The Flame Alphabet
Marcus's novel has a meandering beginning but is a masterful examination of love and endurance.
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Eventually, Sam's town is evacuated, left to the children, and Sam in turn abandons Claire, finding his way to Rochester, New York, where he begins work at a laboratory devoted to finding an antidote. The lab is run by a "toxicologist by training," the brilliant Anthony LeBov. There, Sam devises language tests to see if "the alphabet could be thinned out, shaved down, to trick the brain somehow." Meanwhile, LeBov seeks more robust but ethically corrupt solutions that involve extractions from children. He also goads Sam to help recreate a Jewish hut so he can access "a territory of wisdom we don't own." LeBov's often grotesque delight in his own cleverness makes him profoundly unsympathetic. However, Marcus wisely also shows us LeBov's human side: exhaustion from overwork and a willingness to conduct experiments on himself.Skip to next paragraph
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When, against the odds, Claire appears at the same facility, Sam makes a series of disastrous choices that lead him to escape LeBov in a nightmarish journey down through an orifice in LeBov's Jewish hut. The orifice opens up onto a series of tunnels that he hopes will lead him home and back to Esther. The consequences of his decisions for Claire, and thus later Esther, are terrible and form the real revelation of The Flame Alphabet.
The dying fall of Sam's retreat from solutions other than those of the most personal nature helps explain the sometimes meandering opening to the novel. Sam knows he is becoming more like LeBov than he ever imagined and creating misery in pursuit of a cure for his soon-to-be-adult daughter, even as he uses emotional terms like "secured possession" and "extraction shed." The dreadful clarity that often accompanies moments of transgression, when a boundary is crossed that cannot be uncrossed, haunts the final pages. What narrator would hasten to reach the end of this particular story?
The Flame Alphabet is not really about language or the search for a cure to the ravages of words, but about the efforts of a father to cope in the face of impossible circumstances. The unfolding, grim personal tragedy is unfolded for the reader to interpret much like the Hebrew letter Sam dissects and pins in LeBov's laboratory. His story is a harrowing, unrelenting, and painful read. It is also a masterful examination of love and of endurance that may make many readers think more carefully about the words they share.
Jeff VanderMeer, author of "City of Saints and Madmen," regularly reviews books for The Barnes & Noble Review.