Soap rendered useless in Ben Marcus' apocalyptic tale
The Flame AlphabetBen Marcus
(Knopf · hardcover · $25.95)
Words are a weapon. But how often does language achieve such widespread devastation that it rivals the Ebola virus? And how can words themselves be the physically debilitating instruments—rather than merely the foundations—of war? That's the premise of Ben Marcus' The Flame Alphabet, a novel in which language isn't just a worthy adversary, but a biological-weapon-grade plague.
Speech has devastating effects in Sam’s world. He lives in an average middle-class dwelling in upstate New York with his wife, Claire, and teenage daughter, Esther. Sam and Claire attempt to uphold their white-picket-fence existence while stricken with nasty physical ailments like vomiting, fatigue and coughing up a colored goo. We discover Esther is not only unfazed by the symptoms that affect her parents but is the very cause of it.
Turns out her speech—and the speech of every Jewish child in the town—is a type of indefensible weapon against their unassuming and unconditionally loving parents. The children turn on their parents, presumably as an evil side effect of their newfound vocal powers. The kids band together and create a compound protected by loudspeakers blasting nursery rhymes to safeguard the realm of the "viral child." The parents become sicker and sicker, emotionally unable to fully retreat from their children.
It’s a good thing Sam and Claire belong to a secret community of "forest Jews." With the outbreak worsening, their only respite is in their "Jew hole," a secluded hut meant to disguise a transmission station. A luminescent sac within called a listener (or "Moses Mouth") is attached to wires and acts as a conductor to deliver cryptic Hebrew sermons from an undisclosed location. As the adults deteriorate, even language not coming from children pains them, but somehow the sermons deliver no harm.
Childless families are eventually evacuated to a medical facility near Rochester headed by red-haired, manipulative director LeBov, who dedicates his life’s work to solving the world’s "toxic properties of language.” LeBov himself is not Jewish and needs Sam’s help in deciphering how the words from the Moses Mouth could play into a cure against the spreading virus.
Judaism is prominent throughout the book, but that religious nod is never fully explained, other than being a well of faith and despair. Whether this message is political or of historical significance, or just an arbitrary realm of culture for the main characters to draw from, is up to the reader to decipher.
Marcus' idea of language as weapon is a clever one that manages to confront difficult subject matter. While the landscape of The Flame Alphabet mirrors the cold, concrete and futuristic environs of Brave New World and especially 1984, it poses a very personal question. Buried underneath the novel's clammy exterior is a painfully sincere human parable: being unable to communicate with loved ones. But there is no ending that alleviates the stifling mood, which may delight some masochistic readers. Others will be infuriated. The Flame Alphabet exudes a sense of abandonment throughout its painstaking 289 pages.
With Marcus' knack for description, the environment is never lost on the reader. A vivid picture is painted on every gray, prison-like page. Unfortunately, the book also drowns in its own verbosity. It's a perfect case of irony, considering the sudden death of all known language. The characters are never fully developed and their voices are never really achieved—maybe in part because the majority of them are terminally ill. Still, while this muddled disconnect may be the intent of The Flame Alphabet, that doesn't make it any less difficult to read. It's frustrating. I found myself having to be mentally prepared before I could actually finish the thing off.
About midway through the mostly static tome, Marcus writes, "Without sound, celebration and grief look nearly the same." A world without language is truly an awful place, devoid of color, emotion and life worth living. It's a fascinating world to ponder. I'm just not sure I’d recommend traversing its monotonous terrain.