When speech turns lethal
Award-winning author Ben Marcus is a writer who dares to take linguistic risks. No stranger to experimental fiction, in his fourth novel Marcus demonstrates what happens when spoken and written language turns into a toxic killer, taking his readers on an eerie ride by imagining that children have the ability to kill off their elders simply by speaking to them.
The Flame Alphabet opens outside Rochester, New York, with Sam and his wife Claire, whose health is severely declining. Their moody teenage daughter Esther runs wild through their neighborhood: indignant, furious and overly emotional as only teenagers can be. At first, it is only the Jews who fall ill from hearing their children speak: their tongues harden to the bottom of their mouths, their flesh falls off the bone. However, soon it is not just Jewish adults who perish but all adults, succumbing not only to teenage admonitions, but also to reading the written word.
The disease is unstoppable, and Sam watches in horror as his town (among others) becomes quarantined. Forced to make a “Sophie’s Choice” type of decision, Sam forces Claire to abandon their daughter and head with him for safety. Unfortunately, Claire does not make it out; Sam barely escapes before being forced to research potential cures in an isolated facility.
What makes The Flame Alphabet an especially thoughtful book (and one that it is necessary to take time reading) is Sam’s discovery of just how easily language can kill. Sam concocts thousands of tests—staring at pictographs, Egyptian ruins, and languages consisting of only vowels in his desperate attempt to search for immunity. He watches in horror as his creations are tested on inmates of the facility, his work reminiscent of the Holocaust’s scientific experiments forced upon prisoners. How far Sam will go to save not only the adults, the children destined to grow old (and become susceptible to the disease), but also his family, is a frightening admonition of one father’s love for his daughter, and will to survive.