The best kinds of novels are often the most pervasive. If you can’t get the images and themes out of your mind, there’s a chance the writer you’re returning to during your morning commute, in the coffee shop, or in your home at night is doing his or her job at totally rocking your world. People talk a lot about books “sticking with you” or “characters jumping off the page.” Good science fiction often is described as being “thought provoking” or “imaginative.” Ben Marcus’s The Flame Alphabet is all of these things, but more importantly, it will screw you up big time.
The Flame Alphabet focuses on a Jewish guy named Sam who resides in a kind of alternate timeline and/or near future. There is a conspicuous lack of the Internet, and television media is certainly not as present as it is in our society. Part of this can be attributed to the specific setting of the novel. Sam and his wife Claire live with their young teenage daughter Esther in a suburban town in the northeast. The family is Jewish, however, this sect of Judaism is highly secretive. Called Reconstructionist Jews, they no longer worship in synagogues, but instead receive their sermons from secret huts located in the woods. These sermons come to them from hidden radio signals, which can only be activated by a specially designed device called a “listener.” The secrecy of Sam and Claire’s religion is related directly not only to what Sam considers to be true faith, but also gestures at the notion of protection from persecution. If no one knows where the huts are, and no one really knows about Sam and Claire’s faith, then no one can come after them.
Everything is slightly lower-tech than it seems it should be in The Flame Alphabet allowing Marcus to dodge certain constraints a lot contemporary fiction contends with when exploring a fantastical premise. The nice thing about the secret Jewish religion and the huts with their orange wires and secret listeners is that it gives the novel a sense of oddness which allows for the door to be opened to leap into what is perhaps the most heartbreaking fictional epidemic ever depicted. Slowly, but surely, language has rotted and devolved into a toxic affliction, one that will eventually kill.
It begins with the voices of children, a notion made totally heartbreaking in the first third of the novel since the proximity to Sam and Claire’s daughter Esther causes crushing pain. The manifestations of this illness aren’t abstractly relegated to the realm of dreamy metaphor. Instead, there is sunken skin, boils, and eventually, death. When the realization began dawning on the characters, I was reminded of Saramago’s Blindness and that novel’s ability to depict the collapse of the entire moral infrastructure of society. Marcus is doing something similar with his toxic language epidemic, but despite having a large scope, The Flame Alphabet feels highly personal.
In later chapters when Sam is trying to develop a new alphabet, he is forced to view language in a piecemeal fashion. He peers through peepholes in order to only absorb small parts of a language at time. This is a synecdoche for the way the novel operates because the overwhelming crushing and limiting characteristics of language feel extremely real. How often has your head hurt just by thinking about all the things to say and the things being said? The plight of Sam chronicles a fully realized fictional character, which also serves as a surrogate for how the reader would likely feel in this situation. I’d like to call The Flame Alphabet speculative fiction, and on paper, it probably is. But it’s not inviting the reader to speculate on how they would feel if language itself becomes an epidemic. Instead, the novel is just telling you how it is.
Whether intentional or not, The Flame Alphabet will remind a science fiction fan of a few other SF premises dealing with fantastical events related to children. In the 60s Star Trek episode “Miri” children start developing boils when they reach puberty and then turn into monsters. This novel isn’t making a commentary on the notion of childhood innocence related to the monstrosity of adults, however it does posit a possible cure for the language toxicity that is derived from children. Again, for a science fiction fan, this is reminiscent of Torchwood: Children of Earth when the 456 aliens are feeding off of children directly. But unlike these two examples, the children of The Flame Alphabet are not helpless. In the first half of the novel, there are actually gangs of them roving around the neighborhood attacking people with language. Check out this chilling passage:
Sprawled on the street beneath the boy was someone who wasn’t moving, and the boy made sure of that with repeated volleys launched right over the body, a relentless flow as the body twitched on the asphalt each time the kid spoke, as if a cattle prod shot electricity from his mouth.
Then the body stopped twitching and the boy relented.
When the boy stood up we saw his face in the streetlight, so long and solemn and awful to behold.
Except the kid wasn’t a boy. It was my Esther. Her hair was wild and she wore an outfit I didn’t recognize, some long coat that was too big on her.
The novel doesn’t go totally Lord of the Flies with this notion, and perhaps one of Ben Marcus’s great achievements here is how Claire and Sam never really turn on Esther. Sam even makes Esther a birthday cake later, and leaves it out for her with the hopes she’ll eat it. It doesn’t take lots of literary criticism or analysis to recognize the pains all parents must go through when their children cease to need or want them.
But like its title and essential premise suggests, The Flame Alphabet is about language, communication and what it does and is doing to us all the time. There even appears to be some mild digs at criticism in a few parts of the book. Does analyzing language and talking too much turn language toxic? Am I contributing to the “crushing “flame alphabet right now? This passage near the start of the novel seems to confirm this notion.
The sharing of information hasn’t always been a good thing; Sometimes it is a very terrible thing.
Further, there seems to be a bit of meta-writer angst commentary running through much of the book. How does a writer relate to the words he or she has created once they are seen in a different context? Once released into the world, can a writer’s work cause unintentional harm? When Sam is attempting to craft a new alphabet, and his work is being sent to test subjects, I feel this guilt/apprehension about writing most keenly explored. In addition, there’s another scene between Sam and a character called LeBov (I’ll not tell you about him, because you should read the book) in which Sam’s work on new languages is being criticized and berated. And it feels like a writer’s fear of an editor.
I’d never seen my work exposed like that, cut free of the self-disguising paper. It stunned me that we could spread it out on the table and not retch with illness. My technique was messier than I expected, incoherent in places, letters dropping off pages, failing to come together, breaking into pieces. Imperfections everywhere. I felt ashamed to see it unclothed like that.
Whatever we think language is, it’s just a bunch of invented flailing that through a certain lens can seem arbitrary. The science fiction-ish premise of The Flame Alphabet delivers the basic notion that if you think words are dangerous; then you’re damn right. But it also reminds us that all words are totally made up. For proof, see all other words.