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The Flame Alphabet

2.88  ·  Rating details ·  5,101 ratings  ·  1,062 reviews
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 shame ...more
Hardcover, 289 pages
Published 2012 by Knopf
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Mike Mildon it is definatly NOT worth finishing, starting or being in the middle of. The concept is interesting, just never explored. The best part of the book is…moreit is definatly NOT worth finishing, starting or being in the middle of. The concept is interesting, just never explored. The best part of the book is the dustjacket, otherwise use it for a doorstop(less)

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Average rating 2.88  · 
Rating details
 ·  5,101 ratings  ·  1,062 reviews

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Feb 14, 2012 rated it did not like it
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
Glenn Russell

The Flame Alphabet - novel as wild SF. That's SF as in speculative fiction, as in science fiction, as in singularly freaky, as in supersonic futuristic.

On the first page, the tale's narrator, a middle-aged husband and father, a gent by the name of Sam, double-bolts his bedroom door, packs up sound abatement fabrics, anti-comprehension pills, child's radio retrofitted as toxicity screen and Dräger Aerotest breathing kit.

What's going on here? As we discover very quickly, mom and dad must protect
Feb 04, 2012 rated it liked it
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
Paquita Maria Sanchez
Jul 16, 2012 rated it really liked it
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
Joshua Nomen-Mutatio
Dec 06, 2011 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: fiction, dystopic
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
MJ Nicholls
Aug 06, 2012 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
Feb 04, 2012 rated it really liked it
Shelves: fiction
"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
Imagine knowing that you could become severely, maybe terminally, ill, just from a loved one opening their mouth. There is no reliable cure or treatment for this new disease, but children are least affected. The contagion is spreading. There are quarantines and travel restrictions. Its causes and mechanisms are unclear and controversial, feeding conspiracy theories. You can’t speak freely about it.

In May 2021, that doesn’t require imagination. Although the UK is slowly lifting lockdown restrict
Feb 14, 2012 rated it really liked it
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
Paul Bryant
Dec 07, 2013 rated it did not like it
Shelves: abandoned, novels
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
Feb 09, 2013 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
switterbug (Betsey)
Dec 30, 2011 rated it it was ok
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
Jan 25, 2012 rated it really liked it
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
Jan 31, 2012 rated it really liked it
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
Nate D
Jan 25, 2012 rated it really liked it
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
Jan 17, 2013 rated it really liked it
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
Mar 06, 2012 rated it did not like it
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
Mar 10, 2016 rated it it was ok
Recommended to Lobstergirl by: Ali Smith
Shelves: fiction

I had seen this book's cover everywhere for years and studiously ignored it. Then I happened to read Ali Smith's description in The Guardian ("In Ben Marcus's The Flame Alphabet .... parents begin to suffer terrible physical symptoms because they're being literally poisoned by the words used by their kids, a daughter talking "like a tour guide to nothing".) That intrigued me from two directions: I often feel like the conversation of young people is toxic, with their constant "like, like, like",
Tamsien West (Babbling Books)
First I tried to like this book, I was so excited by the premise. Then I tried to finish this book, because I wanted to discuss it with friends. But in the end I could not do either.

I'm not sure I can see the 'genius' the Goodreads synopsis claims this book contains. To me it is painfully pretentious and contrived. A really interesting concept explored in a bland way that delivers no joy to a reader. And perhaps that's the point, Ben Marcus's Wikipedia entry does mark him as part of the post-mo
Jan 22, 2012 rated it really liked it
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
Jan 04, 2012 rated it really liked it
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
Jul 05, 2011 rated it really liked it
Shelves: winter-11-to-12
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!
Dec 05, 2020 rated it did not like it
Recommended to Liam by: Glenn Russell
Detailed Video Analysis
This is definitively the worst novel I have ever read.

The Flame Alphabet is a book that challenges what it means to write toxic language, and it does so itself, but it doesn't have a statement. The Flame Alphabet is an important experimental failure showing that if you abuse your readers, characters and plot, your story will be ruined.
Ruby  Tombstone Lives!
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
Jan 31, 2012 rated it it was ok
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
Jul 01, 2017 rated it it was amazing
“The progression of our shared disability defied the going modes of understanding.”

Marcus is apparently an invidious figure, a lightning rod, for some a powerful transmitter absorbing and radiating the energy of the zeitgeist, for others just a self-indulgent stick in the mud. And good: we need polarizing stimuli. I believe that a meticulously historicized account of the ongoing imbroglio of The Word (re: Consciousness plus Language multiplied by Literature divided by History) would demonstrate
Jim Elkins
Oct 09, 2012 added it
Shelves: american
The Problem With Not Defining Allegories

This is an interesting hybrid between conceptual or experimental fiction and story-driven literary fiction. Or to be more exact: between Tom McCarthy's kind of conceptual fiction and Cormac McCarthy's violent narratives. There is strong writing here, even if it is a bit unremitting (everyone in this book is desperately sick, from the first page to the last, and Marcus loves nauseating descriptions, welts and odors and crusty sores and hemorrhaging bruises
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
Marc Kozak
Apr 11, 2014 rated it it was amazing
In my ongoing struggle to write words and/or music that satisfies whatever brilliant expectation I have of myself, I often wonder if I even have anything worth saying. I think I am okay at putting sentences together, but I don't have any underwear-exploding ideas at this point. My life is comfortably boring, and I'm generally an overly happy guy. I don't even have any sexy addictions. The best I could probably do at this point is some kind of unmemorable genre exercise with no depth behind it.

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