The Flame Alphabet by Ben Marcus

The Flame Alphabet envisages a world in which language becomes toxic to all but children who roam their neighbourhoods spewing angry rebellious words and reducing adults and parents to people with shrunken faces, their speech dulled by a callus that forms hard and thick under their tongues. Certain words are more noxious than others; anything that references the self is particularly dangerous.

At first, children are abandoned to buses that profess to take the sickness away. Parents without off-spring flee. Those with children who haven’t already waved their infants off on the buses are forced to evacuate the city leaving their loved ones behind in quarantine zones.

Once out in the world where can the sick go? What hope do they have? As the sickness spreads so do the salt drifts, beautiful dunes that blow in on the silence.

All of this is narrated by Samuel, whose account of the sickness and its immediate aftermath is written down at great cost for even written language, all forms of alphabet and script, induce pain and sickness. Deciphering how and why people are suddenly afflicted becomes increasingly difficult as any form of communication, even hand signals, become intolerable. Even the children are immune only as long as they retain their youth.

Added into this complex mix is Samuel’s faith. He is a Forest Jew. He worships secretly with his wife in a Jew Hole where the word of the Rabbis is passed down an orange wire and into a listening device. The only scientist who seems to have any idea of the origins of the sickness, LeBov, claims the Forest Jews hold knowledge of the sickness, foretold its coming and may hold the key to its end.

Samuel soon encounters LeBov and his aliases and finds himself at the centre of research.

Father to a child who sickens him, potential Father to the beginnings of the sickness as a Forest Jew, the whole idea of signs and symbols in speech and on the page becomes abhorrent. Samuel refuses to envisage what others might do in this speechless time for ‘To refrain from storytelling is perhaps one of the highest forms of respect we can pay. Those people, with no stories to circle them, can die without being misunderstood.’ (p265).

Unsurprisingly this is a story of failure. Failure to keep the sickness at bay, failure to be the hero disaster narratives desire. Samuel wants to be Father to his family, his wife and child, but his position as the wielder of power is as debased as the alphabet and as the civilization we know and yet he continues to hope.

Despite having revealed a lot of the plot I don’t think I’ve given away anything salient that would stop you from reading The Flame Alphabet. The novel comes with many accolades from respected sources and I don’t want to detract from those voices – there are many passages that clamour to be remembered and quoted such as p266:

Thinking is the first poison, said someone. One often fails to ask this of a crisis, but why was it not worse? Why was the person himself not gutted of thought? Who cares about the word made public, it’s the private word that does more lasting damage, person by person. The thinking should have stopped first. The thinking. Perhaps it is next in the long, creeping conquest of this toxicity, another basic human activity that will slowly be taken from us.

Oh, I fucking hope so.

I am also very fond of the passages about the birds – but I still wanted something else from this novel. I’m not sure what that something is. Writing and thinking about The Flame Alphabet simply reminds me of the elegance of the language and its ideas and images that flow freely from ancient religious texts with the same lyrical agility and narrative power. It suggests to me that my frustration is one of personal desire. The idea that the human race might cease to communicate, no longer be able to share thoughts, is a vision of apocalypse that comes with more of a whimper than a bang and there is part of me that rebels against that. Perhaps, however, this is exactly where The Flame Alphabet’s brilliance lies. The saving grace of silence is that without stories there is no chance of being misunderstood. The Word can no longer be misunderstood. All that is left is survival.

Next week I’m reading China Miéville’s King Rat.