Ben Marcus – The Flame Alphabet

In Ben Marcus’ second novel, The Flame Alphabet, the author finds himself generating an appeal for both hardcore fans of experimental fiction as well as first-time casual readers.  And while the end result is effective, the attempted balance between intriguing thriller plots and stylish and artful experimentation can leave Marcus seemingly seizuring with false gestures in opposing directions within his defiance of genre expectations.

Having become more of a household name after publicly calling out Jonathan Franzen over his proposed “controversy” of experimental fiction in a readerless era, Marcus seems to be taking an opportunity to meet a broader audience with his latest novel.  Building on previous ponderings on language from his earlier work, Marcus has devised an outbreak-thriller based on the poisonous nature of language itself.

In Alphabet’s universe and time, language has become toxic to the adult human species, beginning with the most obvious forms of communication and evolving to the broadest concepts, such as gestures and facial expressions.  Children seem to be the only group who maintain an immunity to this developed “language allergy” and are subsequently volatile because of the fact.  Tie-in a bit of mystic mystery from an underground movement of Jews who harness a mild understanding of this plague, and you have yourself the foundations of a potential literary thrill-ride.

At first glance, the premise might be mistakenly shelved alongside the likes of cheesy science fiction what-ifs, such as Fahrenheit 451 or the more recent pile of crap In Time.  However, Marcus does well with his expertise as an experimental author to steer the concept’s manifestation more toward fantastical absurdism, rather than in the direction of a base psychological thriller.  While plot is of more importance in Alphabet than in his former prose-centric work, Marcus fortunately spends most of his effort in utilizing the platform to explore some interesting topics of human philosophy and social psychology.  Unfortunately, however, a lot of the novel’s potential never comes to fruition as our clinically detached narrator becomes preoccupied with explicit descriptions of everyone’s ailments more so than opportunities for imaginative prose or exciting turns of plot.  This fact is also a root cause in some of the mixed reactions of casual readers, who had been given a taste of an interesting plot and developed a craving for a grandiose climax to match the story’s grandiose concept.

And while the premise alone is a difficult one to accept, the logic in its unfolding is even harder to fathom.  One can’t critique this issue thoroughly without spoilers, but it seems to be riddled with obvious mistakes in contingency regardless of the author’s research.  Complaints aside, The Flame Alphabet is an interesting book in and of itself (mostly for the fact that it exists and is being marketed somewhat successfully) and demands to be finished.


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