These days it’s an easy target for ridicule, but I remain a staunch fan of the novel of Serious Ideas. When done properly, these kinds of books perform an absolutely essential task of cultural heavy lifting. Without them we’d be in even more dire straits than we already are.
But sometimes you come across an entry so utterly straight-faced and convinced of its own profundity that it starts to taint the entire rest of the genre by association. The insults suddenly make sense. Even your own mind gets clouded. You doubt yourself, and think, “Wait, they’re not all like this… are they?”
Such is the unwitting power of The Flame Alphabet, the fourth book from New York’s Ben Marcus. At its most exasperating (and this is a novel that knows many such shades) it resembles what might happen if you left Don DeLillo’s White Noise out in the summer sun, waited for all of the humour to evaporate, and then let the leftovers harden into a shell of total acridity.
Or, for a more contemporary touchstone, look to Colson Whitehead’s similarly dour and overinflated zombie aria Zone One. Who told these guys that you could actually improve your B-movie premise by sucking all of the fun out of it?
The motor that powers Marcus’s novel is a mysterious but extremely vicious disease that turns language into a weapon. Specifically, any words or even communicative utterances spoken out loud will cause symptoms including “facial smallness, lethargy, [and] a hardening under the tongue that defeated attempts at speech” in the listener—but only if that listener is above the age of majority. Children are, for some reason, immune. There’s a distant recurring rumour that Jewish people are also connected.
But what purports to be a widescreen look at language and civilization is in reality quite petty. In fact, underneath all of the rococo religio-linguistic trappings is a simple yet strangely aggressive polemic against… overprotective parents?
The basic symbolism—children literally wounding their mothers and fathers with their incessant chatter, and the parents too sycophantic to even request that they, you know, stop doing that—is clear enough. Marcus takes things a step further by making his parents completely personality-free, and their daughter Esther just about the most monstrous little attention-vacuum you can imagine.
More importantly, look at the language Marcus uses to describe their relationship. There’s imagery of constant surveillance (“I couldn’t see her, Esther didn’t exist, without a satellite of us orbiting by”), as well as coercion (“as if we created her moods in a lab and force-fed them to her every day”). There’s also a general attitude of willful self-destruction that verges upon brainwashing. When Esther refrains even momentarily from speaking, and thus further harming her nearly terminal mother, the parents act as if she is doing them a monumental favour. Elsewhere, the father is “[p]rofoundly incurious… [d]eeply, hugely indifferent” to giving his potentially contagious daughter even a simple blood test. In other words, the language disease is a total scapegoat: this family dynamic was unhealthy long before any external problems came along.
Add to this some major issues of pacing and even adherence to the disease’s own basic rules, as well as more than one ill-advised rabbit hole of a subplot, and you’ve got a book that rings patently false again and again.
I can see how The Flame Alphabet might seem irresistible to a certain kind of reader—at least at a distance. Once you get up close, though, the whole thing is just too bitter and across-the-board grueling to take half as seriously as Marcus wants you to.
Knopf, 304 pp, $29, hardcover
(review originally appeared in the Edmonton Journal, February 26, 2012)