The Flame Alphabet by Ben Marcus


I read an exquisite short story by Ben Marcus once (“The Dark Arts”), and ever since then I’ve been curious to find out whether he can be as great in more pages as he was in the couple of pages of that story – whether he could consistently write such precise, associative, well-crafted (but not over-crafted), just-right sentences. (Which is by no means easy.)

And to my great delight: He can.

It was already obvious while I was reading “The Dark Arts” how well Marcus can shape language into any shape he wants, and how well he can create layers of meanings and associations, and the same is true here. And in fact, it’s even more interesting here as one of the main themes of this novel is language itself, and how language is completely useless.

The Flame Alphabet is the story of a double apocalypse of language and meaning – a personal one, and one affecting humanity as a whole. The story is about a mysterious epidemic where the language of children becomes toxic for adults, and everyone who’s exposed to this language slowly starts to wither away. Later on the situation gets even worse: even the language of adults becomes poisonous for other adults. As a result, adults slowly give up on language, or only resort to using it when they absolutely must, after administering special protective serums, while children, who are immune to the poison, are quarantined so that they cannot harm others with their language.

Why does language suddenly become toxic? The narrator quotes different theories and sources, according to which language has always been a poison – an imperfect, harmful tool, hardly adequate for communication, something which slowly kills both the person who uses it and the one it’s used on, something children can still use freely only because they haven’t yet been exposed to a sufficiently (mortally) high dose of it.

Throughout the story, the narrator (a determined, self-doubting father, who’d do just about anything to be reunited with his quarantined daughter with the venomous tongue, whose words are slowly killing him and his wife) mentions lots of everyday examples to illustrate the deadly nature of language.

He recalls, for example, how he hadn’t been able to understand his daughter or his wife, not even when language was still supposedly functional. He recalls the times he used language in a way to hurt someone with it. And he also recalls how mind-numbingly boring, disturbing, almost physically painful other people’s words can be.

Language can be like this: forever evading meaning, irritating, hurtful – and Marcus makes these real-life language problems, others’ deadly boring speech into really deadly.

But no matter how imperfect language is, its absence has serious consequences. As I said: it leads to both personal and large-scale deterioration. As regards the latter: the epidemic gets to a point where no-one can speak safely with anyone any longer, and where even words and meaning transmitted through radio waves, books, traffic signs or even more simple means lead to immediate illness. By this stage, society starts to disintegrate, and those still alive either become recluses, refraining from using language, or start to desperately look for their lost, quarantined children even though they know that their reunion will be fatal.

And as for the personal disintegration: the narrator doesn’t want to be a lonely hole-dweller, but he doesn’t want to die, either, just so that he can speak once more with his wife and daughter. Instead, he tries to find a cure: a language, or at least a sign that would enable the three of them to communicate without making them ill. The novel is partly about his quest for this deeply personal language only designed to be understood by three people in the world. But while the narrator is looking for this new language, he’s constantly aware of the crumbling and disintegration of the old language – and most importantly, he’s painfully aware how much of his humanness and his personality was built and depended on language and on the constant interpretation of signs.

So the ultimate question is: can you survive this loss with your sanity intact?