The Flame Alphabet: A Novel by Ben Marcus (New York: Knopf, 2012. 304 pp)

Ben Marcus is the author of The Age of Wire and String and Notable American Women. His stories have appeared in Harper’s, The New Yorker, The Paris Review, Tin House, and Conjunctions. He is the recipient of a Whiting Writers’Award, a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, and awards from the Creative Capital Foundation and the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He lives in New York, where he is on the faculty at Columbia University.

The Curious Case of Parenthood

They say life transforms once you become a parent. The transition is instant. One day you care about music and video games; the next, you live and die to provide for another. Children force people into lives of selflessness, but to what end? If you were physically unable to live in familial conditions, how would you react? What would happen if sickness forced the nuclear family to fall apart? Ben Marcus’ The Flame Alphabetsurrealistically uses an epidemic to view society through the lens of a breaking family.

Toxic Language

The plot of The Flame Alphabet imagines a world in which the language of children becomes toxic. With a writing style where explanatory information is withheld, the reader never learns why language becomes lethal. Instead, Marcus presents the story of one family encountering this peculiar form of chaos. Our protagonist and narrator is Sam, the husband of Claire and father of Esther.
Unsure of what is causing their sickness, Claire and Sam don’t actually diagnose Esther as the root cause of their illness until she gets back from camp. Temporarily alleviated of their strange ailment, it returns tenfold upon their beloved child’s return. Inflicted with diminishing faces, low energy, weak bones, and the typical symptoms of influenza, toxic language kills.

“Most of what sickened us came from our sweet daughter’s mouth. Some of it she said, and some of it she whispered, and some of it she shouted. She scribbled and wrote it and then read it aloud. She found it in books and in the mail and she made it up in her head. It was soaked into the cursive script she perfected at school, letters ballooning with heart-dotted i’s. Vowels defaced into animals drawings. Each piece of the alphabet that she wrote looked like a fat molecule engorged on air, ready to burst. How so very clear” (11).

Esther, as a girl who never carried much affinity to her parents, enjoys the physical pain that her words bring. As the connections between children and toxic language become clear, the imagined nation begins efforts to quarantine the children and search for a vaccine.


In addition to toxic language, Marcus’ alternate-reality includes an anti-Semitic state. As devout Jews, Sam and Claire are forced to practice an aesthetic Jewish mysticism in the woods for fear of discrimination. This state coupled with language offers multiple avenues of alienation for this family. With the anti-Semitic state splitting the Jewish community, Sam and Claire feel desperately alone. The community of faith that so often supports families in a time of crisis is absent.
Therefore, when Sam and Claire finds themselves quickly quarantined from their daughter, they lose each other in the chaos without any hope of reconnection through the typical faith communities.

A Search for a Cure

Without the help of any communicative tools (toxic language morphs from children alone to every kind of communication including the written word), Sam begins testing new forms of communication at a test facility on willing participants.

“At my desk each day I chased the notion that the alphabet as we know it was too complex, soaked in meaning, stimulating the brain to produce a chemical that was obviously fatal. In its parts, in combination, our lettering system triggered a nasty reaction. If the alphabet could be thinned out, shaved down, to trick the brain somehow, perhaps we could still deploy this new set of symbols, or even a single symbol, the kind you hold in your hand and reshape for different meanings, for modest, emergency-only communications” (169).

Is Life Without Communication Worth Living?

Despite the institutional attempts to thwart this epidemic, many succumb to a lack of hope. Without communication, many lose the will to live.

“Those were the mercy tents. Inside people heard some last song, whatever they chose to dial up, and then down they went to those sounds. A strategy of acoustical expiration. Suicide by language. Mercy was right. The tents were clearly a kindness to those who remained. No one was forced in. On the contrary, people fought to get inside first. And when a funeral field had filled, the mercy tents were struck and dragged away. Audio equipment pulled alongside by wagon. A jukebox of words to die to” (179).

The Frailty of Family

Amid this chaotic scenario, Sam seeks to reunite with his family. The thought of Esther keeps him functioning as he seeks a cure for the toxic alphabet.

The Flame Alphabet focuses on the ramifications of an epidemic for family life. The book asks, “What would you do if you could no longer communicate with the ones you love and hold dear?”  The narrative centers on one person’s perspective and the unraveling of a family is heartbreaking.

The Flame Alphabet is a worthy addition to the speculative fiction canon. Heartbreaking and surreal, Ben Marcus leverages toxic language to illustrate the thin thread that fastens the relationships of a family. A quick but rewarding read, I recommend The Flame Alphabet for anyone interested in the dystopian or literary genres.

Verdict: 4.5 out of 5
Posted by: Donovan Richards
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