The Flame Alphabet

Ben Marcus

The Flame Alphabet

The speech of children has mutated into a virus which is killing their parents. At first it only affects Jews-then everyone. Living quietly in the suburbs, Sam and Claire's lives are threatened when their daughter, Esther, is infected with the disease. Each word she speaks - whether cruel or kind, banal or loving - is toxic to Sam and Claire. Radio transmissions from strange sources indicate that people across the country are growing increasingly alarmed. But all Sam needs to do is look around the neighborhood: in the park, parents wither beneath the powerful screams of their children. Claire is already stricken and near death. As the contagion spreads, Sam and Claire must leave Esther behind in order to survive. The government enforces quarantine zones, and return to their daughter becomes impossible. Having left his family and escaped from the afflicted cities, Sam finds himself in a government laboratory, where a group of hardened scientists are conducting horrific tests, hoping to create non-lethal speech. What follows is a nightmarish vision of a world which is both completely alien and frighteningly familiar, as Sam presses on alone into a society whose boundaries are fragmenting. 3.0 out of 5 based on 7 reviews
The Flame Alphabet

Omniscore:

Classification Fiction
Genre General Fiction, Science Fiction & Fantasy
Format Hardcover
Pages 304
RRP
Date of Publication July 2012
ISBN 978-1847086228
Publisher Granta
 

The speech of children has mutated into a virus which is killing their parents. At first it only affects Jews-then everyone. Living quietly in the suburbs, Sam and Claire's lives are threatened when their daughter, Esther, is infected with the disease. Each word she speaks - whether cruel or kind, banal or loving - is toxic to Sam and Claire. Radio transmissions from strange sources indicate that people across the country are growing increasingly alarmed. But all Sam needs to do is look around the neighborhood: in the park, parents wither beneath the powerful screams of their children. Claire is already stricken and near death. As the contagion spreads, Sam and Claire must leave Esther behind in order to survive. The government enforces quarantine zones, and return to their daughter becomes impossible. Having left his family and escaped from the afflicted cities, Sam finds himself in a government laboratory, where a group of hardened scientists are conducting horrific tests, hoping to create non-lethal speech. What follows is a nightmarish vision of a world which is both completely alien and frighteningly familiar, as Sam presses on alone into a society whose boundaries are fragmenting.

Reviews

The Guardian

Nicholas Lezard

What I found fascinating about this book, after its remarkable premise, which both invites and strongly resists allegorical interpretation, and the cold beauty of its prose, was my own reaction to it. I can put it no better than to say that this book got to me, and I started worrying whether Marcus had in fact achieved something darkly magical: the creation in readers of the very reaction he describes his characters having to language. In short, this book made me sick with anxiety, more so than I would have believed possible.

30/04/2013

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The London Review of Books

Joshua Cohen

If the weakness of The Flame Alphabet is its half-resolved plot, its strength is its unresolved parable. Marcus’s conceit is apophatic: his only interest in meaning is in its negation. His semantic voids share empty air with Kafka’s two unfinished novels and Flaubert’s incomplete Bouvard et Pécuchet. Like the strange new unpolluting letters that Samuel fabricates, Marcus’s entire book is a signifier in search of a signified. His virus could represent anything: it could be taken as the result of a general debasement of language, a disease that every generation treats as contemporary. Advertising babble and political cant are health hazards; the entertainment media an epidemic. Then again, this spoken parenticide could be taken as a symbol: of innocence lost.

23/06/2012

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The New Statesman

Toby Litt

The Flame Alphabet concerns literalised “pollutions of comprehension”. The plot – and it’s a gripping though waywardly pursued one – is that the speech of children becomes a plague to their parents. (Or so it seems at first; it also seems that Jewish children are the Typhoid Marys.)

30/05/2012

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The New York Times

J. Robert Lennon

The Flame Alphabet, like Marcus’s earlier works, is laden with metaphor; everything might mean something, but nothing is certain. It reads like a dream, complete with all the associative richness that comparison might suggest. Unfortunately, Marcus’s borrowings from conventional narrative create an expectation of structural coherence that the book then declines to deliver ... Marcus is a writer of prodigious talent, but “The Flame Alphabet” doesn’t fulfill its own promise as a hybrid of the traditional and experimental.

22/01/2012

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The Guardian

James Lasdun

It's a deeply weird setup, though as it develops, Marcus's serious reasons for each of these improbable elements is revealed, and a measure of the book's success is that it enforces not just a suspension of disbelief, but – for a while – total surrender of the faculty of reason ... About halfway through, the book's esoteric and populist aims begin to pull hard in opposite directions and the enterprise starts to fray. There's a thriller plot to fulfil, but its non-realistic terms don't lend themselves to the strict inner logic that makes thrillers thrilling.

07/06/2012

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The Washington Post

Lionel Shriver

For me, The Flame Alphabet triggered the very allergic reaction to verbiage that it describes. A relentless sameness to the drear, queasy atmosphere is stifling: Page after page, characters sicken in an unremitting assault of pus, pallor and hair loss. The imagery is monochrome: muddy and brown and cold. The nausea is contagious. The worms in my compost were positively perky in comparison to this enervating prose.

02/02/2012

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The Independent

Jonathan Gibbs

The book does wobble once the plot kicks in, with the grown-ups being evacuated, and Samuel fetching up in a laboratory, researching new alphabets that might make human communication safe again. In the end, The Flame Alphabet does regain its power to disturb, by revealing itself as a parable not just of language, or religion, but of parenthood. For Esther is not the perfect child, but a surly, vindictive presence, as eager as any teenager to turn her words into a weapon. There is a chilling image of her kneeling over her sick mother, "opening her throat for the pure injury to pour out" … a gnarly, difficult book, part-fairy tale, part-horror story, part-literary dissection ...

04/08/2012

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