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.
Language kills in Marcus's audacious new work of fiction, a richly allusive look at a world transformed by a new form of illness. Outside Rochester, N.Y., Sam and Claire are a normal Jewish couple with a sullen teenage daughter, Esther. But Esther and other Jewish children begin to speak a toxic form of language, potentially deadly to adults: with "the Esther toxicity... in high flower," Sam watches in horror as the disease spreads to children of other religions, quarantine zones are imposed, and Claire sickens to the point of death. Heeding the advice of enigmatic prophet LeBov, Sam manufactures his own homemade defenses against his daughter's speech. But he and Claire are soon forced to abandon Esther in order to save themselves. The novel's first part plays like The Twilight Zone as a normal community becomes exposed to this mysterious infection. The second part reads like a Kafkaesque nightmare as Sam, separated from Claire, winds up in an isolated research facility, where he is put to work creating a new language that will be immune from the virus. The third part finds Sam living in the woods near his home, where he becomes a haunted creature out of a Yiddish folk tale. Marcus (Notable American Women) proves equally inspired in sketching Sam's underground religion of "forest Jews" who pray in individual huts and receive sermons via a special gelpack called a listener. Although characterization plays second fiddle to vision here, in LeBov, a silver-tongued, authoritarian, flimflam man, Marcus has retooled a classic American archetype. Biblical in its Old Testament sense of wrath, Marcus's novel twists America's quotidian existence into something recognizable yet wholly alien to our experience.
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Swerved a bit too much into implausibility
I liked the whole idea of wrapping "language is a virus" around teenage intractability. However, when the protagonist launched into language design without any reference to Shannon, Wittgenstein, Chomsky, Grice, etc. etc. it almost lost me.
Its an interesting look at someone much more incurious, uninformed, and insensitive than most trying to come to grips with something horrific and unprecedented.
Unlike Anything Else
This novel is truly unlike any other I have read. It kept me up late at night and had me waking up early just to fit reading time in my busy schedule.
Really want to like it, but I just don
I love language and thinking about communication. I thought that a book about people falling sick because of their children would be a powerful meditation of communication, maybe with some insights into family dynamics and children rejecting their parents. Instead, I got obscure thoughts about Judaism and paper thin characters. The author seems stuck between wanting to write a compelling narrative and wanting to impart deep thoughts about knowledge and religion and failing at both.
Overall, it is more about religion than it is about language. The family dynamics are thin to the point of non-existent. His wife and child are cardboard boxes that the narrator whines about. I found the main character to be wholly unsympathetic and really had no investment in his life one way or the other. He seemed to have no investment in anything, and I found myself unable to finish the book out of sheer boredom and complete lack of intellectual and emotional engagement.
It might get better towards the end, but I just didn't really care enough to find out.