Friday, May 25, 2012

Contemporary Fiction: The Flame Alphabet by Ben Marcus

This was yet another selection that I picked up thanks to the good people at BookPeople in Austin, Texas. Besides, I am always in the mood for a book that explores the idea of speech (as well as writing, language, and just all forms of communication in general as we currently know it) being harmful to us. Being an avid reader and writer, how could I not be intrigued?  

The Situation: Sam and his wife Claire live the usual existence with their daughter, Esther. She is a fairly typical teenager who scorns the attention and care of her parents, hates being asked about her life, argues with them on almost every point possible, and like most parents of teenagers, Sam and Claire want nothing more than to just be around her and love her and spend time with her. They are also part of a Jewish order that does not worship in synagogues with others, but instead worships only with one another, as a couple, in a hut of their own more than an hour away from their house in a forest. This secluded form of their worship, along with their own daughter, become important aspects in a massive issue they will soon face. And they aren't the only ones who end up being affected, but seemingly the entire human population. 

 The Problem: The speech of Esther, this child that her parents love so much and want desperately to be with, is killing Sam and his wife. In fact, the speech of all children under the age of 18 is killing adults. At first it appears to be concentrated in one area, but the condition soon spreads. And them, as if being killed by the speech of children wasn't horrifying enough, it gets to the point where any speech or communication initiated by anyone is harmful to adults. And once a child reaches adulthood, they are no longer immune like they once were but also become affected like all other adults. In order to survive, Sam and Claire must either send Esther away, or move away themselves. While Sam attempts to come up with medicines and antidotes on his own, a well-known theorists is telling the public that the epidemic started only in Jewish children and has spread since. He also seems to take issue with people like Sam and Claire who worship in secret, believing them to be hoarding wisdom that should be shared with the public. Sam eventually encounters a man named Murphy who agrees with the theorists, and subsequently becomes a dangerous presence in his life. 

Genre, Themes, History: I am perfectly okay with calling this a horror as I would think most people would find the idea of children's speech being deadly pretty terrifying. Especially once certain children find this out and decide to use this new found weapon against the adults. And while the book explores issues of effective communication, harmful communication, and finally the ability to communicate without the use of language at all (which is what seems to be what the book is arguing for), Marcus also explores the theme of family and parenthood. Even though all Esther seems to want is her privacy, even before her speech becomes harmful to adults, her parents, especially Sam, seem incapable of giving her that. Sam asserts that one of the worst things that can happen to a father is suddenly no longer be a father. And of course, with the focus on Jewish families and Jewish children, issues of religion and worship and faith and doubt and belief are brought up and whether or not any sort of solution to this problem can be found in that. 

My Verdict: I have to say I was somewhat underwhelmed by this book. The premise is beyond fascinating - the speech of children being deadly. Crazy! I feel like there are so many ways that can go, but instead, I often found the book to be boring and convoluted. Perhaps the first-person narration got to me as the reader spends a lot, and I mean a lot, of time in Sam's head, especially due to the fact that he can't speak too much to other characters since it very well may kill them. Also, many of the theories and science was just beyond me. As a whole, I felt that after 389 pages, the story didn't go very far.  

Favorite Moment: I'm not sure if I can really pick one, it is all pretty horrifying.  

Favorite Character: Again, not sure I can say much here. I found all of the characters to be severely flawed in some what that made it hard to sympathize with them. Esther is you typical sullen teenage girl, and even in Sam and Claire's illness, I found the mistakes they make while trying to survive almost unbearable. Granted, it is a disparate situation, and it is hard to think of a "right" answer in a situation like this, but even so.  

Recommended Reading: Watt by Samuel Beckett. Beckett was a man who was all about language. He absolutely loved it. But he was also embarrassed by how much he loved it. This is why he often chose to write in a language that was not his native language, because it forced him to limit his writing and choose words carefully. Watt has many examples of Beckett's ability to go too far with language, and it is interesting to think of the excess of language found in that book after reading about how harmful it is in The Flame Alphabet.

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