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The Flame Alphabet, Ben Marcus

When I began Ben Marcus' new novel, the Flame Alphabet, I was quite excited by it. It was about a virus that emerged from the vocabulary of children and had a dark, satirical edge to it that I was completely behind.

The Flame Alphabet never lived beyond that opening premise, however. Suffering structurally from presenting a contagion narrative that never gave into it and, instead, presented a stationary, limited cast of what were metaphoric questions for the narrator, Marcus never moves beyond his initial statement comfortably, and never allows the novel to reach the heights of what could have been a hallucinatory vision. In truth, I think it's fair to say that, to a degree, my dissatisfaction with the book rose from what I thought it could be, rather than what it was, and from what I considered opportunities lost. It is entirely possible for someone else to read the book and be entirely satisfied with it for what it is.

The book opens with Sam and his wife, Claire, fleeing their home while their daughter is away, attempting to leave the plague that their child is part of. It's a strong opening, but neither Claire nor Esther, the daughter, have a voice in the book--a choice that Marcus appears to have made on purpose, since the 'silence' of the novel suits his vision well, but one that leaves you with a pair of characters who are flat and never fleshed out because they are never given voices, ironically in Esther's part. You never particularly care or sympathize with the narrator over his family, or indeed him, just as you never buy that Murphy is anything but a cheap villain. Murphy is perhaps worse than the family, however, because he represents Marcus' attempt to weld together the form of thriller, the the classic contagion narrative, into his large metaphorical piece, and the Flame Alphabet is not and will never be a thriller.

The question comes, then, to why would you read it?

Well, despite its narrative faults, Marcus' metaphor of language is actually quite fascinating in its own right. The deadly nature of the childs language is easily applied to the rise of childs literature for adults and the consequences of that in relation to the language of adults, arising to the point, later in the book, where Marcus' shows how the narrator begins to understand the world through fables. Then, again, there is the relationship that he forms later in the book that is free of language, and the nature of it, that's particularly interesting. In addition, the strange Jewish 'forest' cult serves as a metaphor for religion in general, and the set up of the huts, the communication, and so forth take on quite interesting fictional constructions that is, by the most part, skillfully done.

But in the end, the idea isn't a novel. It's a short story, a novella, something much smaller, more concise, without the repetition, the internal debates of the narrator that go nowhere, and after a while, the book labours with the effort to make it larger.

It's a real shame, too, because it could have been something special.