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In <i>The Flame Alphabet,</i> the most maniacally gifted writer of our generation delivers a work of heartbreak and horror, a novel about how far we will go, and the sorrows we will endure, in order to protect our families.<br> <br> 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. <br> <br> 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. <br> <i> </i><br> <i>The Flame Alphabet</i> invites the question: 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.
<strong>Amazon Best Books of the Month, January 2012:</strong> From the dark, curious imagination of Ben Marcus comes another brain melter of a novel. <em>The Flame Alphabet</em> has a pandemic premise--children are slowly killing their parents by speaking--and only gets stranger and smarter from there. When Sam leaves his decaying family behind to seek a cure for his daughter’s lethal condition, he winds up in a government think tank that casually eliminates human subjects in its quest for an antidote. Stories don’t get much more horrifying than this, but Marcus’s absorbing, conversational style makes his twisted bildungsroman as difficult to put down as it is to accept. In an unimaginable situation, Sam takes the only steps that seem possible: He submits, he works, he dreams of his wife and child. This cruel, insightful meditation on societal dysfunction and individual resilience comes from a mind that must be appreciated, even if you find yourself relieved that it’s not your own. --<em>Mia Lipman<br /><br /> </em> <hr size="1" /> <p><span class="h3color"><strong>Featured Guest Review: Jonathan Lethem on <em>The Flame Alphabet</em></strong></span> <br /></p> <p><img align="right" border="0" height="140" src="http://g-ecx.images-amazon.com/images/G/01/randoEMS/JonathanLethem-250._V160660950_.jpg" style="float: right; border: 0;" width="120" /> </p> <p><strong>Jonathan Lethem was born in New York and attended Bennington College. He is the author of seven novels, including <em>Fortress of Solitude</em> and <em>Motherless Brooklyn</em> and two short story collections, and he has edited and contributed to several anthologies. His writing has appeared in the<em> New Yorker</em>, <em>Rolling Stone</em>, <em>McSweeney's</em>, and many other periodicals. His latest book of essays, <em>The Ecstacy of Influence</em>, explores the role of writers in contemporary culture. </strong></p> <p>Ben Marcus is one of the rare inventors in our literary language. We already knew this, from the outrageous stories, and from <em>Notable American Women</em>. When I call him an "inventor," I'm seeking a little working distance from the bland (and often dismissive) term "experimental"--for if Marcus is conducting experiments, he's conducting them out of view, and then unveiling the results as a <em>fait accompli</em>, like an Edison or Tesla or some other secular magician emerging from a laboratory. Marcus's work, with its powerful kinship to the visual arts and music and perhaps even pharmacology, should less be copyrighted than patented. His devices can enchant and wreck your mind. Like I say, we already knew this.</p> <p>What we didn't know, and I suppose possibly he didn't either until he blew the wrought-iron clawfeet off his own prototype and replaced them with white-walls and a souped-up engine, is how thrilling it would be to see Marcus apply his gifts to something closer to traditional narrative. I say that as if it's some drab operation ("apply" and "traditional") but in fact what <em>The Flame Alphabet</em> has done is open up a kind of wide-screen view of the sort of crazy Ben Marcus movie that was likely always playing in his brain but which he has now taken out for wide release.</p> <p>It appears that all the giddy anxiety and sorrowful vertigo of Marcus's language was only the leading edge of an implicit sense of pure story, the kind where figures in a landscape struggle to negotiate outrageous danger, loss and mystery. The book is an urban ironist's reply to Cormac McCarthy's <em>The Road</em>, yet in a way I think it is braver and more wrenching even than McCarthy's book (as well as, as you'd expect, more peculiar and funny, and less infused with wearisome machismo) because of the greater degree of complicity it admits, complicity with the disasters that flow through our collective world but are also locatable in each and every one of us if we're ready to meet them there.</p> <em>The Flame Alphabet </em>explodes with human drama without for one single line relinquishing Marcus's lifelong commitment to the drama of a sentence making itself known on the page. In fact, and this is surely the most brilliant thing about the book, it fuses those two notions of drama into one immutable and bizarre whole. That's what's known in show business as a <em>spoiler</em>, but I couldn't resist. <hr class="bucketDivider" noshade="noshade" size="1="/"" />