You think The Road was bleak? You found Zone One kind of dark and relentless? Bah. The latest literary apocalypse, Ben Marcus' The Flame Alphabet, is weirder, more disturbing and harder to deal with than any of your other literary calamities.
The Flame Alphabet may not be the most violent apocalypse, but it is quite possibly the most disturbing and baffling of them all. Here's why you can't handle this book. Spoilers ahead...
I read The Flame Alphabet a few days ago, and while I was reading it, I was trying to explain the plot to random people I met, many of whom indicated vigorously that they'd rather I didn't. And now that it's been a few days since I read it, I find myself at a loss to explain anything about this book at all. It's become kind of a nightmarish blur.
But here goes: In Flame Alphabet, there's some kind of weird plague which causes the sound of language to hurt adults. At first, it's just the sound of children talking that makes grown-ups get sick. But eventually, the disease progresses, and even adult speech can make other adults feel unbearable pain and waste away. People's faces shrink to the size of dolls, and their tongues develop a weird rough growth on the underside, making speech painful. Eventually, even communicating via facial expressions becomes unbearable, and the world goes totally mute except for a few enclaves where the children are sequestered.
Yes, if language is a virus like William Burroughs always claimed, then Flame Alphabet is about what happens when it mutates into something toxic and potentially deadly. At left is the book's trailer, which we debuted on io9 a while back.
But that's not the weird part. This book belongs more properly to the burgeoning "Jewish Apocalypse" genre, which also includes the recent books Witz and The Instructions. (Read our reviews of those books here and here.) In The Flame Alphabet, Jews are rumored to be the first carriers of the language disease, and it seems in some undefinable way to be linked to ancient Jewish mysteries. The main character and family belong to a weird sect called "Forest Jews," who don't go to a synagogue — instead, Samuel and his wife Claire go to a weird hut in the middle of nowhere, where a hole in the ground pipes up Jewish sermons that they need a special Listener to hear. The Jew Hole is frequently described as being greasy, or even shit-encrusted, and the whole process of getting the wisdom out of the hole is torturous and demented. Oh, and the Jew Hole is the only place where Samuel and Claire ever seem to have sex.
An apocalyptic story isn't really complete without some asshole trying to restore order and making everything worse, and Flame Alphabet is no exception. There's a weird "expert" on the language disease, an Irish-looking man named LeBov, who uses an alias and trickery to try and win people over. LeBov, who may or may not be multiple people, finally sets up a nightmarish facility where a cure for the language disease is studied — and it turns out to be the most horrifying thing of all. Meanwhile, everyone in LeBov's facility has the ultimate in casual sex all the time, because nobody can talk or even communicate via facial expressions, so they just screw constantly without any intimacy. And Samuel, the main character, experiments with new alphabets that people could look at without dying — and people invariably die when they look at his attempts.
To some extent, you might think that this is all a bit weird for weirdness' sake. And you might well be right. But when you get through the whole weird mess of slimy holes in the ground full of wisdom, and casual sex between people who can't talk, and toxic children who seem to despise their parents, and strange religious mysteries, and obsessive poring over the building blocks of language, you wind up with a kind of fascinating psychosexual goopiness. This book explores the slippery texture of human communication in a way that combines the sexual, the familial and the religious and systematically strips the comfort and joy from all three.
Here's a typically bleak passage, where Samuel's wife Claire wants to have sex with him, except that they're not at their hut in the forest, and he's not in the mood:
Claire never propositioned me, which on its own would be understandable. Language shouldn't be required for a married couple to toil for their grain of pleasure. But she never actually took off pants, mine or hers, or got the enabling oils or the towel. I guess that was supposed to be a man's work, or maybe only mine. She sent out clues and then waited for me to follow through, but often I did the reverse. Some days I was blind to the clues a little bit on purpose.
In this case I was hoping to wait for Thursday, when we were at synagogue, the two of us in the woods after the broadcast had ended. In the hut, with the cold air pouring in, and the radio crackling in the background, it was easier to surrender to what sometimes, if we were exceptionally lucky, felt unterrible.
Claire furrowed back into me, tugged too hard, and I swallowed some bile. Part of her on the wrong part of me was gritty and rough. There was a terrible smell in the air, most likely my own, and my groin was cold. It seemed as if what she gripped so fiercely might come loose in her hand.
And that's from before everything goes to hell.
Part of the reason why The Flame Alphabet is so hard to get into is because it provides no point of purchase, in the manner of many recent literary books. The main characters are all completely devoid of characteristics. Other than Jewishness. Samuel, the protagonist, is an everyman who lacks any relatable traits. Or any traits at all, really. We don't ever find out how he met his wife, what he did for a living before the apocalypse, or what sort of music he liked. He makes defining choices throughout the book, but even then he's mostly reacting to circumstances. He's almost obstinately oblique as a character. This is definitely on purpose: As a philosopher quoted early in the book says, "Ideas and people do not mix."
But that doesn't mean that the book doesn't project an emotional gestalt — there is a profound sense running through the book that having a teenage kid is icky. Even if your teenage daughter didn't have the power to make you grow ill and possibly even die just by yelling at you, teenagers would still be toxic organisms who don't appreciate everything their parents do for them. The most animated character in the book, by far, is the protagonist's daughter Esther, who's basically an obnoxious jerk.
Actually, Samuel does have a defining characteristic, now that I think of it — he's constantly associated with the word "smallwork." His religious observances are all "smallwork," in the sense of tiny tasks that bring about God's word. And his pathetic, minor attempts to find a cure or solution to the plague are also "smallwork." It's sort of a defensively OCD term, which conjures mental images of a small man doing small things.
Late in the book, the main character notes, "Without language my inner life, if such a phrase indicates anything anymore, was merely anecdotal, heresay. It was not even that. It was the noisings one might detect if a microphone were held against a stone in the woods."
In the end, The Flame Alphabet is about people whose communication problems go way beyond the fact that human speech will make them get ill or die. The whole book is full of failed communication and incomprehension, and phrases like "There is no word for this work... In the end our language is no match for what this man did." Samuel refuses to share the last words he speaks to his wife before they both have to give up language — and it sounds as though whatever they were, they have little meaning for her — and later he rejoices at the idea that he'll never be able to tell his story of failure and ignominy to anyone.
One is tempted to quote Tom Lehrer's famous riposte about people who can't communicate.
I can't quite decide whether The Flame Alphabet is a confounding masterpiece, or just confounding. It's definitely a book that lodges weird images in your brain, and it'll make you think about the connections between language and sexuality and religion in a new way. To some extent, the function of apocalyptic tales is to take the world apart, in order to show us how it's constructed — and The Flame Alphabet, more than any apocalyptic book I've read, shows us that our world is a gooey, awful, revolting mess.