switterbug (Betsey)'s Reviews > The Flame Alphabet

The Flame Alphabet by Ben Marcus
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Sep 21, 2013

it was ok
Read in December, 2011

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 in engulfing me in his gnomish, visceral landscape that I felt swallowed and forced into an intestinal vacuum.

In this futuristic story, the sounds of children's voices make adults ill. Etiology unknown, but it is blamed on the Jews, at least initially. I don't have the aptitude to distill this story into its many-faceted parts/themes/concepts. However, it is apparent that Marcus's esoteric reach goes back to ancient Jewish mysticism. Even some of the words he often uses--shard, shatter, fracture, etc. brings to mind the breaking of the vessels and other Kabbalistic teachings.

How far, deep, and wide does he take it? That is for the reader to determine. One theory that I have is that the reader's religious or secular beliefs take part in individual interpretation of the text, so that there is not just one meaning to ascribe to the deeper context of the story, (although knowledge of the Kabbalah would definitely be helpful). In other words, the story addresses the question of one's faith.

The title of the story refers to the 22-letter Hebrew alphabet, its unfurlment, and its nature. As in the novel, "The Hebrew letter is a form of nature." For example, the lamed (pronounced lah-med) letter's appearance is a flame being reflected right back into your eyes. Lamed means "into me" and is the flame of consciousness; it is the letter of learning. (This is knowledge outside of the book's source, but relevant to the narrative.) Reading this story will increase your knowledge of the mightiness and personification of the Hebrew alphabet and its affinity to the concepts of creation and destruction, of diaspora and absorption, and more.

The book reminded me of a David Lynch movie. If this actually were a movie, and not a book, I would watch it several times in order to get closer to the meaning's core. But in its current written form, I would have to commit to multiple readings. I am unwilling to submit to the time and effort required. Alas, the failure may be mine. There are other densely philosophical books, such as Ada, or Ardor: A Family Chronicle, by Nabokov, that I am willing to re-read, that engage me fully. This book is far too agitating and agonizing to repeat.
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Comments (showing 1-12 of 12) (12 new)

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message 1: by Will (new)

Will Byrnes Sometimes references can be too narrow to engage the general reader. Maybe Marcus is writing for a very specific audience.


message 2: by Jill (new)

Jill This is an excellent review! It has answered the question I privately asked you: "Why was the book so disturbing?" You very effectively contrast Marcus's brilliance and talent with the result. I think what you wrote here is superb!


switterbug (Betsey) Thanks, Jill! And, thanks, Will! I almost deleted it, as I deleted the one on Amazon. Roger thought it was not good.


message 4: by Jill (new)

Jill I hope you add it once again to Amazon. We're all entitled to our opinions on others' reviews, but at the end of the day, you need to decide for yourself.


switterbug (Betsey) I may revise a little and then repost.


Emily Crowe This review helps me make a *little* more sense of the book and why I couldn't finish it. The concept is fascinating and his prose is wonderful, but I was crushed by boredom the farther I got into the book.


Annette Wonderful review


Emily Kersh This review is so spot on! Thank you so much! I was having a hard time explaining why I didn't like such a beautifully written book and your review is exactly what I needed.


switterbug (Betsey) Thank you, Emily! Yeah this definitely wasn't a book for me.


Gerhard I love the phrase 'dark and enervating' - really sums up the allure of Marcus. Wonderful review!


switterbug (Betsey) Thank you, Gerhard!


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