|Beautiful, retro cover|
The Flame Alphabet has one of the most impressive openings I’ve read in a new work of literary fiction for quite some time. Ben Marcus’s novel begins with a father and mother fleeing their home because their teenage daughter has become toxic to them.
Specifically it is the girl’s language which makes them both sick. And it’s not just her. In this dystopian nightmare, all adults are being made sick, and fatally so, by language, written and spoken. Children are mysteriously immune. It made me shudder.
As the pages crept by, however, I had my yes, but moment. Well, several. Toxic language? What were we getting here? Is this a genuinely interesting alternative future? Or middle aged angst about teenage slang, text speak and the verbiage of Fox News pundits? Of all the problems facing humankind today, toxic language sounds a bit too first world, a bit too hypothetical.
Who is Ben Marcus anyway? As the chair of creative writing at Columbia University he has become a champion of the experimental – and a critic of the novelist Jonathan Franzen for suggesting that literature should be fun and accessible.Marcus’ writing can be dense and occasionally difficult, but it is nevertheless interspersed with some genuinely inspired moments.
There are echoes of Orwell’s 1984. The narrator, Sam, is in the Winston Smith role, tormented by the figure of LeBov, a pseudo-scientist version of Orwell’s fascist O’Brien, eager to take advantage of the new reality. But while the elements are there for a challenging yet satisfying novel I found Marcus’s vision quickly became too deeply idiosyncratic and plain odd.I get it that this isn’t strictly sci-fi, more a thought experiment, but felt the book is undermined by the lack of anything resembling scientific fact, or, at times, coherent logic.
* This is an abridged version of my books column, in June 18 edition of The Big Issue