Ben Marcus: The Flame Alphabet

January 4, 2014


This is the second weirdest novel I’ve ever read; the prize for the first goes to The Age of Wire and String, by the same author. That one was weirder because more poetic in the way that the author (ab)uses language and concepts to confuse/ seduce/ amaze his readers; this one is a novel with a real plot which you can (attempt to) follow…

Surrealist is a word I might use here, although Marcus makes Boris Vian at his strangest seem quite mundane; nor does he bore me stupid like Robbe-Grillet in La Jalousie. In the same way that Marcus takes language to its limits, I’m finding it rather a challenge to write about his book… but here goes:

In a New York he imagines, human speech has become toxic: first, it’s the speech of children, then increasingly vocalisation of anything by anyone, causes a range of weird and appalling symptoms; eventually parents and their children can no longer inhabit the same towns, let alone houses; bands of feral children can terrorise and disable adults by shouting at them. The toxicity of words, reading and all kinds of symbols make life impossible, and the search for palliatives and cures involves all sorts of bizarre and unethical methods; the narrator is a member of a strange group of Forest Jews whose odd rituals alone in the woods may or may not be linked to a solution… the book is full of weird devices it’s almost impossible to visualise. Eventually, the residue of all human speech lies around as piles of salt…

In and among this, of course, is the human need for fellowship, companionship, love and sex, and the descriptions of what sex has become in this universe are most strange. The narrator loves his wife and daughter, and has to abandon or lose both in different ways.

Although all the ideas in this story are initially so alien, it bears reading and the plot urges you on, as you wonder where on earth it can go next, and I was left shocked and upset at the end. I’m sure I will read it again, because I can see there is a lot I will inevitably have missed first time around.

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