The Flame Alphabet by Ben Marcus: You’ll be lost for words…
The Flame Alphabet by Ben Marcus, out now in hardback (Granta £16.99)
The Flame Alphabet has one of the most impressive openings I’ve read in a new work of literary fiction for quite some time. Ben Marcus’ novel begins with a father and mother fleeing their home because their teenage daughter has become toxic to them.
Specifically, it is the girl’s language that makes them both sick. And it’s not just her. In this dystopian nightmare, all adults are being made sick, and fatally so, by language, written and spoken. Children are mysteriously immune. It made me shudder.
As the pages crept by, however, I had my ‘Yes, but…’ moment. Well, several, actually. Toxic language? What were we getting here? Is this a genuinely interesting alternative future? Or middle-aged angst about teenage slang, text speak and the verbiage of Fox News pundits? Of all the problems humankind faces today, toxic language sounds a bit too first-world, a bit too hypothetical.
Who is Ben Marcus, anyway? As the chair of creative writing at Columbia University he has become a champion for experimental writing – and a critic of the novelist Jonathan Franzen for suggesting that literature should be fun and accessible.
Marcus’ writing can be dense and occasionally difficult, but it is nevertheless interspersed with some genuinely inspired moments. And this novel is clearly very well thought through and multi-layered. Esther, for example, is surely named after the Jewish princess in the Bible who, by speaking to the Persian King Xerxes, was able to thwart genocide.
Perhaps inevitably for a Jewish dystopia, Holocaust imagery abounds. There’s even a scene where a woman has to strip to be hosed down with water – as the Nazis washed their victims on arrival at the camps.
Plus there are the distinctly disturbing references to the Forest Jews and Jew Holes – Jews, we are told, are the early scapegoats for the language plague, just as Jews have always been scapegoats.
There are echoes of Orwell’s 1984, too. The narrator, Sam, is in the Winston Smith role, tormented by the figure of LeBov, a pseudo-scientist version of Orwell’s fascist O’Brien, eager to take advantage of the new reality.
But while the elements are there for a challenging yet satisfying novel, I found Marcus’
vision quickly became too deeply idiosyncratic and plain odd. I get it that this isn’t strictly sci-fi, more a thought experiment, but I really felt the book is undermined by the lack of anything resembling scientific fact or, at times, coherent logic.
Why is language poisonous and not sounds such as music or birdsong? As for the talk of serums and smoke inhalations, they might have come out of a young adult novel. And all that Hole business?
As I was reading The Flame Alphabet, science fiction writer Ray Bradbury died (these events were not related, though perhaps in another novel they are). Bradbury’s stories addressed complex issues by giving us glimpses of the future, and while his work was thoughtful, it also had simplicity, directness and the potential to thrill that meant it could win a wide readership.
For all of its cleverness, The Flame Alphabet isn’t simple or direct enough.
And another thing…
Pan Macmillan will publish an “erotic retelling” of Jane Eyre in August, sparking #eroticclassics on Twitter (personal favourites: The Horn Birds and Nineteen Eighty Phowarr). Where will this EL James trend end? A vibro-app for the Kindle? Also, given that the pilates expert behind Pippa Middleton’s rear is writing a book, can we expect a similar deal for Prince Philip’s urologist?
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The Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1798)
Contrasting with Ernest Shackleton’s non-fiction memoir, South, featured in a recent Kindle review is this early example of Romantic poetry – though both works share an icy Antarctic setting. Here, the mariner sets off a chain of bad luck by killing an albatross, and the angry crew members show their displeasure by placing the dead bird around his neck – from then on things only get worse. The mariner relates the story to a man on the way to a wedding, saying it is his penance to wander the world and reveal his guilt. Coleridge writes with a Gothic sensibility and strong sense of the macabre. www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/151 Words: Jenny Parrott