Readers acquainted with Samuel Beckett, William S. Burroughs and Philip K. Dick know that each is a writer of literary importance. Their various works can be odd, funny, strange, frightening, unconventional and grammatically challenging. Imagine each contributing a portion of his artistic essence to be combined with that of the others. The result of such a creative mélange might very well be Ben Marcus, whose current novel, “The Flame Alphabet,” is a cauldron of narrative weirdness that crackles with menace and the pyrotechnics of language idiosyncratically limned.
Something sinister and corrosive has struck the land and precipitates an unraveling of human society. A sonic plague is withering away the health and vitality of adults. Children up to a certain age are immune. Indeed it is the very utterances of children that are depleting adults, who are defenseless against the toxic effects of words spoken or shouted by the young. A vague governmental system remains operative, peopled by anonymous, laconic functionaries whose bundled layers of protective clothing buffet the destabilizing onslaught. Nobody seems to know what is going on or why. Many adults reach a point where they are driven to desperation and abandon their young.
The tale’s narrator, Sam, and his wife, Claire, are the parents of Esther, a youth who for now is spared the insidious ravages of sound. The immediate presence of Esther and her verbalizations are like poison to her shaken and despondent parents. No normal family life is remotely possible when a young person’s mere vocalization visits pain and debilitation on those older than her. Relations at personal and societal levels become sundered as resentment, fear and hostility mount between the generations.
Sam relates the bitterness and misery of strained communication with his daughter: “I’d braved a conversation with her, counting on her angry silence, which she delivered with force. I asked her, nervously, to limit her speech, with every expectation of getting shouted down, of getting mocked by our skilled and vicious little mistress. She smirked off, sparing me any response, and in the following days she launched a campaign of sonorous gibberish whenever she thought we were in earshot, and that earshot was something harder and harder to escape.” Sam notes how a word once innocuous now takes on a singularly threatening charge: “Earshot. Such a very true word.”
The atmosphere of this bizarre tale is relentlessly grim. Some adults have deliberately exposed themselves to the threatening vibrations of children and are thereby destroyed: “They gorged themselves on the fence line of playgrounds where voice clouds blew hard enough to trigger a reaction, sharing exposure sites with each other by code. Later these people were found dried out in parks, on the road, collapsed and hardening in their homes. They were found with the slightly smaller faces we would routinely see on victims in only a few weeks.”
Everywhere there is decomposition and decay. Sam describes how the simple act of consuming food has been transmogrified: “The food burst into rotten morsels in my mouth when I ate. I thought I was chewing on skin, maybe my own. Frequently I spat sad things back onto my plate, and if I ate at all, I waited until Claire and Esther were asleep, snuck into the kitchen, and sucked on a rag soaked in apple juice, which offered cold relief.”
As the noxious epidemic amplifies, Sam embarks frenetically on his own project to find a cure or at least some remedy that might mitigate the enigmatic disease. His wife has become profoundly impaired by events. But Sam’s frantic efforts take on the dimensions of an unhinged medieval alchemist whose experiments and investigations are more the stuff of feverish dreams than anything remotely recognizable as rational, scientific probing. “I escalated my smallwork in the kitchen lab from solid medicines to smoke. Even if this succeeded to numb our faculties and kill off input, it would be the mildest sort of stopgap. At best I was buying us dark minutes, prolonging the stupor. At worst I was rushing us closer toward some highly unspectacular form of demise. If we were dying I wanted us to die differently.”
Adding further tension and paranoia to the nightmarish ambience is a menacing character named Lebov, who promulgates an anti-Semitic theory as a cause of the crisis. Sam and his family are Jews. “Lebov, by radio — broadcasting from a secluded location for his own protection — brought his diagnosis public, called out the toxic Jewish child. A disease seeping beyond its circumference, radiating from the head, the face, the mind.”
In 2005 “Harper’s Magazine” published a provocative essay by Marcus. Therein he states: “Some of us are attracted to writing that refuses the artistic assumptions of others. The result may be strange, foreign, remote, complex, difficult, but if a mind made it with rigor and care, with sensitivity, then it can be exquisite.” Seven years later with “The Flame Alphabet” Marcus ably demonstrates his steadfast commitment to explore the outer reaches of language and story. In so doing he has constructed a phantasmagorical tale that unsettles as much as it intrigues.