In his 1962 novel The Ticket That Exploded William Burroughs posited that language was a virus. An infection that came to us from space and infected the planet. Of course, he was referring to the spread of language being like a disease, not it actually having the ability to make people ill.
Of course, someone had to come along to take it to the next level. That someone was Ben Marcus, with his odd, hard-to-describe novel The Flame Alphabet.
The Flame Alphabet
Alfred A Knopf
January 20, 2012
Welcome back to Books and Bits! I hope you enjoyed Neil Gaiman month as much as I did. I’m hoping to have a bit less of a structured theme this month… Poetry Month, Small Press Month (well Small Press Month and Women’s History Month is March, but… Neil Gaiman won that battle, sorry! Take faith in the fact that I wrote most of the posts for this month last month) soooo… Yeah, April is the cruelest, busiest month. And we’re starting off with a tough, tough book… The Flame Alphabet!
The basics of the plot of the novel are this: sometime in the not too distant future, the language of children and adolescents becomes toxic. Adults start feeling the effects slowly, like the flu. Nausea, headaches, fever… but then it gets worse. Sudden weight and hair loss, skin lesions, and partial-to-full loss of control of gross motor function.
It starts in a small community of Jewish people, but not your ordinary practitioners of the Jewish faith. This sect, known through the novel as Forrest Jews (and several, worse things), go out to secluded huts and attach a device called a Listener to a group of wires to receive their sermon on a weekly basis. This sermon is delivered in secret (and the sect itself is shrouded in secrecy), but a man named LeBov is convinced that these transmissions are the clue needed to unlock the mystery of deadly language.
Our main character, Sam, is married to a woman named Claire, and they have a teenaged daughter named Esther… and if I can get this out of the way… Esther is a completely self-centered, evil little bitch who should have been hit with a bus (or an airplane, I’m not picky) within the first couple chapters of the book. Of course… this makes her an average teenager. However, instead of mere emotional damage, her words can physically hurt her parents as well.
So… this book is weird. Let’s just put that on the table. It reads like some sort of cross-breeding of Kurt Vonnegut’s and William Burroughs’ strange alternate-futures combined with the dense, visceral quality of a Thomas Pynchon novel (which I’ll admit I’ve never finished, but… some day!). Oh and throw in a little bit of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road for good measure. A spritzing of the overwhelming depression that one gets from McCarthy would fit well
I’ll tell you now that this isn’t a book you read to get answers. Why is language toxic? Who is LeBov, really? What are his motivations, really? These questions, and more, and never answered with any direct certainty in the text. And that can make it rather frustrating.
Similarly, the text is dense, like trying to hack through a rainforest. There’s quality writing that hits this weird combination of sad, funny, and frightening (often in the same sentence), but there is little dialogue to break up the sometimes monotonous descriptions of the effects Esther’s voice is having on her parents.
But be warned… there is a monotony and a near-impregnable loop in the early chapters of the book. Diligent readers will be rewarded. My advice? Read it a chapter or two at a time. Take a day or two off, breeze through another novel while this one waits. It’ll still be there. That’s what I did, anyhow.
Still, in the second part, the book jumps into a more interesting frame of mind… Sam has escaped, alone, from his home and arrived as the Forsythe Institute in Rochester, New York. There, he has been recruited to help LeBov (a LeBov? the Lebov? who the hell knows…) to get to the bottom of the language virus, mainly through use of the written word (which has now begun to have the same effect as speech, naturally).
There’s more I haven’t touched upon, plotwise. Mostly dealing with the messy third part that serves as our ending. Great ending. Really, really wonderful. Well, not wonderful. More like… horrible. But well done, just the same. Not every author is willing to leave the reader hanging, with little to no answers (though some thankfully are… see House of Leaves by Mark Danielewski or the chilling novel Remainder by Tom McCarthy to really frustrate your inner need for answers).
But the book ends without giving the reader anything. Many would find this frustrating. I know I do. But at the same time… I can’t help but be drawn into Sam’s world. Maddening, nonsensical, and confusing without end… but the story is satisfying in a weird way that I can’t quite put into words. Marcus is unafraid to challenge the reader into imagining the finer details of the story. He is instead content to let the reader hang kicking from the gallows of his novel, trying to squeeze out some meaning before blacking out completely.
Wow that was a really shitty metaphor. I apologize for that. But in truth, I often found myself digging into a phrase, or a sentence that I’m fairly certain now had no meaning to the story. Or if it did, it was so far buried in metaphor and allegory that I missed it.
The Flame Alphabet is not for everyone. It will challenge you, frustrate you, and confuse the hell out of you. It is unapologetic for this and thankfully so. One of the strangest, strangely satisfying novels I’ve ever struggled to finish. Check it out… if you dare.