The Flame Alphabet By Ben Marcus Granta, £16.99Ben Marcus’s new novel comes garlanded with praise from, among others, Tom McCarthy, whose C shares a similar dark imagination, avant-garde sensibility and fascination with rudimentary technology.
Marcus is a champion of experimental fiction, the kind you might have to read twice to really understand and that might or might not be worth it. Famously, he got into a minor literary fracas with Jonathan Franzen, author of The Corrections, via the pages of Harper’s magazine, in which Marcus stoutly defended the “difficult”, experimental novel (no one understood Ulysses either, goes the argument, and many still don’t, but that doesn’t mean it’s no good), and Franzen maintained that Marcus and his highbrow posse were accelerating the demise of a form already under serious threat from other media.
What would happen to humans if we could no longer communicate directly? In Marcus’s “intellectual horror story” an epidemic has hit the US, making the speech of children toxic to adults, who fall horribly ill and eventually die from listening to their offspring. Parents, including the narrator, Sam, and his wife, Claire, are forced to flee their homes and go into hiding while their children are rounded up and interned in quarantine areas.
The outbreak seems somehow connected to a secret, esoteric Jewish sect, which transmits its religious services via an underground cable network that can be accessed through listening devices such as the one in the hillside hut where Sam and Claire had gone to “worship” every week.
Sam goes to work in a research lab, where he tries to find out what it is in language that has suddenly become so lethal. It turns out that written words, too, are toxic to adults – but at what point does the poison kick in? Sam uses a variation of the pinhole device, which allows him to see only a part of each letter at a time. He tries a variety of alphabets, both ancient and modern, including cuneiform. He tries removing the vowels and writing in all kinds of materials, including smoke, but still his research subjects – “language martyrs” – get sicker.
And it’s not just language. In the lab, “Gesture was tested, mostly on the sick, to see how rapidly they would expire if exposed to unceasing and explicit mime.” As the epidemic worsens, all methods of human communication become a health hazard.
Sam tries to invent a new way of transmitting meaning, conscious always of the fact that his and Claire’s teenage daughter, Esther, will one day soon become an adult and so susceptible to the virus herself.
It’s a sci-fi disaster-movie plot with a determinedly cerebral twist. Marcus offers a vividly realised dystopia, and it’s an impressive feat of imagination (and, of course, language), though at times the weirdness seems to clash a little with the traditional, pro-family theme. The villain/s, called variously Murphy and LeBov (we’re never sure if they are the same person), are less than convincing. Allusions abound to arcane aspects of Judaism, Aesop’s fables and more.
This malevolent, silenced world is full of strange substances. There are the fetid fluids that leak from the bodies of the stricken (often increased rather than stemmed by attempted cures); the serum extracted from live children that, when injected into adults, gives them temporary immunity; a strange pink gel that, when spread on bits of bark, then heated and chewed, gives Sam enough sustenance to survive without food or water for long periods. And there is the “salt” that covers the now deserted countryside – the residue of language.