A Plague on Words
Ben Marcus imagines a world in which language can kill
It should come as no surprise that Ben Marcus has written a novel about language toxicity—a language plague that kills any adult within range of words, speech, text, even emotive gesture. From the author of Notable American Women (2002), itself a venture in derangements of language, we should have expected no less. It should also come as no surprise that people who think about words all day, for whom locution is sexy and vital and, well, everything, have only to hear the words language toxicity to get all excited in the right places. To such people, I would say: You won’t be disappointed.
But here’s where it gets interesting. To people who just want to read a good yarn and who think Ben Marcus is too weird for them, I’d say: Think again. In what must have felt odd for a writer whose previous work has been prismatic in terms of narration and plot (if by plot we mean Joe goes to the store and buys a steak), Marcus has chosen for The Flame Alphabet to embrace a few touchstones of the Conventional Novel: single narrator plus single story that begins and ends, with several peaks and dips in between. I can actually tell you what it’s about, and in a minute, I will.
In the meantime, it’s worth noting how tired that debate about experimental versus conventional fiction seems apropos a novel like The Flame Alphabet, which falls somewhere in the middle of the two. The novel is plenty weird (plenty), but also more ambitious and complicated—which is to say, richer—than Marcus’s earlier work precisely because it marries up the weird with the onus to plot. In this way, the novel can
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