Featured Reviews, VOLUME 5

The Flame Alphabet – Ben Marcus [ Feature Review ]

The Flame Alphabet - Ben MarcusThe Toxicity of Words

A review of

The Flame Alphabet: A Novel.
Ben Marcus.
Hardback: Knopf, 2012.
Buy Now: [ Amazon ]  [ Kindle ]

Reviewed by J. Brent Bill.

“… no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.” (James 3:8).

In his novel The Flame Alphabet, experimental fictioneer Ben Marcus brings the words of James to life – and not just as a metaphor.  Indeed, in Marcus’ book, words are toxic – literally.

Marcus says he’s long been fascinated with the idea of toxicity of language and The Flame Alphabet gives him a platform in which to explore and experiment with that fascination.  In it, tongues spout poison.  Young tongues.  Particularly young Jewish tongues.  Specifically young Jewess Esther’s tongue.

Of all the toxic talkers, Esther is the one we get to know best (and we don’t get to know her very well) because the story of toxic language is told by her father Sam.  Sam tells the tale of how he and his wife Claire are being poisoned by Esther’s words – a slow sickness near unto death.



Sam, Claire, and Esther are “forest Jews” who live a fairly contemporary upstate New York.  They’re called “forest Jews” because they retreat to their synagogue in the forest to hear their rabbi’s teaching.  But their synagogue is more a symbolic than real one, consisting of a hut constructed over the “Jew hole” from which they (Sam and Claire) receive strange radio ramblings of Rabbi Burke.  No minyan or Torah here.  It’s a very weird construct based on Marcus’ studies of secretive Jewish communities and some snippets of information about Reconstructionist Jews.

But, really, their Jewishness is secondary to the story.  Sam and Claire could almost as easily have been “backyard Baptists” or “cavern Catholics” as “forest Jews.”  Indeed, their faith and their faith community’s connection to actual Jewish practice is so thin as to be almost invisible.

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