An Epidemic of Words
Can The Flame Alphabet Make You Sick?
Ben Marcus's fiction has always felt vaguely sinister. It looks and reads like English, but you can't get very far into it before a bizarre word choice flashes from out of nowhere and sideswipes you. Then everything starts crawling: Sentences slither sideways, and a strange cadence unlike the usual galloping rhythm of most prose develops; it's like an extra hoof is somewhere under there, adding an unsettling extra metronomic beat that you can never quite identify or get used to.
Consider the second sentence of "Snoring, Accidental Speech" from his collection The Age of Wire and String: "The snoring person can be stuffed with cool air to slow the delivery of its language, but perspiration froths at key points on the hips and back when artificial air is introduced, and thus the sleep becomes sketchy and riddled with noise." In this sentence, the sideswipe comes with "stuffed," a perfectly acceptable but bizarre verb that brings to mind asphyxiation as readily as oxygenating. Then the sentence canters off crookedly into the idea of snoring as "language," a person as an "it," and perspiration that "froths," landing in a cockeyed explanatory riff that sends your brain reeling to find purchase. Are you reading a how-to guide? A fiction? A prose poem? Something else? Yes, yes, yes, and yes! respectively.
Marcus's new novel, The Flame Alphabet, is the story of what happens when language transforms into an epidemic. Words are making people sick. But not all words—adults only develop painful, flulike symptoms and start slipping toward death when they hear children speaking. Marcus's perverted grammar, written in his deliberate, loping voice, makes you wonder, in some superstitious corner of your brain, if his alien prose can infect your body on a microscopic level, change you fundamentally from what you were before, somehow weaken you. While reading, you become infected by a quiet inner monologue of concern for your own health.
The Flame Alphabet begins with Sam, our narrator, packing a bag full of "sound abatement fabrics" and "enough rolled foam to conceal two adults," along with "a raw stash of anti-comprehension pills, a child's radio retrofitted as a toxicity screen, an unopened bit of gear called a Dräger Aerotest breathing kit, and my symptom charts. This was the obvious gear."
In the middle of this improbable list ("medical salts," "a copper powder for phonic salting, plus some rubber bulbs and a bootful of felt"), we realize Sam and his wife, Claire, are evacuating their home. And then the novel's first sentence—"We left on a school day, so Esther wouldn't see us"—becomes clear. These are parents abandoning their child, fleeing their home, and running for their lives.
Marcus's prose descends on the reader like a sickness. Everywhere, we hear about "foam-clad officials" barricading children from adults in "a heavy coating of white noise" and people "draped over" their "radio modules," desperately listening for signs of hope. When Marcus isn't cloaking his characters in pillowy folds of scratchy foam, he's dusting the landscape with powders, salts, and chalks. This is a vocabulary of fever, of bodies not functioning the way they should. If you were to strip a sex scene of everything biological, you'd probably come up with something like this:
Claire stretched long and I covered her. Beneath me, even clothed, she felt bony... We worked the messy connection by shifting clothing... The moment of insertion was abrasive, but... we settled into a dutiful pursuit of pleasure, sharing the labor as equally as we could.
Sam winds up at a laboratory, joining others in an attempt to cure the language epidemic. Communication isn't allowed—even a hint of sign language will get you "subdued" by the guards. ("A blanket was tossed over my hands and someone bowed before me, head averted, and squeezed my wrists so tightly I fell.") Since nobody can talk, the research is slow-going, and probably futile. Sam tries to invent a new language, but he believes his efforts are thwarted by the facility's inscrutable authority figures. He conducts linguistic experiments and explores the origins of language, shaping "letters with yarn, hieroglyphs with yarn... in the minimal spatter of contemporary shorthand." His tests become increasingly bizarre and pointless.
Finally, he discovers a heretofore- unrecorded Hebrew letter that has a particular power—it doesn't make him sick to contemplate it. (In this ruined world, people become ill whenever they think of language.) Sam reflects that the opposite of illness is not wellness but apathy:
My gag reflex was not triggered. I felt a mild revulsion and that is all. This is what I wanted. It is what our old poisonous alphabet must look like to an animal. Unpromising, of no interest... When I studied the letter, looked at it from every angle, I was indifferent, unmoved. I just did not care. This was, if you'll accept the phrase, a breakthrough.
The idea of language as a sickness is nothing new. The excellent low-budget linguistic zombie film Pontypool, based on the novel Pontypool Changes Everything, recently explored the idea, but the Patient Zero of this concept is William S. Burroughs, who famously declared language to be a virus. It's an inexact but potent bit of symbolism—viruses are autonomous creatures that were here long before humanity and will remain long after we're gone, while words are a transitory, deeply human creation that will last only as long as civilization does—and Marcus, with his core-deep hatred of sentimentality, sees it through to its natural conclusion. The resulting novel burrows deep into your brain and radiates waves of nausea.