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Mini Review: The Flame Alphabet


Mini Review: The Flame Alphabet

I believe there is a lot of complexity and depth in these pages, and I fear I just wasn’t smart enough to catch it

Review Date: July 23rd, 2012

Cover Copy

“In The Flame Alphabet, the most maniacally gifted writer of our generation delivers a work of heart-break and horror, a novel about how far we will go, and the sorrows we will endure, in order to protect our families.

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 in a world beyond recognition.

The Flame Alphabet invites the questions: What is left of civilization when we lose the ability to communicate with those we love? Both morally engaged and wickedly entertaining, a gripping page-turner as strange as it is moving, this intellectual horror story ensures Ben Marcus’s position in the first rank of American novelists.


I’m not sure how I feel about this one. It was such an intriguing premise and my curiosity about the language toxicity, as well as the foreshadowing of a mystery, definitely kept me pushing forward in the book. But that’s the problem: I was pushing. To get through this felt like the reading equivalent of running in a dream or through thigh-high water. Even my husband commented on how slow I was reading this book. I believe there is a lot of complexity and depth in these pages, and I fear I just wasn’t smart enough to catch it. Reading large sections at a time actually exhausted me, and that very rarely happens to me when I’m reading. The main character was… okay. I kept thinking he was going to turn out to be more special than he was. Sadly, because I really really wanted to like this one, my initial determination on how I felt about this book as a whole was: meh. But there are concepts and parts about it that stuck with me, that resonated with me and made me think. That’s why I honestly wonder if I’m simply not intellectual enough to get it. I’m not disappointed, necessarily, but… left lacking. Left asking, “what was the point?” I’m sure there’s an answer to glean from the pages, but I just don’t have the energy or interest left to do it. And then I look back at the quotes I’ve chosen and the reaction I’ve had to this, and I start to see the — perhaps unintentional — genius of it, because it was written in a way that I felt I participated in the story and what was happening to the character just by reading it. It’s interesting. Exhausting. But interesting.

First Line

We left on a school day, so Esther wouldn’t see us.

Favorite Lines

  • …where reports on the speech fever had first collected and the cautions were so total now, it was a wonder people weren’t burying themselves alive. Of course I have no evidence that they were not.
  • Pain is too soft a word for the reaction. Crushing was more accurate, an intolerable squeezing in the chest and the hips.
  • A voice with a significant half-life, a noxious mineral content, that is, if it could be frozen and crystallized, something then beyond our means or imagination.
  • That suffering would find us in ever more novel ways, we had probably always suspected.
  • I could speak back to her, and I could hear, technically I could. I could ask about school, or the feuds that consumed her, the massive injustices, often by omission, perpetrated by her friends, but the words felt foreign, like they were built of wood. A punishment to my mouth just to extract them, like pulling bones from my head.
  • The hindsight on this isn’t just twenty-twenty. It sees straight through walls.
  • In a thousand years, perhaps, our descendants might evolve into creatures with a morsel of understanding at their core, some insight to untangle their gnarled dilemma, but for now, at this moment in our unevolved history, we were blessed with no skill for diagnosing our withered, exhausted state. We groped about, and if there was a harm’s way, we plunged into it so deeply that we were smeared up to the neck with the very stuff, the greasy paste, that was slowly killing us.
  • The evidence was mounting, but I seemed to have a pact against insight, a refusal to name my poison.
  • There is no precise word for this work. There can’t be. In the end our language is no match for what this man did.” 
  • Esther looked heavily guarded, as if to say, I have been at horse camp and I have changed considerably, in ways you could never understand, so let’s not waste each other’s time … Stay away from me, you tiny, silly creatures, for you have not been to horse camp.
  • Language acts as an acid over its message. If you no longer care about an idea or feeling, then put it into language. That will certainly be the last of it, a fitting end. Language is another name for coffin.
  • I’m fascinated by people who pout when they can’t find sense and logic, as if it’s not fair when something in nature doesn’t reveal an obvious pattern. It’s [an]… epidemic, and the logic is impenetrable. That’s how itsucceeds, by being inconsistent and unknowable. Fairness is for toddlers in a … sandbox. No one wants to admit that our machine of understanding is inferior.
  • It’s more productive to be doubted. What good is it when people believe you?
  • The flame alphabet was the word of God, written in fire, obliterating to behold. … We could not speak God’s true name, nor could we, if we were devoted, speak of God at all, … Since the entire alphabet comprises God’s name, Burke asserted, since it is written in every arrangement of letters, then all words reference God, do they not?That’s what words are. They are variations on his name. No matter the language. Whatever we say, we say God. … Therefore the language itself was, by definition, off-limits. Every single word of it.
  • If we were dying, I wanted us to die differently.
  • Our neighborhood was chilled and flat and all green growth was gone. I love it so stripped down and frozen. There was something sculpted to the shapes, as though our streets had been carved from ice, colored with pale dyes squirted from a dropper.
  • Let us reverse the terms and assume that language, like nearly everything else, is poisonous when consumed to excess. Why not assault the folly that led to such widespread use of something so intense, so strong, as language, in the first place? … It causes the most unbearable strain on our systems … It is not very different from a long, slow venom.
  • Sorry, I said to myself, wondering how many times in my marriage I’d said that, how many times I’d meant it, how many times Claire had actually believed it, and, most important, how many times the utterance had any impact whatsoever on our dispute.
  • I cannot imagine such a thing. If only that kept it from coming true.
  • …before irony would come along to smother them alive.
  • I have not found my doubt to be useful. It is a distraction to live so long with uncertainty.
  • But wishful thinking has had its way with me. It has hounded me. In all of this silence it is my primary voice.
  • That such a word once meant something seemed now only to be an accident.
  • Dig yourself out of this, she didn’t need to say. Go ahead. Get down on your knees and start digging your way out of this. I’d like to see how far you get. I’ll be right here, watching you disappear into the earth.
  • But my ignorance did not slow my mind from its suspicions, and these held a vivid persuasion all their own.
  • …this device revealed only part of a letter at a time, and even of that part it revealed so little that you might never guess that this mark on a page was participating in the larger design of an entire letter, which itself joined others in a set of interlocking designs called words, that would coalesce on the page to mean something, and thus bring a reader to his knees.
  • Oh, I saw nature during this surveillance, obscene degrees of it. The binoculars magnified the catastrophe. I saw indecent splurges of beauty as summer tore open huge holes in the earth, from which came forth a sickening march of every kind of plant, as if the suddenly stifled world of people left more room for nature to fill, which it [f*ing] well was going to do.
  • Perhaps a raucous inner life produced shattering notes inside us, but with no extraction tool, no language to pry it free and publicize it, even if it was moronic, one sensed that the whole enterprise of consciousness had suddenly lost its way. Without a way to say it, there was no reason to even think it.
  • I returned to my room, closed the door, and suffered the long, violent seizure of alertness that had come to pass for another night of sleep. Waiting. Thinking. Not sleeping. Never really sleeping.
  • What you are most certain of is what will undo you.
  • We do not get to survey the people of the future, who laugh at how little we knew, how poorly we felt things, how softly we knocked at the door that protected all the best remedies.
  • …I am perfectly aware of the fantasy involved here, but what we want is almost never exempt from the impossible. That barrier has very little meaning for me these days. Given what’s happened, the impossible is just a blind spot that dissolves if we move our heads fast enough. History seems to show that the impossible is probably the most likely thing of all.

Last Word

  • family


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Reader, Author, Bookstagrammer, and Mom; Alexis runs Nerdy Post, a fandom artwork box as well as serves as chief editor and writer on Drop and Give me Nerdy.

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