It’s difficult to read Ben Marcus’ new novel, The Flame Alphabet, without being reminded of his well-publicized Harper’s beef with Jonathan Franzen, in which the two luminaries squared off over experimental fiction and the waning power of the well-written word. In Flame Alphabet, Marcus is still describing apocalypses of comprehension (as he did in The Age Of Wire And String), worlds where abstractions take on physical form (his novella “The Father Costume”), and language as an impurity to be purged (his last novel, 2002’s Notable American Women), but now he’s giving his highfalutin concepts the thriller treatment, and the more cerebral concepts are grounded in the painful, protracted dissolution of a family.
When an inexplicable illness hardens victims’ skins and ossifies their tongues, it’s some time before the cause is traced back to children, specifically their speech, which sickens and stupefies any adults nearby. The language fever necessitates a literal generation gap between the callous, calculating Esther and her parents Sam and Claire, who retreat deeper into their peculiar sect of Judaism. Their underground movement calls for isolation and a kind of technologically mediated worship in rough mud huts; it also might be the only way to combat the words that become weapons overnight.
The Age of Wire And String was made difficult, nearly opaque, by its stubbornly unorthodox use of language. Readers had to translate objects like “a stick that shoots white air” into “a flashlight” if they sought coherence. Without the straightforward, sometimes mundane sentence construction, String would have been a brutal read, even for experimental-fiction junkies. The Flame Alphabet is working from its own similarly skewed glossary, and it’s set in a world that feels alien one moment and alarmingly familiar the next. That's why the flat characters and static relationships are more a necessity than a weakness: They serve as constant guideposts in shifting terrain.
Also forgivable: the book’s occasional lapses into repetition. When Sam describes in punishing detail his tedious, systematic “smallwork” of cure-seeking, it’s engrossing in a way Marcus’ more experimental work never managed. Perhaps some of that is owed to the fact that in the salt-drifts of this weird, wordless America, it’s tempting to look for deep metaphorical meaning in every sentence. Whether it’s there or not, Flame Alphabet is a brutal, wonderful book, streaked with the sickly brown and gray hues of Philip K. Dick and David Cronenberg. And in spite of its pessimistic attitude toward people’s desire to understand and be understood by one another, it offers a disturbing taste of what it would be like to live before medicine and before anatomy, when the only options in the face of disease were desperate theorizing, superstition, or surrender.