Ben Marcus: The Flame Alphabet (review)


I’ve had a strange time with this book. At first, I was disappointed. I had been looking so much forward to it because I loved the idea of the words of children becoming toxic to their parents and all adults. But the novel felt a bit strange, it was difficult to quite grasp what was going on and it felt like Ben Marcus maybe wanted to do much. But then I had time to just sit down and read for several hours and the novel really got under my skin. It was a quiet evening, the girls were sleeping and my boyfriend was also reading a book. At one point, I began having a strong aversion towards the thought that he would start speaking to me. I finished the book in two more sittings and each time, I got the same aversion against speak. I felt like I needed people around me to be quiet – otherwise, I would fall ill. Just like Claire and Sam.

Claire and Sam live together with their teenage daughter, Esther. Slowly, Claire and Sam are getting more and more sick while Esther thrives. After a while they realize that it’s not just them but rather, the entire grownup population who is suffering. It is discovered that they are being poisoned by the words of children. Not only their own children, but all children. This condition really alienates parents and children: ‘We’d grown so accustomed to hiding our feelings around Esther that it seemed easier to just not have those feelings in the first place.’ (p. 102)

Their condition gets so bad that they have to leave their home and leave Esther behind in the neighborhood which is turned into a kind of camp for kids with fences and loudspeakers to keep the adults out. And pretty soon, Sam is on his own, having been forced to leave the much more sick Claire behind.

It’s a book about the power of language. If you imagine how much words can hurt – and then imagine that it manifests itself physically, then you have an idea of what this book is about. Especially since the sickness that these words spread, are hurtful enough to make parents leave their children behind, hardly without a second thought.

I was a bit torn about Esther. Marcus writes that she seems concerned and yet, when she is asked to limit her talk, she starts talking whenever they can hear her and she joins a gang where she runs around shouting – and thereby hurting – adults. Yes, I know she’s a teenager but wouldn’t she care just a little bit that her parents were suffering?

Likewise, I was confused by the Jewish cult, Claire and Sam are members of. They attend sermons in a small hut in the forrest where it is transmitted through cables in the ground. It’s dirty and muddy and often difficult to hear the sermons. They are the only one who know about the hut and they are not allowed to talk to each other – or to Esther – about the sermons and I just didn’t quite get what these parts were all about – although this underground network becomes very important later in the book.

When I began reading this book, I was very confused about the title. What is the flame alphabet? I had never heard of this before but apparently, the flame alphabet is the word of God, written in fire. It’s the Torah. It’s words are all variations on God’s name. But you are not supposed to say God’s name and since all words in this alphabet are variations on God’s name, then that means that this alphabet is off-limit. You are not allowed to use it and this new disease is making sure you don’t go around forgetting that!

Words and language become so dangerous that you can’t even think in words. I don’t believe that you can have a inner life without language, I don’t believe you can even exist if you can’t use some kind of communication – and in this book, every type of communication ends up being hurtful. But still – I’m so impressed and interested by this book – and I love the idea of being able to commit suicide by language or to die by reading – so I’m ready to forgive things that I in a novel of lesser merit and importance would be very annoyed by.

I’m still asking myself whether this is just a discussion of the power of language, an allegory for the condition we all face with information overload in this information society, a critique of religion – or all three? I’m not sure but it’s definitely a book that will cause any reader to think. It feels like such an important book, a book that has something very significant to say about our relationships with each other and our language and communication.

This is a book filled with words, telling the story of how much words can hurt you. It draws you in to it’s own reality so you feel the beginning of the same panic, that Claire and Sam felt when it all began. And this is masterfully done. It is so worth reading. Go read. And read it in as few sittings as possible!

‘To refrain from storytelling is perhaps one of the highest forms of respect we can pay. Those people with no stories to circle them, can die without being misunderstood.’ (p. 265)

  • Title: The Flame Alphabet
  • Author: Ben Marcus
  • Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf
  • Year: 2012
  • Pages: 289 pages
  • Source: Own collection
  • Stars: 4 stars out of 5

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8 thoughts on “Ben Marcus: The Flame Alphabet (review)

  1. It’s funny, my review of this just went up as well. I had a similar opinion to you, it’s compelling, but with a few issues. I’ve also thought about it a great deal since finishing, though this is ultimately a book that I think few would appreciate.

    • Yeah you may be right. It just feels so important. Maybe it will be one of those books I push everyone to read and everyone will end up hating it – and me for pushing it so hard.

  2. You are the second person I know that has read and said similar things about this book this month. Prior to this, the only people I knew that had read it gave it two stars with no explanation. I think you’ve decided it for me.

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