March 23, 2012
Ben Marcus’ story of heartbreak and violence
An epidemic that started among the forest-dwelling Jews — “genetic in nature … a problem only for certain people” — is spreading to other communities and threatening to impose an ominous silence upon the world. The culprit is the toxic language of children. This is the ingenious premise of “The Flame Alphabet,” a novel By Ben Marcus (Knopf. $25.95).
Marcus, the author of “The Age of Wire and String” and “The Father Costume,” is an inventive novelist, and “The Flame Alphabet” is no exception. Marcus brings to life, in startling details, an apocalyptic landscape (reminiscent of Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road”), a devastated community plagued by the lethal virus of language. Children are immune to their own poisonous words that ravage the adults, shrink their faces, harden their tongues, and shrivel their skin until they wither away. What is a parent to do under such circumstances? Abandon an only child and flee to safety? Or stay put and feast “on the putrid material because our daughter made it. We gorged on it and inside us it steamed, rotted turned rank.”
The narrator is Sam, whose daughter, Esther, is an angry teenager who seems bent on destroying her father and mother, Claire. Their only partial relief occurs when Esther is away or asleep and silent. Why Ester would harbor such exaggerated rage is not explained, alas.
Forest Jews live in an anti-Semitic world. They worship in hiding. Their synagogues are small, private huts concealed under leaves and branches, in which a “Jewish hole” with all types of conductive wires broadcast sermons. Sometimes the “Jewish hole” works, often it doesn’t. There’s a listener, too, some type of a wet, slimy contraption that must be kept humid and manipulated, or it will shrivel and become inoperative—make what you may of this metaphor.
In the end, a decision is forced upon the adults. The authorities impose quarantine and an evacuation is ordered. “Health officials counsel seclusion, even from loved ones.” Children are rounded up—“captured”—Sam and Claire attempt to sneak away in order to avoid the sight of their daughter as she is being “Trapped in a net, twitching from a jolt they fired at her.”
Sam finds himself at Forsythe, a concentration-camp-like place, where Murphy or LeBov, a frightful man, reminiscent of Hitler, is attempting to discover a vaccine for the language disease. Sam, having been assigned the task of inventing a different language to replace the toxic one, comes up with creative ways to accomplish this task without exposing himself to the virus, which has spread to the written word. Will he succeed and if so will it prove to be a cure?
A plethora of questions are raised. In particular, the importance of language in our lives, its necessity or lack of, its power to elevate or destroy: “There were only so many words you could stand before you were done.” A metaphor for life, perhaps, and a measure of our respective thresholds to bear pain, not any run of the mill pain, but the most damaging kind—pain inflicted by our own children.
The story is rich with metaphors, Biblical and otherwise: the Tower of
Babel and the breakdown of language, horrors of the holocaust—“Volunteer, test subject, language martyr.” Clair is hosed down at Forsythe as if in preparation to enter a gas chamber, children are required to carry name labels on their coats; Burk is involved in horrific Mengele-like experiments on children.
This is a brilliantly rendered story of heart-break and violence, an exploration of language, the costs and rewards of silence, societal and familial conflicts, the unconditional love of parents and, above all, whether it is possible to salvage a semblance of humanity when a community is accosted by an existential threat.
Dora Levy Mossanen, author of “The Last Romanov” and other historical novels, is a contributor of book reviews to The Jewish Journal.