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Ben Marcus
The Flame Alphabet
Alfred A. Knopf / Viking / Random House
US Trade Hardcover Original
ISBN 978-0-307-37937-5
Publication Date: 01-17-2012
295 Pages; $22.95
Date Reviewed: 02-16-2012
Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2012

Index:  General Fiction  Fantasy  Horror  Science Fiction

Every day ends; often not well. For most of us, life is not lived at a particularly heroic level. We have jobs (if we're lucky), families (if we're lucky ... perhaps), chores to do that will begin the day and chores with which the day will end — if we're lucky. Luck apparently is at a low ebb, and very probably a zero-sum game. The ends of each day can easily begin to seem like the end of all days. Every night as we close our eyes, we live through another apocalypse.

Ben Marcus offers readers a domestic end-of-days in 'The Flame Alphabet,' a dark and disturbing vision of a family torn apart by a force within that proves to be apocalyptic. Unlike other visions of the end, 'The Flame Alphabet' keeps our eyes obsessively on the ground, if not underneath. This is not a novel where characters experience freedom as the result of society crumbling away beneath their feet. 'The Flame Alphabet' traps readers in a surreal suburb, where words spoken by children have become weapons that sicken and harm adults. It's a metaphysical illness that Marcus manages to transit to his readers. Prepare to be seriously creeped out.

Sam and Claire may have once been a nice couple with an imperfect marriage, but when we meet them at the beginning of 'The Flame Alphabet,' things have already gone pretty much to hell. The sound of their daughter Esther's voice has become so injurious to them that they are trying to flee while she's at school so they can more easily leave her behind. They will eventually get out into the waste-scape beyond their dirt-dull ordinary town. But they will not be the same people and it will not be the same town.

Marcus has constructed a very weird world in 'The Flame Alphabet,' and he reveals that invented world from Sam's necessarily narrow perspective. Because these are houses like we know, and from what we can tell, lives like we know, other than this whole language-as-illness-and-weapon problem, we empathize with Same and Claire. But their world is manifestly not exactly ours. They are "Forest Jews," who attend synagogue each Sunday by going to a hut in the forest just beyond the edge of town. The worship is very private — organically and upsettingly so. Their lives, which we might have taken to be like ours, are revealed to have the same relation to normality that a dissected mouse has to the living thing. Spirituality is made visceral.

Language and prose are the keys critical to 'The Flame Alphabet.' Marcus is a master of writing pithy sentences that stick in your mind like a small piece of rotting flesh might cling to the back of your hand. The atmosphere in 'The Flame Alphabet' is crushingly oppressive, but the prose renders it compelling and engaging, even when the scenes we are witness are, to say the least, off-putting. This is not an easy novel to read, but it is very difficult to put down, and impossible to forget, though you might regret that last aspect now and again. It is always vivid and strikingly well written.

Marcus sets himself up so quickly and with so little effort, creating an icky, weird world, the readers might wonder how he is going to go anywhere, since "here" is at once dismayingly strange and undeniably familiar. 'The Flame Alphabet' employs a Skinner Box plot structure, shocking and luring unsuspecting readers to the bottom of a barrel, then turning the barrel over to display what is underneath. It's sort of a mirror, and not the most pleasant vision you will have. You want to flinch but cannot look away. He leads readers well beyond the suburbs, but have no fear, that sigh of relief you breathe will not last long. Hell, as Sartre learned so long ago, is other people.

Like many master craftsmen, Marcus misdirects readers, who will be so caught up in Sam's experience that they may overlook the care with which Marcus constructs his characters. Event those we don't like (that may be most of them) are compelling and entertaining to read about. The villains, and yes there are characters who compared to the parents leaving their children behind are indeed villains, are grimy, gritty and just funny enough to be really scary.

'The Flame Alphabet' is an engaging, frightening and very original take on apocalypse as experienced by a suburban family. A child may be lost and a child may be found. Wounds can kill, but worse, they may also heal. Ultimately, readers will find out what they should, as readers, already know. Words are deeds —with consequences.

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