Ben Marcus, who teaches writing at Columbia University, is best known for experimental fiction that often deals with the intricacies and shortcomings of communication. His work includes the novels The Age of Wire and String (1995) and Notable American Women (2002) and a novella, The Father Costume (2002). Marcus’s latest novel, The Flame Alphabet, explores the consequences of language that kills, literally.
The Story: In an alternate America, language "happens to be a toxin we are very good at producing, but not so good at absorbing. … Without a way to say it, there was no reason to even think it." Outside Rochester, children are rounded up and quarantined due to a deadly disease triggered by the mere sound of their voices. Sam and Claire, already feeling the effects of the disorder brought on by their 14-year-old daughter, Esther (in this anti-Semitic world, the sickness manifests first in Jews), flee their community without her. Claire disappears, and Sam is left to work on a cure for the quickly evolving "toxic language." That cure is his only hope of reuniting with his family and restoring some sanity to a society that will soon lose its ability to communicate.
Knopf. 304 pages. $25.95. ISBN: 9780307379375
"There’s something profound about Marcus’ exploration of the power of language and the life-affirming nature of human breathing. He turns both of these normally positive ideas on their heads, but that only makes the sound of a loved-one’s voice, the feel of a child’s breath against the skin, seem that much more precious." Tyrone Beason
Cleveland Plain Dealer
"What is fascinating is a writer playing at the far edge of ordinary narrative. … Like it or not, offended, bewildered or awed, this novel will cause many mouths to open." Sarah Willis
NY Times Book Review
"Unfortunately, Marcus’s borrowings from conventional narrative create an expectation of structural coherence that the book then declines to deliver. … Marcus is a writer of prodigious talent, but The Flame Alphabet doesn’t fulfill its own promise as a hybrid of the traditional and experimental." J. Robert Lennon
"The Flame Alphabet is one part inspiring and two parts infuriating. … More than once in the cage match with his wordplay, I sought relief in other novels, just to remember what a good book feels like." Steve Duin
"Allegory or no, The Flame Alphabet does bid to function as quasi-science fiction, but the plot fails to develop, to take any firm turns and end up somewhere else; yet a payoff, twist or resolution of some description is a formal obligation of the genre. … For me, The Flame Alphabet triggered the very allergic reaction to verbiage that it describes." Lionel Shriver
Reviews of Ben Marcus’s work tend to emphasize the author’s "prodigious talent" as a maverick experimental writer (a position he defends in a 2005 takedown in Harper’s of his contemporary Jonathan Franzen). Marcus has been compared to Franz Kafka, Eugene Ionesco, and José Saramago, kindred spirits of the surreal, and readers "are plunged into the unbelievable with art and artifice" (Cleveland Plain Dealer). Marcus’s sentences can sing with the complex beauty of the very language he questions, though, as more than one reviewer notes, he is quite repetitive. But semantic high-wire walks are dangerous. Where The Flame Alphabet comes up short is on story—or at least a narrative frame strong enough to carry the weight of the author’s big ideas.