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The Flame Alphabet

By Ben Marcus

A Review by Kathryn Roberts

In 1995, Ben Marcus created a devoted following of experimental fiction-hungry readers with the publication of his story collection, The Age of Wire and String, a work that reads more like prose poetry than stories and asks readers to interpret the book as "cataloguing a culture" through a society's important features interpreted through reinvented terminology. Since the collection's release, Marcus has published only two novels and one chapbook, making an awaited event of the second novel, The Flame Alphabet.
With The Flame Alphabet, Marcus includes more of the characteristics of traditional fiction than his previous works. Incorporating a plot and a protagonist, the novel at times reads like a mystery, a thriller, and even a science fiction/fantasy story. Unlike such genre fiction, however, The Flame Alphabet offers no satisfying conclusion to the problems it posits, instead inundating the reader with confused and conflicting metaphors concealed in overly experimental prose.
In an alternate version of America, seemingly similar in time--televisions, radios, modern amenities are all present--except for the conspicuous absence of the Internet, a language plague is ailing the adults. Children's speech causes physical illness, from vomiting, an inability to taste and chew, a diminished to non-existent sexual drive, to the final stages of hard tongue and "facial smallness." At first, the sickness appears only in Jewish families, drawing loose allegorical connections to the persecution of Jews in our actual world. Children are quarantined, people are held in research facilities and experimented upon, and false prophets offer suggestions as to the origins and cures for the mysterious illness.
Even before the plague hits full force, Sam and Claire's daughter, Esther, already "[menaces] them with language, the language mirror. Death by feedback." A particularly sullen and, at times, vicious teenager, Esther clearly has plagued her parents with the typical psychic alienation of teenagers to parents. The jump from mental anguish to physical anguish thus, initially, is not a difficult one for readers to follow and indulge. As so-called "Forest Jews," the two adults already practice a form of religion that recognizes the distortion language can bring to concepts; the two listen to sermons through a secret hole in the ground in their own private hut in the woods and are forbidden from discussing what they hear, even with each other.
Yet, with all the possibilities he sets up, Marcus fails to deliver on his promises. He offers several differing and muddled assertions regarding language; contentions from "spreading messages dilutes them. Even understanding them is a compromise. The language kills itself, expires inside its host. Language acts as an acid over its message," to suggesting that without language, humans lack identity, perception, a reason to think. Readers are drawn into the work feeling as though we will be offered an insight into language but find only a sense of an unclear message. We are left feeling as though we read something that sounds important but means very little. Add to that Marcus' failed attempt at plot--the novel goes on and on but never really goes anywhere--and The Flame Alphabet appears as an initially intriguing idea that the author cannot capitalize on to sustain book-length.
Some readers will find redeeming value in Marcus' use of language; there are certainly beautiful passages, especially in description of Claire who "had vanished into herself, ghosted out with her long stare." Notorious for forcing readers to work at determining what object or action he is referencing with his play on jargon, Marcus delivers a fair amount of language contortion in his latest work. However, likely due in part to his lack in plot movement, much of the text is reduced to new ways of describing the decay of the adults. Marcus discovers multiple ways to discuss vomiting in great detail, and innumerable phrases to describe the muck and putrification of a society dying slowly of disease. After the first few instances of new phrasing, the prose just feels dirty and grimy, rather than innovative and fresh, and begs for an ending to come more quickly that it will.
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