Ben Marcus is a strange dude who writes strange stuff. The first book of his I read was "The Age of Wire & String," which anthropomorphized inanimate objects (a redundant statement, I know) into strange and surreal moments. I won't even pretend to have understood everything I read in that book, but on a surface level, I enjoyed the hell out of its playfulness and its willingness to breach boundaries of normative fiction, a trait I'm finding more and more necessary and required in the authors that I prefer to read these days. I'm not an anti-traditionalist, I've just come to enjoy books as puzzles to be mulled over and solved rather than simply read through from cover to cover. (See my review of Mark S. Danielewski's "House of Leaves" here (pt. 1) and here (pt. 2) for a book-as-puzzle.)
What we get in this latest work by Ben Marcus, "The Flame Alphabet," is something equally as surreal, but infinitely more readable. There is a more structured plot, more clearly defined and delineated characters, an obvious conflict (both highly emotional and highly physical), and a beautiful use of language in many places, which kept the story fresh for me.
I have read other reviews of this book that pan the use of time (moments jump around from now to then to when and back again in the first section without much of a marker to indicate them happening sometimes), but I found the jumps to be completely appropriate and realistic in the storytelling form. We begin the novel with the narrator, Samuel, and his wife Claire fleeing their neighborhood. Both are ill, but specifics are kept to a minimum. As they drive, Claire keeps an eye out for their daughter...not because they're trying to find her, to have her join them in their exodus, but to make sure that the last memory of their child is not one of her being black-bagged and taken away by the government patrols roaming the streets.
Then we backtrack to a more immediate past where Claire and Samuel are getting ill, but not understanding why until they send Claire off to camp for a week. While she's away, the two parents return to a semblance of good health. When she returns, so does the illness. Samuel soon realizes that their daughter is the problem, but doesn't seem to understand why. Esther's character is written as a strange parallel to the contagion; she actively argues and fights with her parents at every turn, utilizing a logic they can't quite seem to fight against. She is headstrong and willful in ways that beat down the parental psyche, ultimately breaking down both Samuel and Claire.
"She spoke to us and others, into the phone, out the window, into a bag. It didn't matter. Nice things, mean things, dumb things, just a teenager's chatter, like a tour guide to nothing, stalking us from room to room."
Another point of note is that they are a Jewish family, getting their sermons not from a normal synagogue, but from a small, hidden hut in the forests made specifically for them. The sermons are fed through wires and cables from an unknown source through a Listener, a strange organic kind of translation machine that sits on top of a hole in the ground that reaches forever deep. Esther is never allowed to join with her parents, however. Like most other Jewish families, the children have their own huts they supposedly go to in order to receive the Rabbi's message. These messages are for the listeners alone and they are NEVER to speak about them to each other, even if they listened to them together. The greater public begins calling them Forest Jews and wonders exactly how much more information they're getting about the widespread illness among the adults.
Murphy, a man Samuel notices one afternoon, appears to be a neighbor that makes Samuel uneasy. He doesn't seem to be Jewish, but hints at things one could only know through the specific broadcasts in the forest huts. Couple that with the fact that these missives aren't supposed to be talked about, and you've got Samuel not only uncomfortable, but incredibly suspicious of this new person. Over the course of the first section, as things get progressively worse, a strange connectivity blossoms between the two men. Philosophical musings on the nature of trying to find a cure highlight the nature of both men. Samuel seems to be the odd optimist where Murphy seems to be more nihilistic in his approach, having already tried everything Samuel is doing now.
"Failures have their place in our work," [Murphy] admitted, after hearing me out. "I've had my flirtations with failure. There is a small allure there. I commend you for seeking out failure so aggressively. But this idea people have of failing on purpose, failing better? Look at who says that. Just look at them."
By the end of the first section, we come to find out that Murphy isn't who he says he is, but possibly three or four other people of some notable mention. Samuel and Claire's hut is broken into, deconstructed by a "thief" while Samuel stands in the doorway and listens to him speak. We also watch as Claire and Samuel prepare to leave Esther alone in their house, spiriting away to places that may provide better coverage from the children causing whatever this spoken contagion is. The adults are dying, withering away, crisping, and familial bonds break, splinter, and shatter so that people can live.
If part one can be seen as the more emotional attack about the contagion, allowing the reader to watch as Samuel decides how he feels about both his wife and his daughter, then part two is most certainly the more rational, scientific (see: clinical) attack. It begins with the entire city overrun by "medical officials" corralling the adults out of town. They comb the fields and forests, making sure to leave no one behind. During the first few hectic moments, Claire escapes from the car and heads toward a nearby field where she is quickly scooped up and placed in a van. Samuel is made to leave the city without her, leaving with barely a shrug as to his wife's vanishing.
He travels across the state to Forsythe, which he finds out is a high school turned medical facility. Experiments are being done on language and he becomes a worker bee, trying to find a "script" that will allow for communication without contagion. After several days of doing his own experiments (for there are no directives or instructions given to him), he realizes that his purpose is to work towards a way of creating some kind of communication that doesn't cripple those around him. He muddles with cuneiform, different shades of text with different writing implements, code...until finally a result is shown to himself and the others.
It is also fitting that, in this clinical environment, the idea of personal touch becomes depersonalized, broken down into simple stimulus response passages. The "workers" at Forsythe simply tap each other on the shoulder when they want to have sex with someone, but it is a loveless, joyless sex, a coupling of withered bodies containing broken minds and stilled tongues.
"We may as well have withdrawn my emission by syringe. The glow of orgasm was so vague, I experienced it as a theoretical warmth in the adjacent wall, as something atmospheric nearby that I could appreciate, but that I myself barely noticed. When I reached climax with Marta, I felt the material vacate my body, which counted for something, but the accompanying gush had departed, relocating off-site. It might as well have been happening to someone else. Perhaps it was."
Eventually, Samuel comes face to face with the person in charge, who extorts the well-being of Claire (newly found and inside Forsythe) in exchange for Samuel's help getting to the hidden layers of communications being pumped through the orange cables at a Jew Hole in the basement. He does as he's asked, is given personal time with Claire, but then plans an escape through the Jew Hole. After realizing he has no way of getting closer to her, he leaves Claire to fend for herself in the compound.
Part three begins three years later. Samuel and Esther live in the old Jew Hole hut out in the forest. No one lives in the houses any more and the adults all wait outside the Child Quarantine areas, hoping either to exact revenge for the hurtful speech of years past or to find their children whom they've been separated from for so long.
It is this final act that, unfortunately, feels the least interesting. Hot emotion in part one, clinical studies and hypotheses in part two, but part three seems to be filled, ironically, with hope. After so much dark thinking and so many tongues hardened in the mouth from speechless years, this evocation of Samuel's hope for the future of his family is both ironic and sad, but seems to ring less true than the more surreal aspects of the book that came before it. But, the final part is mercifully short and does not, in my mind, ruin the book in any way.
I think the ideas proposed in the last few pages are appropriate in a way that isn't saccharine. It's too easy to write an ending that is over-the-top chintz and happily ever after. Marcus ends the book perfectly as a foil to the beginning of the book. Samuel's journey from start to finish is poignant and apt. At times he made me wish I could strangle him while other times had me praising his thought process. Overall, I would highly recommend this book, if only for the multitude of lines like this (from the end of the second section):
"What is it called when a dark, hard magnet has been run over one's moral compass so many times that the needles of the compass quivers so badly that it cannot be read?"