The Flame Alphabet, by Ben Marcus
If, as my A Level English teacher insisted, one of the key themes of Nineteen Eighty-Four was the assassination of Language, then The Flame Alphabet is in turn about the suicide of language. Set in an unsettlingly apocalyptic future where language in all its forms has become toxic to humans, causing an array of symptoms ranging from seizures, to the hardening of the tongue, to the shrinking of the face, ultimately leading to death. Like many end-of-the-world narratives, many theories are posited as to what has caused this sudden change, but no real conclusion is ever reached. Children do not appear to be affected, and again, no explanation for this is given. The “plague” as it were also changes over time, as people eke out a little more understanding. First it’s only children’s speech that causes it, then all speech, then the written word, then any alphabet, and finally any method of symbolic communication including sign language.
I think this is a really exciting and interesting premise that invites so many interesting questions and philosophical investigation. Unfortunately, The Flame Alphabet delivers on very few of these, and instead, underneath the starkly detached prose and half-hearted, ill-defined theology, the story is ultimately little more than one of a dysfunctional family struggling to adapt in a world they don’t quite understand. Mildly interesting and presented in a different way, but the characters are all so bland that it’s impossible to relate to them at all. The (nominal) protagonist and narrator (whose name I can’t remember two weeks after reading. Eventually Google supplies it as Sam) spends much of the book passively responding to the crisis with little effect. Understandably, if frustrating, he doesn’t have much in the way of answers, or idea of the big picture. He is the Everyman character, who, vainly or stubbornly, attempts to preserve as close to his way of life as he can as everything comes crashing down around him.
Even when he gets brought into the heart of the research for a solution, (in the most interesting sequence in the whole book), he is ineffectual and derided for his efforts, until he ultimately exacerbates the problem.
There are two factors running through the book which have the potential to make it a fascinating read, but somehow both fall short of the mark and only make my dissatisfaction with the novel worse.
The first is the closest that we come to a human antagonist (rather than unconscious children acting as a force of nature), who at the same time acts as benefactor and guiding light amid the chaos. LeBov (to continue the Orwell referencing) combines the O’Brien and Goldstein characters. He is at once a radical outsider vilified by the establishment, and a malevolent authority figure that seeks to control and manipulate the protagonist. Apparently a reference to a real-life socio-linguist, LeBov is the first to observe the plague and ultimately, the one who finds, not a cure, but a temporary prophylaxis for the disease. He is a constant throughout the book, mysterious from beginning to end, almost like the enigmatic leader of a cult rather than a sociologist or physician. He has no redeeming features or characteristics, and his arrogance and bigotry make reading about him tedious, with no real explanation of why Sam puts up with it.
I touched on the other point earlier when I referred to ill-defined theology. Judaism is constant theme throughout the book, the protagonist and his family are Jewish, and there are a number of theories for the cause of the plague that centre around Judaism, essentially rooting from anti-Semitism. The problem is, there is no real reason for this to be the case. It is briefly posited that the plague is a curse from God for blasphemy:
“Since the entire alphabet comprises God’s name, [Rabbi] Burke asserted, since it is written in every arrangement of letters, then all words reference God, do they not? … Therefore the language itself was, by definition, off-limits. Every single word of it. We were best to be done with it. Our time with it is nearly through.”
However, this is abandoned fairly quickly. The protagonist’s religion does inform a lot of what he does, but this is problematic when you consider that in The Flame Alphabet, Judaism has little to no reflection of its real-life counterpart. It is practised not in a synagogue but in intimate pairs in huts in the middle of the forest, preached over some form of sub-ether devices that no one ultimately understands. It’s frankly baffling and has no real explanation, apart from a later revelation that it may all have been a scheme of LeBov’s. Or it may not have been. Like so much of the book, this is an arbitrary mystery that the reader is supposed to accept on trust, something which Marcus does little to earn.
I really wanted to like The Flame Alphabet, but to be honest I couldn’t find much to like, so really the 3/5 rating is a reflection of its concept, rather than its execution.