deep, fatherly ambivalences about Esther, a young woman who remains the object of his boundless love even as she acts as the source of his destruction.
Eventually, things take a turn when Sam meets a mysterious redhead calling himself Murphy. Keenly knowledgeable about both the language disease and Sam’s increasing family problems, it’s Murphy who suggests that Reconstructionist Jews may hold the keys to a cure. This hope drives Sam in his final attempts to recover his wife and daughter in the novel’s second half. Soon after the evacuation, he travels to Forsythe, an abandoned high school recently refurbished as a makeshift language research center. Here, he’s reunited with Murphy (who may or may not be Murphy) and plunged into an atmosphere of coercion, human test subjects, false identities, and conspiracies. But even as language continues to fail and destroy him, Sam perseveres, clinging to the hope of a family intimacy that goes beyond words, an intimacy channeled through genetics, blood, and the private rituals of home.
Past the sentence-level amazements and sci-fi gadgetry, The Flame Alphabet is really about these complex intimacies that exist (or at least, that we hope exist) between wives and husbands, parents and children. Sam’s stories, and the narratives he wants to believe in, are markedly double-edged. Even as their recurrences and patterns act as a way to stave off chaos, they’re also a continual reminder that that chaos, where all things dissolve and all memory is obliterated, is lurking always in the near distance. It’s a shaky and uncertain balance, and what The Flame Alphabet understands so brilliantly is that these intimacies and routines are tenuous precisely because we can only broker them with language, which is one of the most problematic and slippery rituals we have.