It’s no hyperbole to say that language defines us as a species. It allows us to communicate on a level required to develop peculiarities like art, history, science, and religion, laying the way for our unique place among animals. In The Flame Alphabet, Ben Marcus imagines our species becoming allergic to this ubiquitous byproduct of its civilizations. In it, language becomes so toxic in all its forms that communication itself becomes a lethal plague that only children are immune to. One might imagine the result to be a descent into feral post-apocalypse, with humans becoming more overtly animalistic, but Marcus surprises with a truly strange, original vision of a post-linguistic world.
The novel is a first-person account told from the point of view of Sam, a husband and father. We see the unfolding epidemic through his eyes, from its early phases where children like his daughter Esther become the primary vectors, to the total societal breakdown that follows. Complicating things is the fact that Sam and his wife Claire are members of a deeply secretive sect of Judaism. These “forest Jews,” as they are known by detractors, keep their faith secret, worshipping around hidden “Jew holes” that transmit radio sermons from unknown sources, activated by inserting orange wires into bilious, bag-like conductive devices called “listeners.” This religion turns out to be of special interest to some once the language toxicity spreads.
What keeps Marcus’s allegorical conceit from insufferable abstraction or downright ridiculousness is, ironically, his total devotion to realizing it. With admirable skill, he takes a baldly metaphorical concept and moulds it into something akin to body horror. Marcus brings a Cronenbergian physicality and revulsion to his depiction of language breaking down into poison inside and outside human bodies, of the Jewish splinter religion with its strange, almost biomechanical tools of worship. Consider Sam’s description of his listener: “I had to touch the wet belly of the listener to ground the signal…until I felt resistance, as if deep inside the listener, if you gouged enough jelly from it, was a long, flat bone.” This is a religion that recognizes in some mysterious way the organic nature of language, derived as it is in the wet furnace of the human brain, lungs, throat, and mouth. From animal meat comes the duplicitous genius of transmitted thought, sprayed across the world on language. Therein lies the dread that permeates Sam’s testimony.
Marcus literalizes the intense pain language can cause on both intimate (a lover’s quarrel, a daughter’s spite) and global (the venom of divisive political and religious rhetoric) scales by turning it into a virulent agent produced by humans. The result is a world that isn’t quite ours—one where the remnants of our festering, poisonous language gathers in drifts of salt and other palpable residues, and the physical reactions to the plague are immediate and horrifying as anything in Stephen King’s The Stand.
Marcus’s commitment to creating this off-kilter alternate world anchors his lofty themes to a gripping narrative—a dystopian horror novel that charts the transformation of one man into something new. And make no mistake: This is a one-man show, driven by the distinct voice of Sam. If Marcus falters anywhere it’s in his distant, impressionistic portrayals of characters other than our narrator, who never seem quite real. From wasted, shattered Claire to sadistic hellion Esther (and others I don’t want to reveal), they’re but fragments of the dreamlike, apocalyptic chrysalis that enfolds Sam and refashions him by the end, like Seth Brundle turning insectoid in David Cronenberg’s The Fly. What Sam turns into in the end is ambiguous, open to interpretation—like language itself.
Michael Chabon’s comparison of Marcus to J.G. Ballard isn’t unwarranted, with the novel reminding of Crash and its exploration of a new kind of human arising from the painful union of body and machine. The Flame Alphabet portrays the emergence of a new kind of human born of a global union of metaphysical and physical suffering. With language we constantly impose doom upon ourselves, be it through religious prophecy or post-apocalyptic fiction, and Marcus gives us a fascinating glimpse of how we might react if that dismal tide of words turned real. If our own intellectual brilliance were to poison us, as it already does every day.
Ben Marcus’s The Flame Alphabet is available on January 17 from Alfred A. Knopf.
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