The Flame Alphabet by Ben Marcus

“I’ve been very lonely in my isolated tower of indecipherable speech.” Being John Malkovich

From Goodreads: A terrible epidemic has struck the country and the sound of children’s speech has become lethal. Radio transmissions from strange sources indicate that people are going into hiding. All Sam and Claire need to do is look around the neighborhood: In the park, parents wither beneath the powerful screams of their children. At night, suburban side streets become routes of shameful escape for fathers trying to get outside the radius of affliction.

With Claire nearing collapse, it seems their only means of survival is to flee from their daughter, Esther, who laughs at her parents’ sickness, unaware that in just a few years she, too, will be susceptible to the language toxicity. But Sam and Claire find it isn’t so easy to leave the daughter they still love, even as they waste away from her malevolent speech. On the eve of their departure, Claire mysteriously disappears, and Sam, determined to find a cure for this new toxic language, presses on alone into a world beyond recognition.

TheFlameAlphabetI picked up The Flame Alphabet for the most intellectual of reasons: the book jacket. This gorgeous cover is my favorite from 2012. I also did something unusual (for me); I read the reviews before I read the book. This is not advised. The Washington Post reviewer, Lionel Shriver no less, would do nearly anything to avoid reading this book. Anything, in this case, includes scraping ashes from the woodstove, rotating the compost, and cleaning her house. As someone who is mildly scoleciphobic, I can assure you composting is no pleasant task and Shriver gleefully reminisces about her preference for rotting organic matter. However, at the end of the day, I have read and enjoyed The Flame Alphabet and not once picked up We Need to Talk About Kevin.

Despite the negative reviews (or perhaps because of – though my teenage years are long gone I still enjoy going against the grain), I genuinely liked The Flame Alphabet. Author Ben Marcus seems more concerned with the potential of language than its limits, even when language becomes literally toxic. The result is a gritty, dense novel that is darkly entertaining, albeit not in a typical manner. He is a writer’s writer, so to speak, and I fear that the beauty of this book will be lost on most readers. With The Flame Alphabet, Marcus (a traditionally experimental writer) is making his first attempt at narrative fiction and while it is less than perfect (we can’t all be Colson Whitehead), it is very much worth attempting.

I say attempting because I cannot pretend to have understood the breadth and depth of this novel in my first casual reading. It is densely layered, laced with metaphors and hidden meanings that I am sure I overlooked. It is a grim, poetic rumination on the will to survive, the love of family, and the human experience. While no one is likeable, the most compelling character is LeBov with his fleering countenance and eerie knowledgeability. In a world where language (written, spoken, gestured and thought) is toxic, how do you communicate? Is language even necessary to communicate? And in the end, what is more important: your own life or your love for your child?

The Flame Alphabet is a darkly imaginative, mildly horrific tale from what must be a curious imagination. If you like the sparse post-apocalyptic landscape of Zone One, the monochromatic feel of Let the Right One In, and the compelling horror of Pontypool Changes Everything, read The Flame Alphabet. If you haven’t heard of at least two of those, skip this one and save yourself the aggravation. Everyone else, go forth and read with glee. 4/5.

A sample of what you will be reading (if you choose to do so):

I would like to say that love shows itself in strange ways, but that would not be true in this case. Sometimes love refuses to show itself at all. It remains perfectly hidden. One spends a lifetime concealing it. There is an art to this. To conceal love is, in its way, the most sophisticated kind of smallwork there is.


The great effort of eager amateurs was everywhere. There were none of us who were not amateurs now. The experts had been demoted. The experts were wrong. The experts had perished. Or perhaps the experts had simply been misnamed all along.

As it has few references, no food recommendation to go with this one. However, it can teach you twenty ways to talk about vomit. Also, I don’t know if others are ever as curious as I am about the music authors listen to, if you are, here is Ben Marcus’s The Flame Alphabet playlist.

5 thoughts on “The Flame Alphabet by Ben Marcus

  1. Yikes…not sure what to do about this book after reading your review.

    I’ve had it sitting on my Kindle forever (I bought it also because of the cover…as an e-book…go figure). Tis year I decided I would read it as part of my What’s in a Name reading challenge (and in doing so, knock another book off my Off the Shelf reading challenge). But will I hate it? It’s not my usual thing, is it?


    1. I don’t think you’d like it. I do think you’d appreciate it from a literary standpoint. The writing is lovely, but the subject leans toward the grotesque (think pus, pallor, vomit, etc.).

      It’s short though and the cover is fantastic. I’d give it a try, it jumps right into the story, so you’ll know quickly whether you can stomach it.


    2. And you’re particularly fond of Lionel Shriver, right? I know you consider We Need to Talk About Kevin extremely thought provoking. I don’t know if that changes your opinion of reading it. If John Irving or Richard Russo said reading a certain novel was worse than watching compost worms eat through moldy cauliflower leaves, I don’t know if I’d read it. 🙂


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