Featured Reviews, VOLUME 5

The Flame Alphabet – Ben Marcus [ Feature Review ]

Page 2 – The Flame Alphabet – Ben Marcus

At first it is the spoken word that sickens.  Then, as packs of teens run down suburban streets terrorizing unwary adults with poisonous perorations, the speech sickness grows to include adult vocalization and the written or read word.  Teenagers are abandoned by their parents as they try to flee for their lives, only to find it is too late.  Words are everywhere.  The smallest part of a word, a glimpse of a letter, is deadly.  The world grows silent and cold.

I’d say more about the story of Sam, Claire, and Esther (and there is plenty to tell if I were inclined), but ultimately Marcus doesn’t make us care that much about them or their story.  He seems interested only in the idea that fascinates him.  Sam, Claire, and Esther are only wire frames upon which to hang a premise.  I found Sam, frankly, an uninteresting narrator and how he is qualified to do the work that consumes a good part of the second half of the book is never explained.  I’m not going to reveal what his work is … if you want to know, you’ll have to wade through the book to find out.

And it’s tough wading.  Maybe I don’t “get” experimental fiction, but this felt like slogging through a swamp of sentences that were not especially well constructed to read a story that was not especially well told.  At least in the conventional sense of story.  The characters, good and bad, are a bit thin,

The Flame Alphabet is all about the premise that fascinates Marcus – the possible toxicity of language and what it means.  “This was not a disease of language anymore,” says Sam, “it was a disease of insight, understanding, knowing.”  Aha!  An idea to latch onto and ponder.  Language as The Tree of Knowledge?!  “And the LORD God commanded the man, ‘You are free to eat from any tree in the garden;  but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die.”” (Genesis 2:16 – 17). Language as forbidden, deadly fruit, indeed.

One of the few explicitly religious musings comes early in the book, when Sam meets up with the man who becomes his savior/nemesis – Murphy/Lebov.  Sam remembers Rabbi Burke’s teachings that “The flame alphabet was the word of God, written in fire, obliterating to behold…. We could not say God’s true name, nor could we, if we were devoted, speak of God at all… but was the midrashic spin on the flame alphabet that was more exclusive, spoken of only, as far as I knew by Rabbi Burke…. Since the entire alphabet comprises God’s name … since it written in every arrangement of letters, then all words reference God, do they not?  That’s what words are.  They are variations on his name.  No matter the language.  Whatever we say, we say God…. Therefore for the language itself was, by definition, off-limits.  Every single word of it.  We were best to be done with it.”

I would have liked to see Marcus spin that idea out a bit more – instead of passing over it in one paragraph.  The deadliness of God’s name?

I also found it disconcerting to be reading a novel about the toxicity of words.  Yikes!  Every little snippet of this story is deadly!  I suppose the only thing that would have been more unsettling would have been listening to this as an audio book.

For all my difficulty with the book, I’m glad I struggled through it.  I don’t recommend it for a casual reader or if you’re looking for a book to take to the beach.  But if you are willing to wrestle with his premise, struggle with syntax, you’ll be richer for the experience.  Just beware – in The Flame Alphabet, sticks and stones can break your bones.


J. Brent Bill is a writer, photographer, and Quaker minister.  He works at the Indianapolis Center for Congregations and is the co-author (with Beth Booram) of the soon to be released Awake Your Senses: Exercises in Exploring the Wonder of God.

C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com

Reading for the Common Good
From ERB Editor Christopher Smith

"This book will inspire, motivate and challenge anyone who cares a whit about the written word, the world of ideas, the shape of our communities and the life of the church."
-Karen Swallow Prior

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