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The Flame Alphabet

2.88 of 5 stars 2.88  ·  rating details  ·  3,797 ratings  ·  859 reviews
In The Flame Alphabet, 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.

A terrible epidemic has struck the country and the sound of children’s speech has become lethal. Radio transmissions from strange sources indicate that peopl
ebook, 306 pages
Published January 17th 2012 by Vintage (first published January 2012)
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Community Reviews

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The novels Nineteen Eighty-four and A Clockwork Orange are dystopian, and about language. The Flame Alphabet falls into that category as well. The dust jacket promises much, "The Flame Alphabet 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 novel ...more
70 pages in and this is the most boring "thriller" I've ever read. The premise is amazing, language that kills!, and apparently it's a true story because reading this is a slow painful death. I'm not usually a quitter when it comes to books, but I don't think I'm going to make it. I keep skipping whole, useless paragraphs. Ben Marcus is clearly trying too hard. There's a point where flowery prose must end and make way for an actual plot, but apparently Marcus doesn't agree.

The Jewish subplot, if
Joshua Nomen-Mutatio
This is undoubtedly the magnum opus of the three books Ben Marcus has released through the porous borders between the self and the world. The Age of Wire and String (1995) left me baffled and pretty impressed by its unique indexical acrobatics and budding vision of where to take the avant garde programme. Notable American Women (2002) detonated in my brain and dazzled me senseless with its maturing grip on how to show and not tell, and transfigured the form of the metafictional autobiography wit ...more
Paquita Maria Sanchez
Wow. So, I tend to not read reviews for at least a moderate span of time before I dive into a book in order to avoid the accidental epiphytic absorption and potential regurgitation of other people's views/phrases/biases in my own review, and to keep myself away from being a naysayer or overly emphatic fan of something solely or largely for the sake of being a brat or a bully-defense-shield. In the case of this novel, however, I wasn't concerned with post-read review-skimming because I really did ...more
"I received 500,000 discrete bits of information today, of which maybe 25 are important." -- David Foster Wallace

Words kill.

John 1:1 might be a mythological fabrication, but in the end there will be the word, some word and then the end. Lights out humanity. Some hateful word, or rhetoric, or bottom line on a profit report, or words about imaginary superiority, (mis)perceived threats, words from fictional gods passed down through books filled with words, words that poison and kill. People die ev
MJ Nicholls
Aug 06, 2012 MJ Nicholls marked it as sampled  ·  review of another edition
I managed twenty-five pages of this recent GR fave, but too many aspects of the style infuriated me to want to carry on. Compiling a mental dossier of things you dislike about the book as you’re reading it, in my experience, ends in messy disaster. Some of these points are personal niggles but some must (surely!) stand as legitimate annoyances.

First page:

sound abatement fabrics
anti-comprehension pills
Dräger Aerotest breathing kit
Lebov’s needle
copper powder for phonic salting
bootful of felt
Jun 13, 2012 Jenn(ifer) rated it 4 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: you and you and you (not you)
Recommended to Jenn(ifer) by: J N-M

I’m not sure how to write this review sans spoilers, so here’s the spoiler-free version:

This book is one of the most original, intriguing novels I’ve ever read and if one more person gives it 1 lousy star I will find them, pin them to the ground and scream in their face until they keel over convulsing from the crushing!! Of course I'm over 18, so that means I would probably die too, but it would be worth it!!

The Flame Alphabet.

Man, what a great concept! Read on for the actual review (
Mike Puma

No children were harmed in the production of this review.

One for the apedotropic, or apaedotropic, if you prefer. One for those of you who, like me, think children should be raised on collective farms in Montana and returned some time after they’ve reached the Age of Consent or Voting Age (whichever is greater), have learned at least ONE manner, have had their vocal chords nicked, understand that ‘cute’ isn’t enough, shun driving with appliances and/or food in both hands, and are otherwise well

WARNING: The following has spoilers almost from word one

Ben Marcus wrote an outstandingly cerebral, uncomfortable, and moving novel with The Flame Alphabet—factor in that chromatically angular cover, of whose fiery upthrust I simply cannot tire of beholding, and it approaches that rare point of fictive perfection. So when I survey its remarkably low average rating, the legion of single and double stars ranged against it, I'm left at a loss for an explanation. GR friend Knig calls it Jewish Sci-F
Paul Bryant
Possibly because I’m engrossed by (and grossed out by) The Walking Dead (now there’s a dystopia worthy of the name); possibly because in the last couple of years I’ve stumbled over a bundle of great American writers with beautiful styles (Smith Henderson, Junot Diaz, George Saunders, Alissa Nutting, you know – “round up the usual suspects”); possibly because I just read two whopping novels (Fourth of July Creek, The Book of New Strange Things) which effortlessly demonstrated what novels are capa ...more
switterbug (Betsey)
This is an extremely dark and ultimately enervating dystopian novel full of disturbing contrasts and ontological concepts. It's the ripest prose I've read this side of China Mieville, but Marcus's story drags on with an all-encompassing dread and relentless anguish. Numerous and grotesque images, made of organic, gelatinous substances, squirm and squall through the narrative like a howling of the soul. There is no doubt that this author has an uncommon talent and imagination. He was so effective ...more
Sep 24, 2014 Manny rated it 4 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: If you think Kafka's scared to tackle the tough issues
Recommended to Manny by: Joshua Nomen-Mutatio
The Flame Alphabet by Ben Marcus

by J.G. Ballard

They had now reached an area where the desert gave way to salt dunes and then to a substantial expanse of water that Travis tentatively identified as the Dead Sea. His wife at first disagreed, but the Jeep contained no maps, and her knowledge of the local geography was even less certain than his; given a lack of alternate hypotheses, she accepted the label he had given it. The bitter, salty, undrinkable quality of the water was at least consistent w
Jewish Sci-fi: a new genre? Not a problem theoretically. But in practice: the notion of exclusivity is hemming me in, reminding me that ignorance is bliss only so long as one doesn’t know one’s ignorant.

Impossible to gestate without deeper knowledge of Judaic doctrine: an author who turns the tableson a secular readership at large (you don't know judeism? well too bad) and finds purchase in judeo-mysticism: unapologetically and dispassionately, re-asserting with full force the tenor of a power
I was unable to write a review for this immediately after finishing it. Words seemed to have lost their power to mean. Which is fitting, since that's sort of what the book's about. I suspect that the catalyst for this, though, had less to do with the book's effect on me (although I don't want to discount that entirely) and more to do with Josh's pretty exhaustive review. In other words, what am I to say now? I guess I'll just try to come up with a few scattered thoughts about it that I haven't s ...more
This is more accessible stuff Marcus-wise, but if you don’t read experimental fiction on a regular basis, you should start elsewhere, or work your way slowly into this book, or else you’ll get infuriated and frustrated and start ranting about people who people who sit around in writing classes talking about writing. Of course, for some of us, there is pleasure in sitting around thinking and talking about words. We don’t do it to be superior; we do it because it stimulates and challenges us and m ...more
Nate D
Jul 17, 2012 Nate D rated it 4 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: well-tuned listeners
Recommended to Nate D by: orange tubing, running underground
Here, again, the dangers of language, of verbalizing meaning. Here, halfway between infectious zombie-ism of Pontypool and the destruction of memory through words in The Great Fire of London. As in all of these, Marcus' "language toxicity" is totally fascinating, both as horror storytelling, and as conceptual framework for strange and perfect riffs of thought.

Spreading messages dilutes them. Even understanding them is a compromise. The language kills itself, expires inside its host. Language act
one of the threads in this ball-of-yarn of a novel involves a group of jews who visit secret holes dug deep in the forest from which sermons pour forth -- the holy cavities referred to as 'jew holes', a phrase which repeatedly pops up throughout the flame alphabet.

amongst my group of friends this phrase also reoccurs, albeit, in a slightly different context: working out latent homosexuality married to not-as-latent self-loathing jeweyness, we frequently urge the other to 'pound my jew-hole' 'ra
How do you write a book when language has become impossible? What do you make of a writer whose narrator says, “I am no fan of stories, perhaps because they seem more like problems that will never be solved.” Author Ben Marcus attempts to write this story, the story of language become lethal, language become impossible, in his book The Flame Alphabet. There is a plague in which language has become toxic. The epidemic begins within Jewish communities and has its source in the speech of children. ...more
Krok Zero
Hey Goodreads, I hate to unmask myself and be the villainous revealer of my own secret identity, but I'm now a contributing writer over at an arts website called Spectrum Culture, and my latest piece there is a full review of The Flame Alphabet, here:

I can't promise that you'll be able to detect my usual Krok Zero style, if I even have such a thing, but I'd like to think it's in there. Check it out!
Ruby  Tombstone [With A Vengeance]
This is an absolute fucking masterpiece and I loved every single page of it.

This book is gloriously written and incredibly dark - think Saramago's Blindness without the endless sentences, or Pontypool Changes Everything with a more linear narrative. The apocalyptic story elements alone would have made for a fulfilling novel, but here Marcus also explores issues of religion and religious persecution, family relationships, self-image, personal inaction, guilt and h
Scott Rhee
What if the very thing that enables us to communicate---namely, language---suddenly became toxic? What if the sound and sight of words, syllables, consonants, sentences made us double over in pain, caused bruising, damaged our internal organs, paralyzed us? And, most horrific of all: What if the only ones who were immune (and may, in fact, be the cause) were our own children?

Ben Marcus’s magic (sur)realist horror novel, “The Flame Alphabet” answers those questions. Well, almost. His “life-as-the
Flame Alphabet has all the elements it needs to be a thrilling narrative that could go in new and exciting directions. Instead, it never really goes anywhere except in a circle. This book suffers from a confused narrator with delusions that everything will be okay once his family is back together.

The big let down of this book is it doesn't deliver on its promises. The exciting premise of Flame Alphabet is that the voices of children act as toxin to adults. Not long into the story we find out the
The Flame Alphabet has an intriguing premise: adults are stricken ill by a once benign factor: language. Children and young adolescents are immune to this plague, but adults grow ever weaker, ever sicker, and even, after a time, die when exposed to either spoken or written language.

But a great plot device does not a great novel make. Ben Marcus is clearly a writer of no little talent, but this book, which does have a few flashes of brilliance, is rather difficult to digest.

To begin, the novel g
Spending a day in airports can be a chore. It is refreshing, each group encountered is likely to be a bit more exotic as connections take one increasingly further from home. There was a kooky disconnect when occupying oneself with The Flame Alphabet while travelling from middle America to the Balkan peninsula. The dark speculative tale is a dense tale of symbolism gone akimbo. Children’s voices are toxic. Exposure leads to a degenerative condition where language of any sort is debilitating. Ther ...more
Beth Anne
i did not care for this book at all. i didn't understand what the author was trying to do. the language did not flow easily, the story didn't unfold in any clear or cohesive manner, the characters were unlikeable, and honestly...i was super bored.

the premise -- children's speech is actually killing their parents -- is a great one. but the book did NOT deliver.

as i mentioned when i was only 50 or so pages into this book..i think the author was trying too hard. he ended up writing a pretentious
William Thomas
Wittgensteinian language philosophy sought to pare down the problems of philosphy by paring the use of easily misunderstood language. The clearer the language, the more precisely we can get to the heart of the problem and thereby solve it with clearer understanding and clearer thinking.

Ben Marcus proposes in The Flame Alphabet, that language is an allergen. That it is a type of pollution and that it is sickening, literally. I felt as though Marcus was trying to come to a clearer understanding o
Em Elle
Cool title, interesting concept and good writing - but it didn't do anything for me. I wanted to give it up after 70 pages, and I should have. The plot was weak, and the character development didn't make up for that - I didn't care about any of the characters. I had high hopes for this book because the idea sounded really original to me. But just...ugh. I can understand its merits, but it wasn't for me.
I admit I quit after about 50 pages, so maybe I have no right to review this. I NEVER quit books. It becomes almost like a compulsion where I have to finish it if I start it. But there are too many good books out there. I have slogged through Bolano and Joyce which aren't bad, but not easy. Let's just say those books were at least ultimately very rewarding. But about page 40, I started getting antsy, and I read some of the reviews on this site. The thing most of them seemed to say: IT NEVER GETS ...more
Michael Seidlinger
Some quick thoughts, remarks:

I love the language. Ben Marcus is quite the master of linguistically-centered experimental novel and The Flame Alphabet proves to be just that. Chapter 2, alone, is a particularly awe-inspiring example of beautiful weeping language.

There's some sort of narrative or at least the reader is led to believe in the first couple chapters but soon after progressing past the first handful, and especially when a key character, Murphy, enters our sights, the narrative devolve
The villain of this book, I guess, is a man named Labov. He is a ruthless sadistic conspirator and a bit of a douchebag. I did not care for him. He was my favorite character.
The narrator had most of the same character defects. Maybe he enjoyed being a dick less, but he was a dick. He was also a crappy father, who was unable to discipline any sort of respect or awareness into his child even before the epidemic. And an adulterer who cheated on his wife even after he found out she was still alive.
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  • Blueprints of the Afterlife
  • Threats
  • Hot Pink
  • Scorch Atlas
  • Immobility
  • Meeks
  • Pontypool Changes Everything
  • Zazen
  • Daniel Fights a Hurricane
  • Cataclysm Baby
  • Jamestown
  • Hellstar Remina
  • These Dreams of You
  • The Great Frustration
  • The Man Suit
  • Sorry Please Thank You: Stories
  • Life Sentences: Literary Judgments and Accounts
  • The Vanishers
Seemingly the most conspicuous aspect of Ben Marcus' work, to date, is its expansion on one of the most primary concerns of the original Surrealist authors -- perhaps most typified by Benjamin Péret, husband of the acclaimed painter Remedios Varo -- this being a very deep interest in the psychological service and implication of symbols and the manners by which those symbols can be maneuvered and r ...more
More about Ben Marcus...
The Age of Wire and String Notable American Women The Anchor Book of New American Short Stories Leaving the Sea The Father Costume

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“Without sound, celebration and grief look nearly the same.” 23 likes
“To refrain from storytelling is perhaps one of the highest forms of respect we can pay. Those people, with no stories to circle them, can die without being misunderstood.” 8 likes
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