The Flame Alphabet
(2012), a dystopian novel by Ben Marcus, explores a world where children’s speech is toxic and lethal, and humanity must decide how far it will go to protect itself from obliteration. The book received widespread praise from critics although readers gave it mixed reviews. A bestselling, award-winning novelist, critics consider Marcus one of the most talented writers of the twenty-first century. He is best known for exploring intellectual themes in his work and challenging readers to think outside the box. His career highlights include serving as the head of the MFA writing program at Columbia University.The Flame Alphabet
considers what happens when communication, the most fundamental human tool, breaks down, suggesting that humanity dies the moment we can no longer communicate with the people we love. He leaves it up to us to decide if we agree with him. The book can also be read as a comment on the idea that it is important to bridge the gap between the generations so that we don’t lose touch with our elders or the children who are society’s future.
Samuel lives with his wife, Claire, and their daughter, Esther. Although he wants to be a good husband and father, it is not always easy. He takes comfort in Judaism, and he diligently follows the advice of his sect leaders. Unfortunately, religion can’t protect Samuel, or anyone, from the epidemic spreading through his town.
Whenever a child speaks, their voice and words poison the adults around them. If an adult spends too long around a child, they stop speaking and turn mute. Their faces shrivel and harden, and they eventually die. The child then moves on to other adults and kills them the same way. Now, the remaining town elders are taking a stand against the children and quarantining them until they grow up.
Samuel doesn’t want to leave Esther behind in a medical facility where he’ll never see her again. He wants to find a real cure for the blight on language. He asks his sect leaders for help and blessings. They give him an experimental new medicine to try. The medicine doesn’t seem to work on Claire, but it looks like Samuel’s immune system is responding to the treatment. He doesn’t weaken the way Claire does when she’s around Esther. This experiment gives Samuel hope that one day, they’ll find a cure that works for everyone.
Angry that she can’t spend time with Esther as Samuel can, Claire doesn’t understand why the treatment works for him but not her. The authorities arrive to take Esther away, but Claire refuses to let her go. They take Esther anyway and Claire vows to go after her. Samuel decides that there must be a reason why he responds to the treatment and Claire doesn’t. He heads for a research center where scientists can experiment on his blood.
The scientist LeBov welcomes Samuel to the facility. He warns Samuel that language itself is now toxic. Before long, no one will be able to speak anymore, whether they’re adults or children. If the scientists don’t find a cure now, the world will fall into silence. Samuel offers himself as a research subject.
Weeks and eventually months go by with little sign of progress. Samuel wants to see Claire and Esther to make sure that they are okay, but the scientists won’t let him leave the research center. They can’t risk losing him as a test subject because there is something unique about the antibodies in his blood. Powerless to do anything but wait, Samuel grows more frustrated with each passing day.
Samuel eventually tries to escape, but LeBov captures him and threatens to turn Claire into a test subject if he doesn’t do everything the scientists tell him. Samuel pretends to be cooperative so there is a chance he will see Claire again. When the scientists trust him, they introduce Claire to the facility and let Samuel spend time alone with her. Samuel knows that this is his only chance to escape for good to save his family, and so he convinces Claire to run away with him.
Samuel loses track of Claire on the road out of the facility and he can’t turn back. He makes for an isolated cabin in the woods where he promised to meet her if they were separated. Here, he waits for Claire’s return, but she doesn’t show up. He decides to use the time to experiment on his own blood to find a cure to the language sickness; he spends weeks perfecting the formula.
Once Samuel is convinced his cure works, he leaves the cabin and breaks Esther out of the research facility. Before long, the scientists steal her back again, and with no sign of Claire, either, Samuel sets up a religious shrine and dedicates his life to Judaism, praying that Esther is smart enough to find him again if she can escape the facility on her own. Samuel accepts that his life is on hold until his family returns to him.