Available on 17 January, 2012
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Poets & Writers
“Language kills in Marcus’s audacious new work of fiction, a richly allusive look at a world transformed by a new form of illness . . . Biblical in its Old Testament sense of wrath, Marcus’s novel twists America’s quotidian existence into something recognizable yet wholly alien to our experience.”
—Publishers Weekly (Starred review and Pick of the week)
“Echoes of Ballard’s insanely sane narrators, echoes of Kafka’s terrible gift for metaphor, echoes of David Lynch, William Burroughs, Robert Walser, Bruno Schulz and Mary Shelley: a world of echoes and re-echoes—I mean ourworld—out of which the sanely insane genius of Ben Marcus somehow manages to wrest something new and unheard of. And yet as I read The Flame Alphabet, late into the night, feverishly turning the pages, I felt myself, increasingly, in the presence of the classic.”
“The Flame Alphabet drags the contemporary novel—kicking, screaming, and foaming at the mouth—back towards the track it should be following. Ben Marcus makes language as toxic as it is seductive— a virus that comes from much closer to home than we suspected.”
“Ben Marcus is the rarest kind of writer: a necessary one. It’s become impossible to imagine the literary world—the world itself—without his daring, mind-bending and heartbreaking writing.”
—Jonathan Safran Foer
BOOKLIST (Starred Review)
Issue: December 15, 2011
The Flame Alphabet
Teenagers can be described as toxic, no doubt about it. But in Marcus’ speculative tale, teens are literally poisoning their parents each time they speak. This ingenious and provoking premise enables the boldly imaginative Marcus (Notable American Women, 2001), recipient of a remarkable array of major literary awards, to explore the paradoxes of family and how the need to communicate can go utterly wrong. As this confounding, heartrending plague spreads from Jewish families to the general population, gravely ill adults flee; teens, who take to terrorizing adults with megaphones, are quarantined; and society breaks down. Claire and Sam, the ailing parents of virulently weaponized Esther, belong to a secret sect of “forest Judaism,” which involves listening to mysterious transmissions emitted from the earth. Their tiny, sylvan synagogue becomes the focus of an aggressive stranger, who directs a grim work camp hastily assembled to find a cure for this catastrophic affliction at any cost. Marcus conducts a febrile and erudite inquiry into “the threat of language,” offering incandescent insights into ancient alphabets and mysticism, ostracism and exodus, incarceration with Holocaust echoes, and Kafkaesque behavioral science. Ultimately, the suspenseful, if excessively procedural, apocalyptical plot serves as a vehicle for Marcus’ blazing metaphysical inquiry into expression, meaning, self, love, and civilization.
— Donna Seaman
Deleted from an early draft of The Flame Alphabet.
In bed that night we came as close as we ever had to discussing what we’d heard from Rabbi Burke. Claire was quiet, directing her energy on getting me to speak first. I waited her out. The illness had gifted me with unrivalled patience. Being patient was just a matter of not caring, and not caring could possibly be connected to something medical. Symptoms so broad and diffuse encouraged the justification of any behavior. Anything Claire wanted to say to me she could say without an invitation or outright courtship. I wasn’t going to beg to hear more of our sorrow. Or maybe I was, but not so easily.
I leaned over to flip out the light and the darkness felt exquisite on my face. This was perhaps the most unrivalled moment in all of family life, the switching off of the bedroom lamp. All obligation ceases. Hiding, if one so desires, becomes suddenly possible for the first time all day.
The chief virtue of darkness is that people tend to leave you alone. You can finally go unnoticed.
Beside me Claire huffed, and I rolled over, assumed the pose.
“You’re just going to go to sleep?” she finally said.
“No, of course not,” I said.
I wanted to sound kind, but apparently I did not want it badly enough, so I spelled it out for her, whispering from my side of the bed.
“First I’m going to wait here for you to dump your misery on me, which will no doubt place some kind of blame at my feet, and then I’m going to have trouble falling asleep because I feel a little more like shit than I did before this conversation started.”
She took the upper hand. “Don’t blame me for how you feel.”
“Ok. Thanks for the guidance. Any more advice from Pooh Corner?”
“Yeah, actually,” Claire said. “Don’t be the asshole who’s already decided on this,” Claire said.
“Ok. Thanks for the warning. Consider me hugely undecided. For all time and forever.”