At first glance the premise of Ben Marcus' new novel is the secret thrill of parent and teenager alike, in a world where they can no longer tolerate each other. The leaving-of-the-nest in The Flame Alphabet takes place not with the conversion of a pink bedroom into a den or an all-night kegger; instead, children are infecting adults with a sickness that takes away their ability to communicate via speech or mime, wasting them away to withered mutes. Parents must abandon their children or face imminent death, and children are quarantined in camps for years before they too are affected by the sickness.
Marcus hints at the inner lives of society as it undergoes this upheaval—children joyfully hurting their parents in teenage sulks, parents a bit relieved to be done with childish demands—but this is one man's strange, thick-tongued journey. It's a novel that chokingly details the mad-scientist efforts of protagonist Sam as he seeks to find a cure for this mysterious disease, either through pouches full of medical smoke, salty tonics, and complicated wires, or through his mystical religious beliefs. In this otherworld of Upstate New York, "forest Jews" go to synagogue in secret, gathering in two-person huts in the woods to listen to spooky radio transmissions from a fleshy orange cable that snakes out of a huge hole in the ground. It's the quiet, quiet world of Sam's feverish perspective, filled with his experiments and half-understood theories about the death of language and thought. "Without a way to say it, there was no reason to even think it," he thinks in hollow despair.
The Flame Alphabet is claustrophobic and confusing and repulsive and ritualistic, like being plunked down in David Cronenberg's viscerally apparatus-filled film eXistenZ, or J.G. Ballard's Crash, or hiding out in the literary hobo wilds of Fahrenheit 451. But it's not without the dark humor of a good old-fashioned trip to the gallows, watching a sort of silently swinging effigy of human evolution, as Marcus smartly and intricately makes allegorical work of humans' clumsy attempts at communication and connection. And if that sounds grim... well, it is, but Marcus has created a very tangible and rich work about the end days of people as social creatures.