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 operate on multiple registers: as metaphor, sociology, conventional thriller, and, at bottom, discourse on parenthood and family that is freakishly sad and incredibly good.
It’s true there have been many novels issued over the years about plague and contagion whose etiology is unknown but still biologic. Ohhh, it’s the monkeys, the broccoli, the tulips. In The Flame Alphabet, we have a fever borne, in the early going, of kidspeak. Of kids who are, by design, adept in the obliteration of their elders with language and gesture—in essence, with anything that vectors feeling from one person to another. Enter Sam and Claire, whose daughter Esther has just turned fourteen. She’s a nasty child who’s taken the misanthropy of adolescence to new extremes. As Sam notes, she abhors “all the functional vocal prompts one bleated in order to stabilize the basic encounters, to keep them from capsizing into awkward fits of milling and hovering. Hello and good-bye and thank you to strangers; good morning and how are you. These phrases were insane to her.”
Instead, she wields language like an ax, assaulting her parents with evidence of their stupidity and hypocrisy, the result for them being guilt and self-recrimination. They are to blame for misparenting the child. For having the child. As Sam puts it, “Fatherhood is perhaps another name for something done badly.”
In short order, then, we’ve got a child whose affect is weaponized against her parents for the crime of loving her. And if this were not poignant enough, an actual illness—a gruesome, debilitating, incredibly gross illness—begins to afflict every adult exposed to the language ordnance, first of children, then of each other.
About the illness and its symptoms, I offer the following from Sam: “At the urinal I peed a heavy, white pudding.”
Marcus describes the fever in ways that escalate from the discomfiting to the repulsive—“my face felt so heavy, I thought I could remove it, step on it until it composted”—so that you never get too cozy with Susan Sontag’s famous bÍte noire, that illness is just metaphor. It’s not. Here, communication and, later on, comprehension are lethal to the body because, in this novel, words and gestures and authorship are themselves property to the physical world. In presence of language, your tongue will anchor to the bottom of your mouth via a “hardened lump.” You will pass out. You will go blind. Understand what’s being communicated to you, and you will fall apart so completely that death will come as a welcome relief.
Not coincidentally, understanding and bafflement, alongside the excess guilt and child called Esther, bespeak one of the novel’s other preoccupations, namely the esoterica of a Jewish cult broadcast in huts throughout a forest near where Sam and Claire live. The transmissions are cabled in through a hole in the floor, via orange wiring yoked to a “listener” or “Moses Mouth” that decrypts the sermons. Um, what? Exactly. Sam and Claire go to their hut most every week, the caveat being that while they can make love in the hut—which they often do—they cannot talk to each other or anyone else about what they have heard:
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. . . . 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.
But whose coffin? Turns out it’s not the message that dies, but the messenger, the logic of this theology being: Because the alphabet comprises the name of God in any language, because all words reference God, because you are not to speak His name, ever, you cannot speak at all. And just in case you don’t agree, the fever is dispositive. This, anyway, is what the rabbis say, though it’s possible the rabbis are not who they appear to be, at which point the why of the speech poison becomes less interesting than its fallout.
As befits the plague genre, the “authorities” begin to deport parents and quarantine the kids. Meanwhile, a mysterious prophet qua scientist, LeBov, spearheads the search for a cure. For the plague, he blames the Jewish Child, the Jews in general, and, later, the Jews for stockpiling a kind of ur-wisdom and refusing to share. He runs a lab in Rochester that tests language variants on people clamoring at the gates for treatment. His villainy is oddly uncomplicated and hard to credit in a novel so rich with emotional authority, but never mind: He gives Sam the chance to be heroic, or at least try, once he arrives at the lab having been forced to leave his wife and child behind.
Enter a period of silence. The techs and scientists do not converse or even look at each other. And the upshot, for us, is some gorgeous prose—limpid and robust—on the despoiling of humanity as a result:
The lack of speech, the absence of language to build us into full people, had turned us into a kind of emotive cattle. Perhaps a raucous inner-life produced shattering notes inside us, but with no extraction tool, no language to pry it free and publicize it, even if it was moronic, one sensed that the whole enterprise of consciousness had suddenly lost its way.
The novel is very good about making sure we don’t mobilize myth or the Bible to explain what’s happened here. It’s also good about supplying false and true context for the language plague, which is comic and disorienting, both: “Letters, Montaigne said, are a necessary evil.” He said that? He did not. Now and then, the novel cannot resist its own comedy—a Moses Mouth? a Jew hole?—though this humor, in its sparseness, is no anodyne for the heartwreck of the novel’s last hundred pages. Out in the world: traveling mercy tents that euthanize with language; choose what you last want to hear on earth and die with these words spiked through your heart. At the lab, failure by day and coitus by night, though even coitus overstates the intimacy that can be brought to bear on these couplings. I quote here at length because the novel’s rhetorical strategy is to escalate and gather its horror one sentence at a time. And so:
It took effort to control one’s face so totally while fucking, to disable one’s gestures and reactions, and it was not long before I was put in mind of the dead, just dead people, people who had died but who somehow had managed to start fucking each other, not because they still lived, but because this is what the dead did. This is what it was like with Marta. She had died, and then I had died, and then the two of us, in our dead world, had found a way to join parts, a grim and dutiful task, a collaboration of the dead on becoming slightly more dead with each other, this to be achieved only by deadly fucking until we turned blue and gasped with exhaustion, careful not ever to look at each other’s dead faces.
Are you wowed? Because things actually get sadder. If the novel often reduces to a truism about kids—they can savage you with their words, their looks and gestures—it also dilates to include an ethos about parenthood that’s equally true: Parenthood is immortal. Kill me all you want, but I will not die. I will endure your worst and do even worse things, but in the face of family, I am resilient.
In the end, The Flame Alphabet is almost agnostic on the virtue of speech and even dwells, beautifully, on what might be gained from being locked in with yourself. No more lies. No more venting of shame, remorse, or guilt. Instead: institutionalized deniability, which sounds appealing for about five seconds. At some point, though, Sam wonders what people would even say to each other if returned to a language that worked. What matters that much? I am reminded of a class I once taught on dialogue, the lesson being that some dialogue is just too banal ever to be immortalized in prose. And I am reminded of a student who balked. Who said: “Are you kidding me? Hello is a fucking miracle.”
Fiona Maazel is the author of Last Last Chance (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2008).