The Flame Alphabet is a dystopian novel set in an America where the speech of children is toxic to adults. The effects are physical and hideous—Ben Marcus creates a true horror story with no redeeming moments. At first, the comments of Esther, the narrator’s teenage daughter, are the sort of smart-mouth, peer-driven retorts you might hear from any disaffected teen. But the communications breakdown is actually a lethal hostility that destroys the bodies of her parents, Sam and Claire, and the integrity of their family.
All over the country, parents are barricading themselves in their homes against the sound of their children’s voices. People begin to flee, leaving their poisonous children behind. Towns are evacuated—the adults forced to become refugees and the children collected in big red buses to be housed in some containment area until a cure for the malady can be found.
A feature of Marcus’ weird world is a jerry-rigged construction, hidden in forest huts and used by a cult of Jews, that has something to do with the pandemic, or its remedy. It broadcasts some odd scripture and instructions from an orange cable buried in a pit called a “Jew hole.” The concept made me uncomfortable—maybe it makes sense to anti-semites or to those well-versed in Jewish religion and practices. As I am neither, it struck a relentlessly sour note for me throughout the book. I didn’t get the point of singling out Jewish children as the possible origin of the plague and some of their parents as dupes or fantasists for following a deranged religious program.
The evidence of the damage from speech is disgusting, the dissolution of a family complete. But to me, the real horror was the idea that a child could embody something so malevolent that you would have to abandon him or her just to survive. That seemed like no imaginable kind of survival to me. If this book is a “message” about the demise of family communication, it is muddled by the quasi- bureaucratic, crack-pot religious, pseudo-scientific and ersatz biblical idioms that web the narrative.
It’s an extreme dystopia (Is it possible to have a mild dystopia?)—and it’s repugnant and too far outside possibility for me to enter that world and experience it. I shrank from the encounters with pus, gore, drool, tiny heads, physical disintegration and putrefying/petrifying bodies as all language becomes toxic in the story, betrayal overtakes every association and people fall silent. I kept searching for the metaphor and waiting for something to happen. Less and less does. In the end, I was glad for the last page and depressed at spending so many hours in a book by a talented writer with an idea that isn’t worth the slog. Cormac McCarthy’s The Road is my kind of dystopian novel. I guess I am just one of those mediocre romantics who believe in children—and need the consolation of a little hope.
The Flame Alphabet Ben Marcus | Alfred A. Knopf 2012