Saturday, October 27, 2012

The Flame Alphabet by Ben Marcus

Communication is poisonous

Sam and his wife Claire are getting sick. Their faces are "shrinking" and their bodies are wasting away. The voices of children seem to be poisonous, in particular, the malicious responses of their angry adolescent daughter Esther. Some combination of language or communication or comprehension is releasing a noxious chemical. Like a mad scientist, or homeopath, Sam tinkers in the basement, searching for a cure. Things change for the increasingly desperate Sam when he meets the red headed Murphy, a neighborhood loiterer who takes a suspicious interest in the Jewish families in the neighborhood.

The novel begins somewhat realistically, then the reader gradually discover that Sam and Claire are "forest Jews", who visit a shack deep in the woods to listen to fairy tales and nursery songs from a "Jew hole" buried in the floor. The revelation of this extremely odd world was wonderfully done.  The sentences are beautifully carved and the strange imagery is fully imagined. Mountains of salt drift across America.

The novel is well balanced, with a Part I and a Part II, and a short little Part III. However, overall, this one might have been a little too cerebral for my taste. In the middle, Sam's attempts to develop an antidote to the wasting disease got repetitive and boring and I very nearly gave up. It was lots of pages about some guy sitting at a desk fiddling with homemade machines and letters and script and I grew tired of him. Can't we have a sense of beauty or joy or a laugh or two?

There is an uneasy mismatch between the essential silliness of the thriller plot, such as the cackling dialogue of the super villainous villain, and the extreme seriousness of every character we encounter. Although I am glad I didn't bail on the book because the last part became emotionally moving as we returned to the family story. Sam's hope is the only thing that sustains him at the end. But hope is there.



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