'The Flame Alphabet' Brings to Mind David Cronenberg's Early Films

by Zachary Houle

4 March 2012

Despite the genre trappings, The Flame Alphabet is clearly high art: an attempt to go well beyond its schlocky nature and produce something very refined and rarefied.
cover art

The Flame Alphabet

Ben Marcus

(Alfred A. Knopf)
US: Jan 2012

Horror has seemingly turned particularly literary, lately. For one, Colson Whitehead’s Zone One was not your average rendering of a zombie invasion: it was lyrical and poetic in turn. Literature, in other words. Serous literature. As well, Glen Duncan’s The Last Werewolf made it onto last year’s 100 Notable Books list of the snooty New York Times, which may mark a bit of a trend in terms of horror fiction being taken seriously by the literary cognoscenti.

Well, add to this small pile the third and latest novel by Ben Marcus, The Flame Alphabet. It is, at heart, a horror novel with a very outré, almost science fiction premise: the children of America, but particularly Jewish children, suddenly and mysteriously begin to speak in such a way that their language turns, at first, perilous, and then lethal. Adults begin to wither under such symptoms such as “facial smallness, lethargy, a hardening under the tongue that defeat(s) attempts at speech.” However, despite the genre trappings, The Flame Alphabet is clearly high art: an attempt to go well beyond its schlocky nature and produce something very refined and rarefied. This tactic works at first, but then grows more and more ponderous as the novel plods on. 

To be honest, Marcus’s approach isn’t exactly new: the 2009 Canadian indie film Pontypool, which was in turn based on a book, deals with the English language turning toxic – a virus allows certain words to infect certain people and this in turn leads to a zombie-like plague. However, where Marcus may appear to be a bit behind the times in having an original thought, he more than makes up for it in the way that he turns out sentences containing a certain Biblical rhythm and tone, and his writing is clearly evocative.

In fact, even a simple and mundane act such as urinating takes on a palpable sense of dread in his hands: “At the urinal I peed a heavy, white pudding. But I lacked the strength to discharge all of it. Sometimes it sat low in me, an anchoring sediment, as if I were meant to carry this slow water forever.” To a large degree, The Flame Alphabet is less of an attempt to produce a novel than it is to covey the poetic power of language in all of its damning and gripping cadence. “Language happens to be a toxin we are very good at producing,” Marcus writes, “but not so good at absorbing.”

The Flame Alphabet is clearly a novel not for the faint of heart. It reaches out and pulls that organ straight out of your chest in its rendering of this plague of children’s language. Despite the fact that the author has a couple of young children himself and appears to be – based on at least one promotional interview from Harper’s coinciding with the book’s release – a loving and doting father, it’s easy to get the sense from reading this book that Marcus particularly hates anyone under the age of 18. The tone of The Flame Alphabet is punitive, and reading it is like watching someone cast stones at an entire generation of millennials.

The novel’s protagonist, Sam, who is husband to a wife named Claire and father to a 14-year-old daughter named Esther whose speech is now making him physically ill, seems to be particularly uncaring towards the plight of young people, and is often prone to tirades against the march of this invasive language. He even remarks at one point that “Ester’s disgust for us was mutually convenient. An altogether necessary disgust.” When his wife disappears into a crafts room in their house, Sam remarks, “We named it once with the hope that someone, sometime – a future child of ours, perhaps – would go in there and be productive, make something pretty or useful or interesting.”

It’s as though Sam sees through the weakness of his own family to match whatever vaunted ideal he has for them, of what a family actually is or does. Thus, Sam is very damning when it comes to his feelings towards his own wife and daughter and, truth be told, it’s very hard to be sympathetic towards a character who is so brutally merciless in his outrage towards the failings of his own supposedly loved ones, if not his marriage as a whole. Later in the story, he even goes so far to cheat on his wife with women who are essentially objects, unable to speak or convey any sort of reaction beyond the soundless guttural animal attraction of sex.

In many ways, The Flame Alphabet reminds me of the early work of Canadian filmmaker David Cronenberg, whose films such as The Fly and Rabid dealt with the failings of one’s own body: there’s a certain deterioration of one’s own ability to not only produce language in this novel, but all of the characters suffer from a certain physical debilitation due to the sudden toxicity of words and sounds. The body literally begins to wither under the merciless weight of the spoken and written word.

However, and this is a failing on the part of the novel, Marcus links the sudden perils of talking to one’s particular religious faith. Both Sam and Claire participate in celebrating their Jewishness not at a synagogue, but in personal “prayer huts” scattered across the land: a place where the faithful receive mysterious messages from Rabbis broadcast into a sort of transmitter, messages that are never to be spoken of or shared between other human beings, even husband and wife. The point of this is that Marcus wants to draw a line between the spiritual and the personal, and say something about the effect of carrying one’s own faith in a very private manner – carrying it from within as though it were a personal boulder weighing one down. The problem is Marcus never really drills too deeply into this idea, and it seems like the flotsam and jetsam of a plot point that ultimately has very little bearing on the outcome of the novel.

The Flame Alphabet also offers a lot of unanswered questions. The novel seems to focus particularly on the plight of those affected by this outbreak in America, but never seems to really acknowledge whether other languages in other cultures world-wide would be affected, and what the impact of that would have elsewhere on Earth. We also never get a sense of why Jewish children are particularly a target of this plague, or what the link is to children at all.

As well, the novel gets sillier and sillier as it moves along, and there are all sorts of things that might baffle the reader the more that one burrows into the mechanics of the book. For one thing: those prayer huts are all linked by orange cabling buried deep underground, leading one to wonder why someone would go to the trouble to bury miles upon miles of cables to personal Jewish prayer centres to outlying regions when it would be far easier, if not cheaper, in this mobile age to simply offer transmissions to the faithful via wireless. The use of this outmoded means of technology is never explained or explored, leading one to surmise that The Flame Alphabet would have been a lot more topical if it had been released, oh, say 50 or 60 years ago.

The novel also gets mired in the particularly boring elements of the protagonist Sam’s attempts to find a cure for the inflammatory nature of language by coming up with his own failed alphabets. Further, Sam and Claire don’t appear to hold down actual jobs: they merely sit around the house moping about their daughter in the early part of the novel – an element that seems unbelievable and unrealistic. What’s more, we never get the sense of what in Esther’s language is particularly dangerous: is it because her words are particularly mundane teenager-speak, or is it the rebelliousness of her acid tongue? Often, Marcus doesn’t even provide dialogue that would hint at this very question, leaving it sort of up in the air. The Flame Alphabet is ultimately one of those cases where it might have been better served by being a stronger and more compact short story or novella.

All in all, The Flame Alphabet is a flawed but somewhat intriguing read. It works best when one just loses oneself in the pure linguistic display of Marcus’ prose, and just lets the weight and punishment of the words and sentence pile up into a quivering mass of alarm. However, if you think too hard about the actual plot, The Flame Alphabet loses its particular meaning, and feels stitched together from fragments of ideas.

As a whole, the novel is particularly unsatisfying: bits and pieces of the novel are engrossing and engaging, but it never formulates into something clear and penetrating. Thus, The Flame Alphabet is really an exercise or undertaking in making the reader feel particularly dirty about the state of human nature, at the things that pure language is unable to render or convey adequately. Therefore, the novel is merely an elongated tract about the things that fail to unify.

If you walk away from The Flame Alphabet feeling that the book’s ultimate purpose is to have paper and pulp to burn after reading, I wouldn’t blame you. The premise, while not quite new in its ability to unsettle, winds up being baffling and murky, and I could only feel that I had invested some nearly 300 pages listening to someone just babble on about something that most people don’t talk about: the ability to speak and write, how we assume that elevates us from beyond being “mere animals”, and the devastation that one would sadly feel if that were suddenly and unexpectedly taken away from us. That particular lack of clarity makes The Flame Alphabet a disappointing book – one that almost wordlessly doesn’t teach anyone much of anything. It can be, alas, categorized as an interesting failure, and one wishes Marcus had something more to say with all of those linguistic tools packaged away in the artist’s arsenal.

The Flame Alphabet


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