The Flame Alphabet, by Ben Marcus, Granta, RRP£16.99/Knopf, RRP$25.95, 304 pages
There is a Woody Allen short story in which the protagonist, a university professor in New York, discovers he is able to transport himself into the texts of famous books. He immediately travels into Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary and begins a torrid affair with the book’s title character. Inevitably, however, the magic goes awry, and by the story’s end the professor has become trapped in an old textbook entitled Remedial Spanish where he is forced to run for his life from a large and hairy irregular verb that chases after him on long, spindly legs.
A similar disquieting sensation of old words taking on new and terrifying forms, of the visceral and the conceptual blending together, can be found in Ben Marcus’s funny and scary and all-out astounding new novel. In a warped present-day, Sam and Claire are afflicted by an unidentifiable illness. Each day they grow sicker, paler, more exhausted, while their teenage daughter, Esther, seems the very picture of health. Doctors do not know what is wrong with them. But slowly Sam and Claire come to the awful conclusion that it is Esther herself, and in particular her speech, that is making them sick. “From Esther’s mouth came something that was causing a chemical disruption,” says Sam, “like a mist borne on the climate.”
A coiling miasma permeates the first chapters of the book as familial affection clashes with grim survival. Sam and Claire are forced by necessity to leave their fears unspoken. But soon other adults are falling ill, their faces growing strangely small, calluses forming beneath their tongues. The “noxious oral product” created by their daughter is found to be produced by children everywhere. No adult is safe from their beloved’s most tender words. “I required Esther’s total silence,” Sam writes. “If I could have had a wish, I would have wished her away.”
While the plot is implausible, it is also terrifying. When Sam witnesses a child shouting at an adult, it is as bloodcurdling as a vampire ripping someone’s throat out. “He crouched, his hands cupped over his mouth, and started shouting. A series of single word cries, projected through his hands, as if he were launching ammunition from his face.” The adults are forced to erect soundproof barriers and start concocting hideous homemade unctures and noxious pastes in the vain hope of protecting themselves. And Sam is drawn to the peculiar and subversive teachings of the mysterious LeBov, who seeks a linguistic cure for the plague, preaching against using “I” statements and avoiding all rhetoric deemed to be toxic.
The conceit of language as a virus is as neat a metaphor for the passive-aggressiveness of the parent/child relationship as you could hope for. Similarly, it serves as the perfect basis for a horror story. It is one of the many wonders of this book that it outruns the interpretations you can draw from it. At one moment we appear to be in a parenting allegory, in another we are in the midst of a grammarian’s in-joke. Are we reading a satire on the devaluation of language, or one on religious and political fundamentalism?
The Flame Alphabet is all this and more. It is an apocalyptic vision in its truest sense, a lifting of the veil on language itself, in which the destruction and rebirth of the word is incorporated into the very text. You will not read too many books like this in your life. If you have read any of Marcus’s previous three books, you may have an inkling of what to expect. A university professor in New York, he is something of a standard-bearer for experimental literature. His first book, The Age of Wire and String (1995), read like an extended cryptic crossword clue and offered the reader a similar rarefied satisfaction in completing it.
Here, however, Marcus has slipped his avant-garde bonds. In many ways he seems like a virus spreader himself, packaging his mind-bending linguistic work into a seemingly conventional narrative. Even so, his style may take a few pages to get used to. Like a grammatical poltergeist, Marcus rearranges familiar subjects and objects into unfamiliar and unsettling patterns. It’s disorientating but you’ll never see words in quite the same way again.
George Pendle is of author of ‘Death: A Life’ (Three Rivers Press)