In Ben Marcus's chilly yet passionate new novel, The Flame Alphabet, the world ends not with a bang or a whimper but because of lingering collateral damage from daily speech -- communication as a killer. Marcus, author of Notable American Women and The Age of Wire and String, imagines a sudden universal plague, originating with Jewish children, in which the words of the young render adults sick and then dead. The ghastly symptoms include retching, speech fever, yellow skin, and bruising around the mouth. Victims eventually turn into "leaking sacks of mush."
A man named Sam relates the particulars of the affliction, stage by stage. He also chronicles the erosion of his relationship with his wife, Claire, and their twinned resentment and love of their teen daughter, Esther -- a defiant, sentimental hell-beast typical of the species -- whose words would be knives even without the arrival of a seemingly inexplicable epidemic. As Sam struggles to preserve his loved ones, the narrative continually turns in on itself to share in ever more poignant detail the paralysis of the family unit. The wider crisis is described just well enough to imbue the novel with the necessary semblance of reality, but no more than that.
The particulars of Sam's faith stand out in sharp relief against this backdrop of crisis, and the two seem linked by a second fabulist element in the book -- a network of secret huts through which Jewish couples receive "religious transmissions." The complex process by which Sam and Claire assemble the necessary equipment, attaching uncomfortably fleshy "listeners" to the orifice in the hut floor, would make William Burroughs smile in recognition.
The huts may serve as Marcus's bleak yet humorous comment on the eccentricity of religious ritual, but they also function as an important part of the plot. A man named Murphy believes the huts may hold the solution to the plague and has been "canvassing Jewish families…cornering, manipulating, extracting." After meeting Sam supposedly by accident, Murphy stalks his family and gives him The Proofs, an eccentric collection of documents documenting historical cases of deadly language. Murphy wants Sam to give up the secrets of the huts. This needling presence often sparks more reaction from Sam than his wife or daughter, because Murphy is an acceptable outlet on which to vent his anger, grief, and frustration.
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.
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.