'The Flame Alphabet': When Language Turns Toxic In this chilling dystopian novel by Ben Marcus, the speech of children begins poisoning adults, and a married couple must consider abandoning their teenage daughter to save themselves.
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'The Flame Alphabet': When Language Turns Toxic

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'The Flame Alphabet': When Language Turns Toxic

'The Flame Alphabet': When Language Turns Toxic

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Audie Cornish. In an election year, nasty rhetoric is par for the course, but what if all that toxic language was - well, toxic? And what if the perpetrators of that toxic speech were the last people you'd expect, your own kids?

That's the central premise of the new novel by Ben Marcus. The book is called "The Flame Alphabet" and Ben Marcus joins us now from our New York bureau to talk more about it.

Welcome, Ben.


CORNISH: So when we say that children's speech in your novel is toxic, we mean literally.


CORNISH: Kind of expand on what that looks like.

MARCUS: The book opens with the narrator Sam and his wife feeling sick and they're not sure why. They're trying to figure it out. They have a teenage daughter who rants and raves at them, as teenagers might. When she goes away for a few days, they start to feel better and it dawns on them that possibly she is making them sick. And soon it becomes clear that the speech of children is literally unbearable to be around.

So the story is about what a father does in the face of that. There's a daughter he loves desperately, but she very well might be killing him and his wife. What does he do? Does he stay with her and die or does he try to flee, even though - to me, it's impossible to imagine ever abandoning one of my own kids.

CORNISH: Ben, one of the fascinating things about the book is the way you make sort of mundane interactions between parents and their kids, especially teens, pretty sinister. And there is a great example in that, I think page 11, in a passage where Sam is describing what it's like to live with their teenaged daughter, Esther.

MARCUS: Sure. (reading) In the months before our departure, most of what sickened us came from our sweet daughter's mouth. Some of it she said and some of it she whispered and some of it she shouted. She scribbled and wrote it and then read it aloud. She found it in books and in the mail and she made it up in her head. It was soaked into the cursive script she perfected at school, letters ballooning with heart-dotted I's, vowels defaced into animal drawings. Each piece of the alphabet that she wrote looked like a fat molecule engorged on air, ready to burst. How so very dear.

The sickness washed over us when we saw it, when we heard it, when we thought of it later. We feasted on the putrid material because our daughter made it. We gorged on it and inside us, it steamed, rotted, turned rank.

CORNISH: And the line there that grabs me is - because our daughter made it.

MARCUS: Yeah. Well, there's that incredible loyalty you have as a parent and it's a loyalty that, to me, is almost biological, which allows us to love our children unconditionally. And 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.

CORNISH: And do you mind me asking how old your children are?

MARCUS: They're three and seven.

CORNISH: Because you captured the teen years pretty accurately. It doesn't look like you're looking forward to them.

MARCUS: Well, you know, what's nice is I'm not writing, really, about my life. I tend to try to write a bad dream version of what I go through to explore a little bit of the darker shades of what might be possible.

My daughter is, thankfully, nothing like Esther in the book.

CORNISH: We're talking with Ben Marcus, author of the new novel, "The Flame Alphabet." Ben, this isn't your first work where - in which people fall mute or essentially find that they can't communicate with each other or that their communication is poisonous.

What fascinates you about the power of speech?

MARCUS: Language has always interested me and I've always wondered about it as a physical thing. And I think, in this book, I wanted to exaggerate that and see what we'd be like if we didn't have it. Of course, it's so crucial to us, but on the other hand, 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.

Language can't reach that ineffable feeling we might have in the 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?

CORNISH: And, strangely, in the book, there's a lot of - for lack of a better term - I guess, communal isolation.


CORNISH: Why Sam and Claire, the couple in the book - they belong to a religious sect in which they worship essentially by themselves, but then later, when everybody else is silent in the world as the virus, the toxic speech, has spread past children - children are immune, but it spread to everyone else - we're all together in our silence.

MARCUS: Being alone together. Yeah. It was interesting to write scenes in which people couldn't talk or even look each other in the eye. Even the television that they watch has been censored so the faces of the characters have been smeared over.

I'm not sure I can entirely account for why this interested me, but I think I wanted to explore - where are we from? What are we here for? What should we really be doing with each other? And if something terrible happens, how can love really - for lack of a better word - help us overcome it? In other words, the love between a father and a child.

CORNISH: Because it sort of comes back to that. I don't think I'm...


CORNISH: ...giving away anything about the book...

MARCUS: No, no.

CORNISH: ...to say that Sam, the father of this family, in effect, kind of turns back to salvage his family more than anything else about his world.

MARCUS: He does try to and he can no longer use language himself, but of course, we have access to his thoughts and he, at one point, says he feels closer than ever to his family now that he doesn't think in words anymore.

CORNISH: Ben, your kids are young now, but do you imagine that they might read this book some day and what they would think of it?

MARCUS: Yes. I've thought about that a little bit. It's dedicated to them and I adore them to bits and, interestingly, my daughter, at seven, already loves to invent stories and seems to understand that sometimes we exercise our imaginations in order to console ourselves against the worst possibilities, that telling a scary story has a kind of thrill to it precisely because it's not happening.

And I hope my kids will understand that, for me, writing fiction isn't about trying to describe them or scare them and – yeah, I'm not the man in the book.

CORNISH: Novelist Ben Marcus. His latest book is called "The Flame Alphabet." He spoke to us from our New York bureau. Ben, thank you so much.

MARCUS: Thank you.

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