The Flame Alphabet by Ben Marcus
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Cannonball Read IV: The Flame Alphabet by Ben Marcus

By Amanda6 | Book Reviews | September 28, 2012 | Comments ()

From Amazon: "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."

Okay, I did not have an easy time with this one. It's another one where critics are falling all over themselves to come up with attention-grabbing superlatives about how much of a genius the author is. Sometimes, novels with these kinds of accolades end up being wonderful, breathtaking novels, and sometimes they are The Flame Alphabet. Four adjectives to describe this book are: pretentious, confusing, depressing, and disjointed. I had a really hard time getting through it. The narrator is canonically 'unreliable,' and though I wouldn't call him misanthropic, he's at the very least cynical with regard to most human interaction. Sometimes his suspicions are justified, but mostly I felt myself wondering if his family members and acquaintances actually did all treat him as awfully as he described?

The plot is, itself, more or less easy to follow. There are, however, attempts to be "creative" with the linearity and pacing that contributed to my inability to enjoy The Flame Alphabet. The main conceit here is a pandemic of language, and its resulting illness and isolation. I don't think this theme really benefited from jarring the reader's sense of time, and it really didn't benefit from the absolutely bizarre sideplot about an imagined form of mystical Judaism. Basically, the narrator and his wife are members of a secretive sect of Judaism that receive sermons in individual huts from cables that are wired through the ground, and the story's main antagonist believes that the Jews are the cause and the solution to the pandemic? I think? Anyway, it's really, really strange (and for me, barely understandable.)

I had read a lot of mixed reviews for this before I picked it up, but I found the premise intriguing enough that I eventually decided to add it to the reading list. I don't regret reading it, per se, in that "I wish I had those days of my life back!" kind of way, but ultimately I feel that it tried too hard to be too different. If the author could have explored, more simply and with less distraction, the consequence of losing language, and expressed more chillingly the fear and paranoia inherent in pandemic situations, this would have, I feel, been a much better book. Instead, major conflicts play out with the help of a deus ex machina that allows our characters to speak to each other in the thick of the illness (circumstances which should have killed them both.) Weak emotional connections to seemingly indifferent family members provide the only heart in the book, and as a result I barely cared about any of the characters.

Based on my experience, I can't recommend this book, but there are others out there who did like it; so if you're curious, go ahead and give it a read, I suppose.

This review is part of the volunteer Cannonball Read IV. Read all about it, and find more of Amanda6's reviews on the group blog.

(Note: Any revenue generated from purchases made through the affiliate links in this review will be donated in entirety to the American Cancer Society.)

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Comments Are Welcome, Bigots and Trolls Are Not

  • Ariel

    I totally, totally, TOTALLY agree with this review. Loved the premise, hated the execution.

  • SabrinaHatesDisqus

    Esther, who laughs at her parents’ sickness, unaware that in just a few years she, too, will be susceptible to the language toxicity

    Worst bat mitzvah party ever.

    Seriously, though, did anyone try... headphones? That also solves the less-fatal, but more annoying, problem of "kids constantly talking."

  • Captain_Tuttle

    The description of the book makes it sound intriguing, and I thought as I read it, "ooh, I'll use the link at the bottom to get this." Then I read the rest of your review, and now I'm pretty sure I shan't.

  • alwaysanswerb

    If there is a lingering sense of intrigue over this, definitely find it at your local library or something. I did so and there was no love lost, but I'd be bitterly disappointed if I had purchased it.

  • Gavin S.

    If you like the idea of language as a virus, read Snow Crash.

  • alwaysanswerb

    Thanks for the suggestion!

  • Sara_Tonin00

    Even if you don't like the idea of language as a virus, read Snow Crash because it's 95% amazing.

  • HelloKatieO

    I'm so glad you reviewed this! This has been on my to-read list for months and now I'm probably going to skip it for something better. Basically, your review is what I was afraid this book would be.

  • Wednesday

    I could get behind the mystical Jewish part, even though it was really out there, but the unrelenting misery of the language killed me. Everything was wet, murky, and slimy. The book felt like it was written by a person driven to suicide by the pain of a year-long sinus infection.

    And I still don't get why the adults were so damn in awe of their kid before the sickness started.

    The whole book was just a disgusting mess with no redeemable or particularly interesting characters, not even the villains. You have no sympathy for *anyone* in this story, and the premise is so poorly explained and unbelievable that it's just an unrelenting slog to an unsatisfying ending.

  • alwaysanswerb

    Right! I don't expect positivity and light out of a book about a family (and society) torn apart by *language that kills*, but looking through the narrator's eyes at the world was like looking through a windshield during a downpour of acid rain (I'm no good at similie.)

    Meanwhile, we're supposed to care that the narrator is separated from his family and no longer able to speak to them, but why should we when our only accounts of their interactions make it seem as if their daughter is abusive and the wife is aloof? We barely know them, and what we do know of them makes it seem like they are boring and awful people who are bored of and awful to each other.

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