Miz Moffatt's Reviews > The Flame Alphabet

The Flame Alphabet by Ben Marcus
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's review
May 08, 2012

it was ok
bookshelves: disease-thriller, dystopia, post-apocalypse, science-fiction
Read in May, 2012

Across the Litoverse

In the future, the end of the world rests in our very mouths.

What started as a vague, unexplained illness among couples with children has morphed into a global epidemic where language itself—in spoken and written forms—is lethal. Sam and Claire are among the first victims of the new plague, having contracted the illness from the words of their teenaged daughter, Esther. Comprehension blockers and white noise machines are losing their effectiveness, and the streets are filling with clouds of salt and the deadly sounds of orphaned children. Even Sam's experiments with homemade medicines cannot stop the increasing lethality of his own words…

With Claire nearing collapse, it seems their last means of survival is to abandon Esther and set out for the silence of the countryside. However, on the evening of their escape, Claire disappears into the woods, and Sam, determined to find a cure for the new toxic language, sets out alone to raze our old alphabet and create a perfect language from its ashes.

The Flame Alphabet had the perfect grouping of keywords for me: pandemic, language toxicity, "intellectual horror story", and so forth. Yet, I found the ideas fuelling the work were lost in its novelized form. Given its focus on the pitfalls of language and the ineffectiveness of communication, The Flame Alphabet became a linguistics essay rendered in fiction as opposed to a novel. Ben Marcus does introduce some compelling ideas, though the novel had few plot points and I often found myself wondering when the actual story would start.

Last, I found Sam's first-person narrative detracted from the panic surrounding this language-targeted illness. Sam spends a great deal of time explaining the revulsion and the nausea that hits whenever Esther speaks, and he details the lethal properties of words rendered in text—and yet, he's telling his narrative from his own voice. And I am holding a written record of this testimony. About halfway through The Flame Alphabet, I realized its own form—an English-language, first-person novel—undid its own premise. Weird moment, indeed.

I suppose I had a different novel in mind when I picked up The Flame Alphabet, which might explain my reaction to the work. As it stands, the book has a cool idea behind it, but the follow through left me wanting.

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