In The Flame Alphabet, language is toxic to everyone but children. For adults this means no speaking, no reading, no writing, no listening - at least not without severe allergic reaction, depression or crippling pain. In telling the story, Sam, a man whose family has come apart, is literally dying a slow death. It’s poisoning him to write the words that we read. The story is set in our time, but that time has been just slightly broken open to accommodate a world where children have all of the power and where adults must shield themselves from language in any way that they can. Marcus’s narrative touches on a wide range of interests and issues, including a speculative conception of allergy science, rogue tactics of self-improvement, the trauma that surrounds aphasia, confidence games between excessively powerful children, the future of writing as a technology and cruelty within families. The novel is part satire and lament, dystopian fantasy and family tragedy.
“Marcus is a writer of prodigious talent . . . Formally inventive, dark and dryly comic . . . [The Flame Alphabet] reads like a dream.” (J. Robert Lennon, The New York Times Book Review)
“Language kills in Marcus’s audacious new work of fiction, a richly allusive look at a world transformed by a new form of illness . . . Biblical in its Old Testament sense of wrath, Marcus’s novel twists America’s quotidian existence into something recognizable yet wholly alien to our experience.” (Publishers Weekly, starred review and Pick of the Week)
“Ben Marcus is the rarest kind of writer: a necessary one. It's become impossible to imagine the literary world—the world itself—without his daring, mind-bending and heartbreaking writing.” (Jonathan Safran Foer)
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A Brilliant Concept, Executed to Perfection
I thought the premise was interesting. The early chapters were promising, but as the story progresses it all sinks into a sludge of alienation that would probably even bum Kafka out. Lots of dreary descriptions of the sick getting sicker but not dying too fast and civilization crumbling but not quite coming to an end. The protagonist struggles to make sense of it all, but gets nowhere as he and his family literally and figuratively fall apart. Nearly all the characters stop speaking to each other, per the major plot point of the novel, so the reader is mostly left with the protagonist's/narrator's lengthy ruminations about existing in a world in which language - written or spoken - is deadly poison (irony?). In the end, I didn't care about anyone or anything in the novel. I simply felt, alienated. Was that Marcus's goal?
Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter
There are a few moments of gallows humor in the novel that Andy Paris handles well. At these moments, the text gives him an opportunity to use his voice to express the narrator's bitter frustration. This element might be the only thing that buoyed me through the story.
I was disappointed that such a promising concept could be rendered as such a dud.
If you are depressed when you start reading this book, it will only make you more depressed.