Book review: The Flame Alphabet

THIS is, quite simply, one of the most powerful works of fiction it has ever been my privilege to read. It would be easy to begin by praising the more cerebral aspects of Ben Marcus’s The Flame Alphabet, but I’d rather start by mentioning something quite different.

THIS is, quite simply, one of the most powerful works of fiction it has ever been my privilege to read. It would be easy to begin by praising the more cerebral aspects of Ben Marcus’s The Flame Alphabet, but I’d rather start by mentioning something quite different.

As I approached the final pages I felt tearful, nauseous, shivery, exhausted, terrified and short of breath. It is a novel which has profound things to say about matters metaphysical but does so in a way that creates a physiological response. It is an unforgettable experience: as I closed the book my wife commented that I was as white as a sheet.

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The novel opens with the ailing narrator, Sam, preparing to get his extremely sick wife Claire into their car so that they can flee the source of their illness. They are leaving behind their teenage daughter Esther, whom we quickly learn is the source of their infection. More specifically, they are allergic to her speech, whether loving, hurtful, pleading or thanking. The novel scrolls back to the onset of the plague. At first, it is rumoured that only the words of Jewish children have become toxic.

As the novel sweeps back to its opening scene, the disease has been confirmed as the language of all children; moreover, it is rapidly metastasising so that all language, all communication, all meaning is poisonous. A lesser writer might have contented themselves with having hit upon an effective metaphor for our increasing paranoia about “feral” teenagers (and the novel certainly plays with this), or for the tragic collapse of communication within a family (and it does this as well), or even for the vertigo produced by our sign-saturated, slogan-slathered culture (and this is also a feature of this intellectually dizzying and emotionally harrowing book). Marcus does even more.

As Sam futilely searches for a homemade cure, he is stalked and harassed by a ginger-haired man called Murphy, who introduces him to the samizdat ideas of LeBov (indeed, he might be LeBov): LeBov has his own hunches: “A caution to ration one’s I statements, suppress reference to oneself, closing off a small arsenal of the language … Grammatical amputations. A list of rules so knotted that to follow them would be to say nearly nothing, to never render one’s interior life, to eschew abstraction and discharge a grammar that merely positioned nouns in descending orders of desire.” LeBov is not only seeking a treatment, but an epidemiology. “Let us reverse the terms and assume that language, like nearly everything else, is poisonous when consumed to excess. Why not assault the folly that led to such widespread use of something so intense, so strong, as language, in the first place?”

Murphy / LeBov has a particular interest in Sam and Claire. He suspects – rightly – that they are Forest Jews, an enigmatic sect whose religious rituals are founded on utter privacy, whose worship takes the form of attaching an ambiguously described “listener” into a “Moses Mouth” of cable-feeds in the soil of a hidden cabin, and listening to the rabbinical broadcasts. Their covert devotion is founded on the idea that “spreading messages dilutes them. Even understanding the message, is a compromise”, a brilliant heightening of the apophatic tradition, the idea that God may speak the universe into existence but cannot be captured within human language. In the theology of the Forest Jews, LeBov discerns both cure and cause. Theoretically, this goes back to Plato, or rather Derrida’s reading of Plato, especially “Plato’s Pharmacy”, where writing is described as the pharmakon: the drug that is both poison and medicine.

The second section recounts Sam’s incarceration at LeBov’s facility, where he is asked to experiment with new alphabets and sign-systems to find an untainted form of language. Others are working on their own solutions, with one option – horrifically – being a form of vaccine. All the while, Sam plots to be reunited somehow with his wife and daughter. Alert readers may well wonder about “the condition of narration”: how can Sam tell his story when writing, speaking, reading themselves all cause bleeding eyes and ears, bruised and calloused tongues, lethargy, incontinence? Marcus gives an explanation; a logical and persuasive one, and one that I wish I hadn’t had to read.

For any book taking on such ideas, the prose must be equal to the challenge. Marcus crafts a wonderfully layered register for The Flame Alphabet, which merges the conceptual and the visceral, the intangible and the physical at every turn. Descriptions are clear and opaque at the same time: seeing a stolen collection of “listeners”, Sam says “some glistened, others were shrunken and dry. They were lobes, or orbs, or limb-like” (what a chilling set of alliterations and assonances!) and “like a collection of human livers”. Yet immediately after this surreal moment, Sam is asked to join an experiment “casual, as if he was asking me to join his softball team”. The banal and the unimaginable collide. Marcus also has a beautiful capacity for creating pockets of calm retrospection, which are unbearably loaded with significance. One chapter ends describing their daughter: “She let her mother watch from a safe perimeter and was considerate enough not to turn on her with speech, to stop and speak until Claire fell. Esther saw her mother in doorways, looked away, said nothing. It was her greatest kindness to us, that silence. I will always appreciate the restraint she showed in those last days”.

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Compared with the shallow and adulterated verbiage that passes for fiction in some quarters (all those novels toiling under a sense of their own relevance but never approaching anything like a meaning or purpose), The Flame Alphabet is a revelation and a castigation. Whatever you want to call the tradition – for me, terms like avant-garde, experimental and post-modern are increasingly cumbersome and unwieldy to encapsulate writing such as that of Ben Marcus – it is not in abeyance or exhausted, but still the best chance for creating literature that makes sense of our age and will be read in ages to come.

The Flame Alphabet

By Ben Marcus

Granta, 290pp, £16.99