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The Flame Alphabet by Ben Marcus
Photograph: Chiara Marinai

Review: The Flame Alphabet by Ben Marcus

A kinetic and harrowing near-future turns youthful speech into a fatal weapon.

By Drew Toal
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By Ben Marcus. Knopf, $26.

Words can hurt. Whether it's in the form of a cutting remark, a wince-inducing pun or the contents of a particularly heartless breakup letter, language is often used to inflict irreparable psychological violence. In the world of Ben Marcus, though, it causes a more visceral, physical level of harm than that which even we speech-cursed humans are accustomed. In The Flame Alphabet, Marcus's new novel, people of the world are learning to cope with a new and terrifying reality, where the spoken word decimates human life in a verbal apocalypse. (It helps to picture David Lynch's film adaptation of Dune.) The only ones immune from this bleak Oxfordian future are the children, and these prepubescent motormouths are wielding their newfound power with virtual impunity. It's Lord of the Flies meets Kids Say the Darndest Things, and the adults, like Marcus's protagonist, are doing everything they can to survive the New Word Order.

The Flame Alphabet is in some ways the culmination of a project Marcus started with his 2002 book Notable American Women. In that book the author turns a fictionalized version of himself into a guinea pig for an all-female cult known as the Silentists, who are working to purge all emotion from their lives. Like that book, The Flame Alphabet sparkles with the same kinetic intensity of his kindred spirit in the realm of dark and quirky near-futurism, George Saunders. (The real Marcus, with his nimble command of the language and fearlessness in using it, would surely not belong in his own fictional world.) And, as the survivors retreat into their silent, solipsistic shells and humanity is reduced to pucker-faced, shuffling cadavers, the reader may very well feel an overwhelming urge to pick up the phone and call up someone—anyone—for a nice, nonlethal chat.

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