In the strange world of Ben Marcus’s novel “The Flame Alphabet,” language has turned poisonous. Only children are immune to its toxins, and so children, all of a sudden, are dangerous: Their singing and shouting and jabbering can kill.
As the book begins, the narrator, Samuel, and his wife, Claire, are in the process of fleeing their 14-year-old daughter, Esther. Some readers may wonder why it took them so long, since Esther is toxic even before she becomes literally poisonous to her parents.
It’s with a mixture of resignation and love that her father notes “our little girl’s great project of faultfinding -- with us, with others, with the world -- that would never be complete.”
Esther isn’t alone. One of the curiosities of “The Flame Alphabet” is how awful everybody is to everybody else. Apparently world catastrophe doesn’t bring out the best in people.
The emblematic scene is a frosty sexual encounter that ends with an affectless woman, Marta, turning, as she’s making her exit from the room, and unaccountably clobbering her partner -- Samuel, the narrator. He isn’t nearly as taken aback as I was:
“I wanted to smile at Marta, and I believe I did, through salty warm blood, but I had fallen to the floor, and she left my room too quickly to notice.”
What does it all mean? Marcus is a much-admired but challenging writer with a reputation for experimental fiction. Enigmatic scenes like that one and the mysterious details of the virus (the faces of its victims shrink on the skull; a hard knot under the tongue precedes the loss of speech) make you think that the author has got to be driving at something.
So does an emphatic current of Jewish mysticism. The title alludes to the ancient Jewish prohibition against uttering the name of God:
“The flame alphabet was the word of God, written in fire, obliterating to behold,” Samuel explains. And since, according to one interpretation, “the entire alphabet comprises God’s name,” then “all words reference God ... Therefore the language itself was, by definition, off-limits.”
Or maybe it’s not language -- maybe understanding itself is the culprit. “Spreading messages dilutes them,” Samuel believes. “Even understanding them is a compromise.”
So one of the things he and Claire leave their home with is a stash of anti-comprehension pills. “Language,” Marcus writes, “is another name for coffin.”
In its mysteriousness, “The Flame Alphabet” brings to mind Thomas Pynchon’s great short novel of 1966, “The Crying of Lot 49.” Both books construct a metaphor so sprawling and elaborate (in the case of Pynchon it was an underground communications network) that in the end you can’t really tell what it’s a metaphor for. They prod you to search for meaning and then, diabolically, frustrate the search.
For all the abstraction of its arguments, physically “The Flame Alphabet” is very specific. It’s full of nouns like “rotting, “spoiling,” “putrefaction” and adjectives like “rancid,” “rusted,” “clammy.” Nothing is very clean or comfortable or fun.
Or funny. Except for a bitter sarcasm in some of the exchanges, the book is marked by a complete absence of humor -- unless you count a bleakness so extreme that it sometimes goes over the edge into comic (as in that encounter with Marta). Whether this effect is intentional, though, I couldn’t say.
There’s a weird kind of integrity at play here (everything about the book is weird), which makes “The Flame Alphabet” easier to admire than to like. One thing Marcus could have learned from Pynchon is the value of a few dumb jokes.
“The Flame Alphabet” is published by Knopf (289 pages, $25.95). To buy this book in North America, click here.
(Craig Seligman is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)