'The Flame Alphabet': When Language Turns Toxic

The Flame Alphabet

by Ben Marcus

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In an election year, nasty rhetoric is par for the course. But what if all that toxic language was, well, actually toxic?

That's the premise of The Flame Alphabet, the new novel by Ben Marcus.

When Sam and his wife begin feeling sick, they're not sure why. But when their teenage daughter, Esther, leaves the house, the couple recovers. The horrifying prospect dawns on them that their daughter — specifically, her speech — is poisoning them. Soon it becomes clear that the sickness is spreading beyond their small Jewish community.

"I've always thought of language as extremely potent," Marcus tells NPR's Audie Cornish. "It seems to change us at the chemical and biological level. When I think of it like that, it's as though it's a drug — and what would happen if we took too much of it, if it overwhelmed us and started to make us sick?"

Language — its power and limitations, abundance and poverty — have long preoccupied Marcus, whose knotty, formally experimental books The Age of Wire and String and Notable American Women pushed the novel and short story genres to their frontiers of their forms. But to prepare for The Flame Alphabet, he delved into the past.

"I did a lot of research into Christian and Jewish mysticism, which is very much, in some sense, opposed to language, or it sees religious experience as being above or beyond language," Marcus says. "Language can't reach that ineffable feeling we might have in a religious sense. So I wanted to wonder what we'd be like if we couldn't communicate with each other. Is it a desperately lonely experience, or is there something possibly religious to it?

In The Flame Alphabet, as the toxic speech epidemic spreads, the world falls into a curious communal silence. These were scenes that presented technical pleasures and challenges.

"it was interesting to write scenes in which people couldn't talk or even look each other in the eye," Marcus says. "Even the television that they watch has been censored so the faces of the characters have been smeared over."

Ben Marcus is the author of The Age of Wire and String and Notable American Women. He teaches at Columbia University.

Ben Marcus is the author of The Age of Wire and String and Notable American Women. He teaches at Columbia University. /Michael Lionstar hide caption

itoggle caption /Michael Lionstar

Given this state of affairs, even the most mundane interactions between parents and child take on a sinister aura. Despite knowing that Esther is sickening them, Sam and Claire are still drawn to her speech, her writing, her thoughts.

"We feasted on the putrid material," Sam tells us, "because our daughter made it. We gorged on it, and inside us it steamed, rotted, turned rank."

"There's that incredible loyalty you have as a parent," Marcus says, "And it's a loyalty that to me is almost biological, which allows us to love our children unconditionally. I was interested in that conflict — the cause of your sickness is there in your home, but it's also the cause of your greatest love."

And as Sam is stripped of language and flails as he struggles to protect his family, he discovers a stubborn, silent humanity that persists — perhaps predates — language and doesn't depend upon communication.

"He can no longer use language himself, but of course, we have access to his thoughts," Marcus says. "He says he feels closer than ever to his family, now that he doesn't think in words anymore. So there might be a romantic notion that, beyond language, we still have deeply emotional lives, that we still feel sorrow and joy, that language is one thing we use to share it, but if we're no longer sharing, we might still very much be human."

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