The Flame Alphabet
By Ben Marcus
Knopf January 2012
From the library
The Flame Alphabet follows one family through a post-apocalyptic world, but this one is different from any world you have read about before. In this world, the speech of children is toxic to adults. Their parents became nauseated, weak, and repulsed by the very sound of their children’s laughter and stories. Sam and Claire are parents to Esther, a typical teenager who wants little to do with them. As Esther’s very words make them weaker and weaker, they seek answers in their underground sect of Judaism and perhaps the mysterious man who keeps appearing to Sam.
This book got a lot of buzz and I was excited to read it. Unfortunately, it turned out to be one of those books that you are more than content to set down when it is time to do something else. While the premise is interesting, the reader never connects with the characters. Claire and Esther are either not present or incapacitated for large portions of the novel and Sam is aloof from beginning and end. While he goes through this novel presumably in an effort to find safety for his family, we never really feel his attachment to either his wife or daughter.
There is a lot of pontificating throughout the novel about the need for language or the ways in which language is dangerous to us. By the end of the book, the only words are within people's heads, since speech and written text are lethal to those who hear or see it. Many of Sam’s opinions about language come from his religious beliefs. In their branch of Judaism, they listen to messages from their rabbi in secret huts. The message is not supposed to be discussed or repeated. Sam explains that “the secrecy surrounding the huts was justified. The true Jewish teaching is not for wide consumption, is not for groups, is not to be polluted by even a single gesture of communication. 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. If you no longer care about an idea or feeling, then put it into language. That will certainly be the last of it, a fitting end. Language is another name for coffin. Bauman told us the only thing we should worry about regarding the sermons was if we understood them too well. When such a day came, then something was surely wrong.”
There is a lot I wanted to know that Marcus doesn’t seem to find important to answer for his readers. I wanted to know why the faithful Jews were worshipping in secret, creating huts in the forest where they could listen clandestinely to their leader. I wanted to know how in the world they kept getting all this gasoline for their car in a time of crisis. I wanted to know how life seemed to be going on as usual for so long, despite the knowledge that children are making the adults around them ill with every word they spoke. I wanted to know why children were immune, while adults were keeling over in the street.
While Marcus initiates many conversations about the role of language and the relations between parents and children, I couldn’t figure out for the life of me exactly what he was trying to say. While Marcus seems to indicate that language is dangerous, he continues to write and write. Sam is creating a record of his experiences for any future survivors who might be able to survive reading it, despite the obvious trouble with words and language. So is the point that language must endure despite its challenges? I was never sure. Mr. Marcus had a fascinating idea, but his execution leaves much to be desired.