Imagine a world where the very words we speak are toxic to those around us. This is exactly what Ben Marcus has done in his novel “The Flame Alphabet,” but he’s taken it one step further – in his world, children are not affected by the toxin. Their parents must watch as their offspring fend for themselves, as the adults of the world wither and one by one retreat from society. Marcus reduces his idea to a single question: what do we do, as humans, when we lose the power of communication?
The novel focuses on a specific family, consisting of parents Sam and Claire and their pre-teen daughter Esther. The language disease starts slowly, at first manifesting only as fatigue. When the world starts to realize that the cases are widespread and worsening, doctors race to discover the source of the epidemic.
But as the mystery unfolds, it becomes apparent that it might be too late, as adults retreat further into seclusion and the children band together in vicious groups, not understanding that they, too, will contract the disease in a few years.
Marcus’s novel starts out normally, chronicling the daily lives of Sam, Claire, and Esther. However, it quickly descends into something much more like horror, a chilling idea taken to its full, post-apocalyptic extent. He makes us question language as a concept, as something we take for granted, as something dependable and easy. Further on, he takes language to its very roots and tears it apart as we know it, as Sam works as a researcher in a Borgesian language lab where scientists work with slivers of letters at a time to avoid further deterioration from the disease.
But “The Flame Alphabet” is more than a cold examination of language and its place in culture. Through Sam, Claire, and Esther, he fully addresses the implicit emotional issues as well, watching as the effects of the disease tears their family apart. While the overarching emotion of “The Flame Alphabet” is fear, Marcus makes sure bits of tenderness come through as well, and the reader suffers along with Sam in his attempts to keep Claire comfortable, cries along with Claire as Esther destroys her birthday cake. Marcus makes sure to address the psychological aspects of the problem, which is perhaps what saves it from itself in the end: Sam’s desire to reunite his family and his sheer force of will are what drive the novel. Without Sam’s humanity, the novel risks alienating readers through coldness, through lack of things to which to relate.
“The Flame Alphabet” is not for those who want relief or solace. It is the furthest thing from a comfort read. It takes everything we think we know and turns it upside down, demonstrating how the removal of language affects everything from family values to social structure. But for the curious reader, the adventurous reader, the reader who wonders “what if?”, “The Flame Alphabet” is a breathtaking, terrifying novel that takes language and words somewhere they’ve never been before.