“One often fails to ask this of a crisis…why was it not worse?” That these words come from Sam, the narrator of Ben Marcus’ The Flame Alphabet towards the end of the novel should give some idea of the story’s tone. Keep in mind – this is not a man looking at his situation with a glass-half-full mindset. There is despair, confusion, and pain, both physical and emotional, on nearly every page of this book, yet all the narrator can think at the end is “how could it have been worse?” Things have fallen apart around him and he can only try to embrace his misery.
The novel takes place in a strange near-future where people gradually start becoming very sick with symptoms such as nausea, loss of weight, physical weakness and thinning hair, all for no discernable reason. After months of fruitless investigation, and widespread illness, the scientific community gives up on finding a cause, let alone a cure, and it falls to more fringe theorists to discover the truth: the language of children has become poisonous to adults. Simply hearing a child speak causes adults to wither, and eventually die.
The story begins on a micro scale, in a small, suburban town where parents are struggling to survive the pain caused by talking to their children. Sam and his wife, Claire, fight every day to literally survive conversations with their teenage daughter Esther. From there, the symptoms get worse as the “poison” acts faster. The towns are forced to take action, and the story quickly widens its lens as the characters begin to see the havoc that this is causing nation-wide.
While this far-fetched plot could easily come across as gimmicky and quickly unravel into a story of cheap thrills, it is clear from the outset that Ben Marcus has other aims. Marcus is using this concept of a poisonous language to wrestle with big ideas, not just deliver scares, though there are plenty of those. Both religion and linguistic philosophy play a significant role in the novel and by the end, the reader can’t help but feel the power and importance of the words he or she speaks every day.
One of the most interesting aspects of the novel is the strand of Judaism closely followed by the narrator and his wife. These “Reconstructionist Jews” operate in secrecy and do not fellowship with one another. They build small huts in the woods and tap into an elaborate set of underground cables that deliver sermons and communications from Rabbis that they have never met. Using a specially made device, they plug into these cables and listen, never to speak of what they hear and never to respond to it.
The narrator explains, “The true Jewish teaching is not for wide consumption, is not for groups, is not to be polluted by even a single gesture of communication. Spreading messages dilutes them. Language acts as an acid over its message.” It shouldn’t take much work to make the connection between these silent Jews and the ravenous language-plague taking place around them.
As the novel progresses, and the characters begin to work towards finding a solution to the language problem, the narrator, a “theorist” by trade, spends much of his energy reflecting on what language actually is so he can best guess how to fix it. “Language should be best understood, aside from its marginal utility as a communication technology – can we honestly say it works? – as an impurity. Language happens to be a toxin we are very good at producing, but not so good at absorbing.” How much of this kind of talk is substantive and how much is vacuous probably depends on the reader’s willingness to suspend disbelief, but it is mixing of these “ideas” with many of genre fictions greatest pleasures that make “The Flame Alphabet” such a compelling read.
It risks spoiling too much of what makes the novel great to elaborate much more than this on the plot. The book is filled with a briskly moving plot, suspense, a super-villain and a few unexpected twists. Even for those uninterested in the more philosophical aspects of this novel will likely enjoy the unapologetic weirdness and narrative drive on display. However, Ben Marcus must be praised for his amazing insight into the dynamics of human interaction, specifically at the family level, when despair strikes.
Perhaps the most moving aspect of this story is to see how many parents display a very Christ-like love for their children. Even as their children come to realize the power they wield and occasionally use it against their parents, these same parents endure pain and suffering to be near their sons and daughters. In one scene, Sam and Claire prepare Esther a birthday cake for her special day. They know Esther wants nothing to do with them and will talk at them if she sees them, so they set the cake on the table and hide in a closet to watch. “Inside our heads Claire and I could sing ‘Happy Birthday.’ No one would have to heard. Esther wouldn’t even know we were there. She could enjoy her cake and it would be nice to be together again.” As the story progresses, we see parents embrace certain death to stay with their children as long as possible, even as their children yell at them. The crushing difference being that these parents remain dead and lost forever to the children for love.
It should be clear by now that this book is heavy on metaphor. At times it begins to feel like every little thing is a stand-in for something else. So, what to take from this story? Is it a parable? It would be easy to read this and think, “Our words are important and have the power to hurt others, we must be careful.” That is true, and good to remember. But perhaps there is something subtler and just as powerful to reflect on.
The world God has created and shaped around us is one we cannot begin to fully understand. Some of these things are obvious – we struggle to grasp the size of the universe, or how gravity works, but then there is something like language. We use it every day. We depend on it. We take it for granted. But what a, for lack of a better word, strange and magical thing it is that God created us to connect and gave us the gift of language to do so. Not just to connect in mundane ways, but with the ability to move each other, to love each other, to make each other laugh and to know each other better. It is an integral part of who we are and how we relate to one another and to God. The Flame Alphabet paints a picture of how terrible it would be to have this gift taken from us. Let it be a reminder to treasure this amazing gift every day.