The Flame Alphabet by Ben Marcus

IMG_1751 Perhaps a little one fell down in a great black swoon after you sucked free his assets, and the transaction has left you, what is the word, troubled.

This sentence comes from Sam, the first-person narrator of The Flame Alphabet. Yes, there aren’t really too many laughs in it. Ben Marcus’ writing has real, believable power as he coolly describes societal, mental and physical breakdown in a near-future, semi-rural America. The premise of this extraordinary novel sets you thinking: what if a hack writer had done it? The result would have been quite good, actually: hordes of semi-zombie children terrorising grown-ups as the world as we know it slips into the void. But Marcus is not interested in writing that. He has something bigger in mind. Children are toxic – well, their speech is. And not just children, but Jewish children specifically. But is that really true? It’s what the stranger, Murphy, says – but then as Sam puts it: ‘In the end our language is no match for what this man did.’ , Where does all this leave Sam’s daughter, Esther? Words – spoken, whispered and even written – are destructive, cancerously eroding the body’s functions until silence becomes the only way to survive. Sam and his wife Claire already know about quiet, as they are part of very private Jewish sect which does its praying and listening secretly in underground ‘Jew holes’. We never really know why: not persecution, exactly. The descriptions of humans’ deterioration are so relentless in the first half as to make the reader feel slightly bilious. More than bilious. But then Marcus is a master of the striking sentence, several of them sticking out through the text like rusty nails. ‘I would agree with everything Sernier says,’ writes Sam bitterly at one point. ‘But I’ll point out that bugs crawl from his mouth now, and there’s no one left to read what he wrote.’ Sam finds some sort of life but at a cost which he doesn’t do more than hint at. But we know. It’s Child’s Play. If you abandon your family, there’s really no way back. The Flame Alphabet is not a very enjoyable read. And I mean that in a good way.

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