title: The Flame Alphabet [support an independent bookstore and purchase at Strand]
by: Ben Marcus
genre: literary fiction
source: New York Public Library
“In his early writings, Thoreau called the alphabet the saddest song. Later in his life he would renounce this position and say it produced only dissonant music.
Letters, Montaigne said, are a necessary evil.
But are they? asked Blake, years later. I shall write of the world without them.
I would grow mold on the language, said Pasteur. Except nothing can grow on that cold, dead surface.
Of words Teresa of Avila said, I did not live to erase them all.
They make me sick, said Luther. Yours and yours and yours. Even sometimes my own.” (page 187)
This book *almost* made it on to my 30-Before-30 list, and has been on my holds list at the library for ages. It’s a bit funny, actually, that I ended up reading it instead of one of my 30-Before-30 titles. But look at the cover! I am a sucker for a gorgeous cover! I really have no self control when it comes to gorgeous books…superficial, I know!
Marcus’ The Flame Alphabet has a fabulous premise: an epidemic gradually spreads across the country wherein the speech of children has become toxic to adults. The story follows one family (Sam, his wife Claire, and their teen daughter Esther), and Sam in particular, as he cares for his wife and adjusts to find a means of coexisting with the lethal member of the family.
This book takes on a lot: the bonds of marriage and family; religion (in the story, Sam and Claire are “forest Jews,” Jews who venture to the forest once a week to a hidden hut to worship, but are forbidden to speak about their practice, even to each other); science; ethics; morality; and, above all, how a world communicates when communication itself is lethal, which in and of itself would pose a massive challenge to the novice writer.
The first third of the book was incredibly strong. I really respect how Marcus treats his reader as an equal; he writes as if we already have the context we need, and he trusts in the reader’s intelligence. As opposed to over-explaining, he lets us make discoveries and draw conclusions for ourselves as we read, which I really appreciated. Marcus is really good at world-building. This reality he constructs for his characters is chilling but also super consistent and easy to imagine considering the events in the story.
The one problem I had was with the character of LeBov. I don’t want to give anything away, but there was a scene or two between LeBov and Sam toward the middle of the story where it definitely felt as if Marcus was directly channeling some sort of Bond-era super villain, which took me out of the story a bit. Seriously, throughout the whole second part of the book, every time LeBov entered a room, despite Marcus’ descriptions, this is who I pictured (and consequently giggled a bit):
Part three of the book was a bit jarring. The story stopped and picked up at a completely different point, which at first felt a bit like cheating on Marcus’ part, as he had seemed to have written himself into a hole at the end of part 2 (for those of you who have read the book, that was a deliciously unintentional pun). Marcus does, a few chapters down the line, fill in the gaps, but this jump still interrupted the flow a bit and as a result, the last part of the book didn’t flow as easily as the first two. But from a stylistic perspective, considering the events of the end of the narrative, this jolt and stumble may have been intentional.
Rubric rating: 7. I’m absolutely going to check out The Age of Wire and String and Notable American Women at some point.