It is also quite undeniably terrible, not in the sense of its being of low quality, but in the original sense of that word "terrible": exciting intense awe or fear. Those who describe The Flame Alphabet as an intellectual horror story hit the mark very well indeed. It should be shelved somewhere between Jose Saramago's Blindness and Tony Burgess' Pontypool Changes Everything.
As in the latter, something has gone horribly, horribly wrong with spoken language, but where in Pontypool language is a symptom of a disease/disorder/form of zombie-ism, in The Flame Alphabet language is the disease, but only, at least at first, as it is produced by children: a kid's simplest utterance is an assault; over time, exposure to children's speech produces a horrible degeneration of the very fabric of an adult human's being, hardening and drying out tissues, weakening or dissolving muscles, slowly killing the individual. Parents suffer this first and worst, but eventually everyone feels it, because it's almost impossible to completely avoid children, even if one is a happy spinster. And before the first act of the story is over, this language toxicity has spread to adult speech as well and we discover that children are merely immune.
And like in Blindness, the origin of this situation is somewhat mysterious, misunderstood, sudden. But Marcus locates his disorder squarely in the Judaic/Talmudic tradition, rather than Saramago's inchoate science fictional causelessness. Language, and in particular spoken language, in the Judeo-Christian tradition, created the world; as my beloved Diotallevi observes in Foucault's Pendulum, "god created the universe by speaking; he didn't send a telegram." And there are, apparently (I'm not much of a Biblical scholar, so this was news to me) lots of hints in scripture about speech becoming destructive or dangerous generally, and children's mouths producing poison specifically. Which all makes a certain amount of sense. If the world was created via speech, why would it not be destroyed the same way? But then how might that happen?**
We experience this devastating, horrific situation alongside a father, Sam, who along with wife Claire is barely clinging to life after clinging to their daughter Esther long past the time when most adults have abandoned their children out of self-preservation. Interestingly, Esther's speech is really kind of toxic even before this strange outbreak; she is a sharp, critical, demanding and altogether unpleasant girl, the kind only a mother or father could love but even the most loving parent probably, if he or she were being honest, couldn't really like that much, as shown in this passage that is really describing the situation before the epidemic of poisonous speech:
"What she said was bitter, and we sipped at it and sipped at it, her mother and I, just ever so politely sipped at it until we were sick, because this was the going air inside our house, our daughter talking and singing and shouting and writing... Whatever we thought we wanted, to hug our kiss our daughter, to sit near her, it was our bodies that recoiled first. We cowered and leaned away from her words, we kept our distance..."This is something I don't often see in fiction (but then, I don't read a lot of fiction about parenthood), this honest admission that sometimes parents don't like their children, but I bet it's a fact of life more often than most of us think. Which makes The Flame Alphabet a very brave as well as a very terrible book.
Later acts in the book reveal Sam as a bit of a Jack Isidore-esque crap artist as he joins the effort to fight language toxicity and sets to work cooking up a lot of quacky remedies, palliatives and, later on, new writing systems. All, needless to say, to no avail. But while he's been faffing around in his play-laboratory, others are actually getting results, though via rather unpleasant and cruel means.
Slyly, this novel comments on -- indeed mocks -- the very hunger for stories that brings readers to novels, especially to speculative fiction novels, swamping us in gorgeous prose, vivid imagery and narrative self-loathing even as it drives home, oh so brilliantly, the point that language might actually be bad for us. We think in it. We preserve thoughts with it. We transmit those thoughts to future generations with it. We've accomplished so much with it. And most of those accomplishments have been as bad for the world as the symbolic salty residue of speech that is overtaking the soil and surface waters of Marcus' fictional world. It's as is we've talked ourselves into the worlds of The Sheep Look Up, of The Road.
This is not comfort reading, not even sort of. But it's very, very good reading, the kind that wins prizes and leaves readers breathless with awe and envy even as they want to take a mental shower to cleanse away its ideas. I'm impressed.
*Who had this book on her Definitive Top Ten All-Time Desert Island Works of Speculative Fiction - Novels list. And it might have to go on mine as well.
**Fascinatingly, the movement of Reconstructionist Judaism plays a huge role in Sam's and Claire's experience of this plague of language. Their religious practice is idiosyncratic and private, consisting of the pair of them retreating to a secret location to listen to radio sermons transmitted by what seems to amount to a form of carrier current radio, in complete privacy. "The rules of the hut were few but they were final. Claire and I were only to go together. We could neither of us attend this synagogue alone. The experience would not be rendered in speech, you could not repeat what you heard, or even that you heard anything... You would not know who else received worship in this manner, neighbors or otherwise... Curiosity about how others worshipped, even others in your family, even Esther, was not genuine curiosity; it was jealousy, weakness." Being a WASPY white girl from Wyoming, I have no way of knowing how much of this represents a genuine practice and how much might have been concocted for this novel -- it suggests so strongly a cause and remedy in one for the novel's overall problem that it almost feels too neat -- but even if it's all just a Borgesian concoction, it's an effing cool one.