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On Sale: January 17, 2012
Pages: 304 | ISBN: 978-0-307-95751-1
Published by : Vintage Knopf
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In The Flame Alphabet, the most maniacally gifted writer of our generation delivers a novel about how far we will go in order to protect our loved ones.
The sound of children's speech has become lethal. In the park, adults wither beneath the powerful screams of their offspring. For young parents Sam and Claire, it seems their only means of survival is to flee from their daughter, Esther. But they find it isn't so easy to leave someone you love, even as they waste away from her malevolent speech. On the eve of their departure, Claire mysteriously disappears, and Sam, determined to find a cure for this new toxic language, presses on alone into a foreign world to try to save his family.


By early December we huddled at home, speechless. If we spoke it was through faces gripped in early rigor mortis. Our neighborhood had gone blank, killed down by winter. It was too cold even for the remaining children to do much hunting.

I don’t know how else to refer to their work, but sometimes they swarmed the block, flooding houses with speech until the adults were repulsed to the woods.

You’d see a neighbor with a rifle and you’d hear that rifle go off. The trees stood bloodless, barely holding on in the wind. We sat against the window and waited, spying out at the children when they roved through. The children— they should have been called something else—barking toxic vocals through megaphones as they held hands in the street.

I hoped they wouldn’t turn and see us in the window, come to the door. I hoped they wouldn’t walk up the lawn and push their megaphones against the glass. And always I hoped not to see our Esther in these crowds, but too often there she was in the pack, one of the tallest, bouncing in the winter nighttime fog, breathing into her hands to keep warm. She’d finally found a group of kids to run off with.

If there was an escape to engineer we failed to do so, even while some neighbors loaded cars, smuggling from town when they’d had enough. The quarantine hadn’t been declared, but in our area they weren’t letting children through checkpoints, except by bus. Basic containment. If you wanted to leave, you left alone.

Even so, bulky rugs were thrust into trunks. Items that required two people to carry. Usually wrapped in cloth, sometimes squirming of their own accord, a child’s foot poking out. A clumsy game of hide-and-seek, children sprawled out in cargo carriers, children disguised as something else, so parents could spend a few more minutes with what ailed them.

Claire retired as my test subject. She stopped appearing in the kitchen for night treatments, declined the new smoke. When I served infused milk she fastened her mouth shut. If she accepted medicine from me she did so unwittingly, asleep, whimpering when the needle went in.

I couldn’t blame her, falling away like that, embracing the shroud of illness. But I did. I conducted nightly campaigns of blame and accusation, silently, in the monstrous internal speech that is only half sounded out, a kind of cave speech one reserves for private airing. In these broadsides Claire spun on a low podium and absorbed every accusation.

If I prepared a bowl of steamed grain and left it on the table for her, salted as she liked it, pooling in the black syrup, she passed her spoon through it, held up a specimen for study, and could not, just never could, finally slide it in her mouth. For Claire I cut cubes of meat loaf, and at best she tucked one or two in her mouth, where she could suck on them until they shriveled to husks.

Claire no longer slept in her bed and she seemed too listless even to maneuver to the crafts room, to the guest room, to anywhere she might be able to fall unconscious in private.

I was always trying to offer her shield, a modesty curtain, so she could come undone alone and unseen. She shouldn’t have to collapse in hallways. If necessary I helped her along, at least to a corner, where I could erect a temporary blind.

Once I found her asleep in the bathroom, one eye stuck open, leaking a speckled fluid. I crouched down and closed the eye, blotted it with my shirt. It opened again and she whispered at me.

“Hi there.”

I looked down at her and she blinked, perfectly alert.

Claire must have thought she was smiling, but that was so far from a smile. With my fingers I tried to change the feeling, to reshape her mouth. I couldn’t have her looking at me like that.

Her lips were cold and they would not stay where I arranged them. Her face had the weight of clay.

“Go back to sleep” was all I could think to say, and I draped a bath towel over her, leaving her to rest on the cold tiles.

At home I took charge of what remained of our dwindling domestic project, the blending of food into shakes, the cleaning of all our gray traces. I formed a packing plan, a strategy with regard to the luggage, mapped a route to outskirt lodging. Our pajamas, robes, towels, dishrags, these I washed every day, closing myself in the laundry room where the hot engine of the machine drowned out noise and thought. Against the hum of the washer I was, for a little while, nobody much, and this was how I preferred it.

I left Esther’s warm, folded clothes in her bedroom. Often they went untouched. Or later, after Esther had plowed through the house before returning to her gang, I’d find the pile toppled onto the floor, a heap of black crumbs, like someone’s ashes, dumped over it.

Claire’s robe went mostly unwashed, because she didn’t like to take it off, and if I ever found her half asleep and staring into nowhere from her resting place, she wouldn’t respond when I asked if I could do any laundry for her, she’d just smack her lips to indicate thirst.

“It’d be nice to have fresh clothes, right? I could clean these and have them right back to you.”

I tugged at her robe and she pulled away from me, threw an arm over her face.

“Your robe will be nice and warm out of the dryer. We could get you covered in extra blankets in the meantime. It’ll be nice to be clean. You’ll feel better.”

I spoke to Claire as if she understood me, but she only stared. I spoke to her through a stiff, heavy face that seemed fitted on my head solely to block me from speaking. I sounded like a man underwater.

As our tolerance departed for the speech of children, so, too, did our ability to speak. Language in or out, we heard, produced, or received. A problem any which way.

To keep Claire hydrated I’d have to peel back her hospital mask,  prop her upright, and press the sippy cup straw through the gluey seal of her lips.
I lowered the mask when she was done and flowery welts of orange juice soaked through the fabric.

When it was time to clean her, I filled a bowl with warm water, settled it over a towel at her bedside. With a washcloth I soaped her neck and face. She lifted her chin, gathered her hair out of the way. I squeezed little pools of water over her throat. I placed another towel under her feet, then lifted and washed each leg, rubbing as softly as I could, watching the little streaks of redness follow my cloth.

Claire’s legs rose too easily in my hands, as though they’d been relieved of their bones.

With the last of the water I reached into Claire’s robe and washed her stomach, the skin that once held her breasts. I peeled her from the bed so I could wash her back, pushing the washcloth under the robe, feeling each hollow between her ribs, a sponginess I did not want to explore. Then I settled her back down again, pulled up her covers, lifted the mask from her mouth so I could replace it with a clean one.

She forced a smile, but a shadow had spread under her gums, a darkness inside her mouth.

When I brought her soup, warmed the long bread she loved, or offered Claire some of the candies that usually she could never refuse— baby amber globes with a cube of salted caramel inside— at most she would roll over, heave, pull the quilt above her head.

It was only when the front door swung open and Esther came in the house sweating, crazed, in clothing I’d never seen, that Claire sat up, drawing on some last reserve of power. She always wanted to catch sight of Esther, to watch her from a doorway, so she followed her from room to room, keeping her distance, and Esther tolerated the stalking. You could see in her whole body the effort she made to endure this attention she loathed.

Esther had changed. Her face was older, harder. Filthy from her outings, but spectacularly beautiful. Of course I must think this, I’m her father. Fathers do not easily succumb to assessments of ugliness where their children are concerned. Esther had never been a cute child, but she’d grown threateningly stunning in the last few months. She let her mother watch from a safe perimeter and she was considerate enough not to turn on her with speech, to stop and speak until Claire fell. Esther saw her mother in doorways, looked away, said nothing. It was her greatest kindness to us, that silence. I will always appreciate the restraint she showed in those last days.
Ben Marcus|Author Q&A

About Ben Marcus

Ben Marcus - The Flame Alphabet

Photo © Chris Doyle

Ben Marcus is the author of Notable American Women and The Age of Wire and String. His stories have appeared in The New Yorker, Harper’s, The Paris Review, Tin House, and elsewhere. The recipient of three Pushcart Prizes, a Whiting Writers Award, a National Endowment for the Arts grant, and an award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, he is a Professor of Creative Writing at Columbia University and lives in New York City.

Author Q&A

A conversation with Ben Marcus, author of THE FLAME ALPHABET

Q) THE FLAME ALPHABET opens with Samuel and his wife Claire preparing to evacuate amid a frightening epidemic: the speech of children has become lethal. They’re leaving Esther, their 14-year-old daughter, to save themselves. How did this story first come to you, what sparked it?
A) I wanted to write a book that begins with trouble. There’s trouble at home, there’s trouble in the world, and each crowds in on the other. This trouble had to be something that fascinated me, something I could connect to in the most personal way, because to me this makes the writing more urgent.  When I thought of what I could never give up, what would kill me to lose, it was my family, my kids.  After that, it was language.  I was so unable to imagine my life without language that I became obsessed with trying to tell a story about a world where language is poisonous, where speech kills, where words are sickening.  And when I tried to factor children into it, it seemed that if they were immune to this poison they would become intensely powerful.  Children could use language as a weapon, even against those they love.  So these ideas started to swirl around, and they worried me, and they upset me, and I couldn’t stop thinking about them, which meant I had to try to write a novel to see what would happen.
Q) Against a background of apocalyptic fallout, a focal point of THE FLAME ALPHABET remains the family: Samuel and Claire’s marriage, the experience of raising a teenager, of being a teenager.  Why did you decide to focus on the private life of one family in all the chaos?
A) To me The Flame Alphabet isn’t so much the story of a crisis in the world as it is the story of how individual people try to love each other through impossible odds.  
A family protects you from the world, but it also heightens your vulnerability.  Nobody knows you as well as the people in your family, and to be known is to be found out, which for some people can be unbearable.  Loving a child can be unbearable because in some ways the love can’t really be requited, but also because as parents we’ve seen bad stuff happen and we can begin to imagine the nightmare of something befalling our kids.  So families induct us into a world of the most intense joy and happiness, but also, unfortunately, heartbreak and pain. The family might be the greatest stage for the most dramatic stories.  Fathers and daughters, husbands and wives, love and resentment, loyalty and betrayal.  It’s a petri dish for tragedy.
Q) A major theme of THE FLAME ALPHABET is, of course, language. Its power, limitations, proliferation, all taken to the extreme. What were you trying to explore about the way we communicate? And were there any complications or surprises in writing a book in which language itself is a killer?
A) I was thinking of sticks and stones.  We know what they do.  But names, language, words, supposedly can never hurt us.  Which of course is not true.  Esther, in The Flame Alphabet, even before the speech fever hits, has a terrible power over her parents.  Even though she’s a teenager and she’s dependent on them—needs them for food and safety—she has words, and since Sam and Claire love her so much, she has the ability to hurt them with what she says.  Inside the boundary of a family, language is tremendously powerful, and sometimes scary.
In the myth of the Tower of Babel, God is threatened by the language of people, how it unites them, so he scrambles their speech, keeps them from understanding each other.  Language is dangerous because it can make us think we understand how the world works—we use words to explain the world to ourselves, but it all might be an illusion.  In the Jewish tradition of Kabbalah there’s the notion that we can never understand the world, which is God’s creation—God is, by definition, inconceivable.  If we find ourselves explaining things, then we’re already wrong.  Language can’t touch the truth.  Explanation itself is immodest, arrogant.  The truth is unspoken, it cannot be written down.  It’s not even thought.  Language erects a false reality, fools us.  So, then, it’s not so much of a stretch, in a novel, to think of language as even more ruinous, literally toxic, and to wonder about the cataclysm that might come if we abuse the weapon of language.
One of the challenges in writing a novel about this was that suddenly no one could talk to each other.  My characters were going to be walled off from each other, there’d be no dialogue.  I thought a lot about that—what do you do when every body is mute?  I hope my solutions—which I shouldn’t reveal here, because that would be a spoiler!—were interesting.
Q) A strange, enigmatic (and imagined) sect of Judaism plays a large role in the life of the family and in the larger plot of the book. Can you talk a bit about this sect you created, why it plays such a large role, and how your own Jewish heritage informed your imagining?
A) As a writer I have always wanted to invent a religion.  I think of religions as works of the imagination, which isn’t to belittle them.  We invent religion out of our deep desire for meaning, to feel that our existence matters, that we have a purpose.  It’s one of civilization’s greatest imaginative acts—to posit where we came from, how we got here, and what we’re supposed to do now.  I see it as a novelistic task: a religion must be compelling, it must be believable.  It must be otherworldly and yet still pose as the truth.  It has characters, it has stories. The Flame Alphabet, with its interest in the mythic power of language, was already driven by religious questions, so it seemed natural to invent a religion for Sam and Claire.  But I quickly determined that it would seem silly to make something up, with a made-up name.  Or, not silly, but unreal, and therefore of little consequence.  No one would believe it.  I wanted the invented religion to seem like it was one that might already be out there, so I needed to use an existing religion that could accommodate sects, offshoots, cults.  A religion that has a flexible enough philosophy that would allow for something like the forest worship invented in the book.  And that was Judaism.

Of course as I got into it, and found my characters going to a hidden synagogue in the woods, where the Rabbi’s sermon was pumped in by a strange radio that needed to be tended with grease, well, I grew uncomfortable.  Religions have lots of metaphors of how word comes down from on-high, and in The Flame Alphabet, Sam and Claire are anxious that their radio won’t work, that they won’t be able to hear the Rabbi, or that the Rabbi’s message itself will possibly have been tampered with.  This stuff made me uneasy, which is something I look for when I write: a situation I can’t quite understand, that seems strange, and yet that I can’t stop thinking about.  It turns out that I was very interested in the dark mechanics of how a message from a purported God can make it safely down to the people below.  We know that messages erode as they are transmitted, and this turns out to be something that matters a lot in the novel.

I was brought up Jewish, but in the informal way that probably defines a lot of people from my generation.  Religious faith wasn’t presented to me as a requirement, something I had to have.  My parents were liberal—my mother was raised in an Irish Catholic family, and my father was raised in a Jewish one.  My Jewish identity was more cultural than anything else: I found it in the writers I read.  Malamud and Bellow and Roth were important to me, but their depictions of Judaism were much more explicit than anything I experienced in my life.  I had a sense of religion being far more private than communal.  And I always thought of Judaism as a religion that had no real reputation for recruitment, no desire to convert non-believers.  So while I have always responded to writers who deal with the Jewish experience in their work, I had yet to figure out how I might do that, in a way that made sense to me as a writer.  The Flame Alphabet is maybe the beginning of this process for me.  In the book, religion is strange, unknowable, slippery, and it even might be dangerous.  Or, of course, it might be the illusionary creation of someone who means you harm.  It can connect you as much as it isolates you.  It can be a repository for your fears, while also inflaming them.
Q) What is the flame alphabet?
It sounds made up, but it’s an existing concept in Judaism.  The flame alphabet is a way to refer to the Torah: the word of God, written in fire.  When I first read about it I was amazed.  The idea of a language too blinding to look at, something too intense to understand.  Hebrew letters are all richly symbolic.  The alphabet is seen as a system for knowledge, a powerful and dangerous one.  It’s a set of building blocks for unlocking the secrets to the world.  It’s still true, even if it’s easy to forget this now.  We use this system to make all of our wisdom.   I also should say that, in the book, I’ve taken some liberties with the idea of the flame alphabet.  As frequently happens with religions, it is subject to grave misinterpretations, manipulations.  Schemers get a hold of it and bend the meaning to their own interests.  So, along with inventing a religion, I also wanted to show how people abuse their own religions and manipulate other people by stoking their fear.  And I decided on the title because it was suggestive of a language that would hurt us to consume.  We’d be blinded if we saw it.  We’d be ruined.  An alphabet of fire seems hazardous, and this propelled the book for me.
Q) The form of THE FLAME ALPHABET is quite different from your previous work, like Notable American Women, The Father Costume, and The Age of Wire and String. There is a single narrative voice that takes us through the story. Had you been itching to try the classic novel form or did the style grow out of the kind of story you were telling?
A) My earlier books had multiple narrators, multiple timelines, multiple, uh, personalities, and so I did think a lot about a simpler approach to the storytelling, to see what would happen.  I hadn’t tried this before and I wanted to do something new.  I wanted the book to move very quickly, to have a lot of suspense and momentum.  It seemed to suit the story.  There’s dark stuff in this book, a lot of sorrow, and a lot of strangeness.  A high velocity narrative seemed like a good way to carry everything, to keep readers interested.
Q) Do you think about genre when you write? Is it all fiction or do you consider your work to veer into the science fiction realm? Or other?
A) I don’t think too much about genre when I write.  The boundaries always seem to shift, don’t they, and so many writers I love seem to gleefully surf from genre to genre, sampling the riches from all kinds of literature.  I love those writers who bend reality a little bit, but who somehow also seem to occupy their own category, a genre unto themselves: Borges, Calvino, Donald Barthelme.  And there are writers working now who seem too slippery to pin down, because (to me, anyway), they love many kinds and styles of writing, among them, Kazuo Ishiguro, George Saunders, Aimee Bender, Michael Chabon, Lydia Davis.  In these writers you can find traditional, hurtling narrative, deep strangeness, achingly tender story-telling, and, above all, a clear love of language.  I could name many more.  Sometimes I try to just forget about genres and simply read what seems exciting, what seems vital and alive.
Q) You teach writing at Columbia University in New York City. How has your writing changed or been informed by your teaching, if at all?
A) A great thing about teaching is that I can be surrounded by committed writers and readers, people who believe in stories and literature and the power of language.  It’s a great work place, because as different as the students might be from each other, they all believe in the possibility for fiction to move and compel us, to be entertaining, and when I see students striving to write things that matter I am moved by it.  The question of how my own writing has been changed by teaching is a good one, and I’m not sure I know how to answer it.  I’ve been teaching for over twenty years, with only short breaks along the way, so I’d have to imagine an alternative universe in order to guess how I would have written if I hadn’t taught.  But I will say that I’ve always thrived on keeping some feelings and ideas and hunches to myself, so I can be alone with a private world.  I try to keep my own writing sheltered from my work as a teacher.  I get nervous about talking things through too much.  A danger in teaching is that sometimes you’re pressed to be knowing about things that can’t really be known or explained.  I love uncertainty and what it does for my interest in writing.  It’s such a motivator.  But it’s hard to cling to in the classroom.  For me, some things have to remain unknown in order for me to stay curious about them, to see them as potentially worth writing about.  
Q) What are you working on now?
A) I am finishing a collection of short stories, which will be published in 2013.  The stories have come out in The New Yorker, Harper’s, Tin House, McSweeney’s, and some other places.  Once I turn that in I want to start a new novel, but I don’t yet know what that will be.  I want to find something new that I can’t stop thinking about.

From the Hardcover edition.



Praise for The Flame Alphabet:
"Crackles with vicious intelligence."—Entertainment Weekly
"A harrowing tale. . . . Sends chills down the spine."--The Seattle Times
"Fascinating. . . . A horror story that plays with the power of words."--The Plain Dealer
"Laden with metaphor. . . . It reads like a dream, complete with all the associative richness that comparison might suggest."--The New York Times Book Review
"An exciting page-turner." —The Philadelphia Inquirer
“A rich testament to Marcus' gifts” —Los Angeles Times
“A well-oiled heartbreak machine.” —New York

“In the guise of a horror novel (albeit one written by a supremely intelligent literary novelist), Marcus has delivered a subtle meditation on the necessity as well as the drawbacks of human communication . . . in searing, sometimes hallucinatory prose.” —Richmond Times-Dispatch
"Thrilling, boasting an erudition and an obsessiveness that smacks both of Jorge Luis Borges and of Darren Aronofsky."--The Boston Globe
"As I read The Flame Alphabet, late into the night, feverishly turning the pages, I felt myself, increasingly, in the presence of the classic." --Michael Chabon
“Marcus succeeds in creating a parallel universe that mirrors a side of human social life that might be more comfortably concealed.” —The Columbus Dispatch
“An apocalyptic nightmare. Its vision is eerie, droll and heartbreaking, both lavishly written and haunting to behold. . . .[Marcus’s] use of language could hardly be more vibrant.”—Portland Press Herald “Some of the most thoughtful and moving writing I’ve ever read about family life.” —Michael Jauchen, The Rumpus
“Disturbing and remarkable.”—LA Review of Books
 “This novel will cause many mouths to open. Dialogue will ensue. People will have something to say.”—Cleveland Plain Dealer
“A mystery, a compulsive page-turner” —Salon
“The Flame Alphabet has the force of a nightmare, a testament to Marcus’s skill.” —NPR
"Ben Marcus is the rarest kind of writer: a necessary one."--Jonathan Safran Foer
“The Flame Alphabet is less about linguistics than the decay of relationships, the fracturing of familial loyalties, and the everyday heartbreak of human estrangement.”—The Millions
"Ben Marcus is a genius, one of the most daring, funny, morally engaged and brilliant writers, someone whose work truly makes a difference in the world."--George Saunders
“A brutal, wonderful book, streaked with the sickly brown and gray hues of Philip K. Dick and David Cronenberg.”—The Onion, A.V. Club
“A truly strange, original vision of a post-linguistic world.” —Slant Magazine
“Freakishly sad and incredibly good.”—Bookforum
“An authentic meditation on the sacred cruelty of communication that will leave his readers speechless.”—San Francisco Chronicle
“You will not read too many books like this in your life. —The Financial Times
“For all its surreal touches, it packs an emotional wallop.” —Wired

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A short film based on The Flame Alphabet by Ben Marcus.

  • The Flame Alphabet by Ben Marcus
  • November 13, 2012
  • Fiction - Literary
  • Vintage
  • $15.00
  • 9780307739971

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