Synopses & Reviews
In The Flame Alphabet,
the most maniacally gifted writer of our generation delivers a work of heartbreak and horror, a novel about how far we will go, and the sorrows we will endure, in order to protect our families.
A terrible epidemic has struck the country and the sound of children's speech has become lethal. Radio transmissions from strange sources indicate that people are going into hiding. All Sam and Claire need to do is look around the neighborhood: In the park, parents wither beneath the powerful screams of their children. At night, suburban side streets become routes of shameful escape for fathers trying to get outside the radius of affliction.
With Claire nearing collapse, it seems their only means of survival is to flee from their daughter, Esther, who laughs at her parents' sickness, unaware that in just a few years she, too, will be susceptible to the language toxicity. But Sam and Claire find it isn't so easy to leave the daughter they still love, even as they waste away from her malevolent speech. On the eve of their departure, Claire mysteriously disappears, and Sam, determined to find a cure for this new toxic language, presses on alone into a world beyond recognition.
The Flame Alphabet invites the question: What is left of civilization when we lose the ability to communicate with those we love? Both morally engaged and wickedly entertaining, a gripping page-turner as strange as it is moving, this intellectual horror story ensures Ben Marcus's position in the first rank of American novelists.
"Language kills in Marcus's audacious new work of fiction, a richly allusive look at a world transformed by a new form of illness. Outside Rochester, N.Y., Sam and Claire are a normal Jewish couple with a sullen teenage daughter, Esther. But Esther and other Jewish children begin to speak a toxic form of language, potentially deadly to adults: with 'the Esther toxicity... in high flower,' Sam watches in horror as the disease spreads to children of other religions, quarantine zones are imposed, and Claire sickens to the point of death. Heeding the advice of enigmatic prophet LeBov, Sam manufactures his own homemade defenses against his daughter's speech. But he and Claire are soon forced to abandon Esther in order to save themselves. The novel's first part plays like The Twilight Zone as a normal community becomes exposed to this mysterious infection. The second part reads like a Kafkaesque nightmare as Sam, separated from Claire, winds up in an isolated research facility, where he is put to work creating a new language that will be immune from the virus. The third part finds Sam living in the woods near his home, where he becomes a haunted creature out of a Yiddish folk tale. Marcus (Notable American Women) proves equally inspired in sketching Sam's underground religion of 'forest Jews' who pray in individual huts and receive sermons via a special gelpack called a listener. Although characterization plays second fiddle to vision here, in LeBov, a silver-tongued, authoritarian, flimflam man, Marcus has retooled a classic American archetype. 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) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.
"Echoes of Ballard’s insanely sane narrators, echoes of Kafka’s terrible gift for metaphor, echoes of David Lynch, William Burroughs, Robert Walser, Bruno Schulz and Mary Shelley: a world of echoes and re-echoes — I mean our world — out of which the sanely insane genius of Ben Marcus somehow manages to wrest something new and unheard of. And yet as I read The Flame Alphabet, late into the night, feverishly turning the pages, I felt myself, increasingly, in the presence of the classic." Michael Chabon
"The Flame Alphabet drags the contemporary novel — kicking, screaming, and foaming at the mouth — back towards the track it should be following. Ben Marcus makes language as toxic as it is seductive — a virus that comes from much closer to home than we suspected." Tom McCarthy
"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
From one of the most innovative and important writers of his generation: a brilliant, mesmerizingly dark new novel in which the speech of children is killing their parents.
At first it's just Jews then everyone. People are leaving their families to survive. Sam's wife, Claire, is already stricken and near death. In a year or two, as she grows into adulthood, their daughter, Esther, too, will become a victim. Sam and Claire decide to leave Esther on her own, hoping a "cure" will miraculously appear. Sam's car is waved off the road at a government-run laboratory where horrific tests are being conducted to create non-lethal speech. Throngs bang on the doors to be subject volunteers; they're all carried out half-dead. When Sam realizes what's going on, he makes a desperate escape, vowing that if he dies it will be with his family, the only refuge of sanity and love.
Ben Marcus's nightmarish vision is both completely alien and frighteningly familiar.
About the Author
Ben Marcus is the author of three books of fiction: Notable American Women
, The Father Costume
, and The Age of Wire and String,
and he is the editor of The Anchor Book of New American Short Stories
. His stories have appeared in Harper’s Magazine, The New Yorker, The Paris Review, McSweeney’s, Tin House,
He is the recipient of a Whiting Writers’ Award, a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in Fiction, and awards from the Creative Capital Foundation and the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He lives in New York City and Maine.