In Ben Marcus' new novel, The Flame Alphabet, language has become toxic. People weaken when spoken to and, later, even when they read. They lose mass, energy, and willpower. The symptoms are at their very worst when children (who are unaffected by the plague) speak to adults.
As the fever spreads, the novel's narrator, Samuel, leaves his family in pursuit of a cure. But his efforts are complicated: people have had to abandon communicating with one another, and an antagonist known as Murphy is introducing what may be misinformation about the disease.
The Flame Alphabet is a refreshing, energizing cloudburst of experimental fiction. Its narrative weaves several ideas and subplots into a taut strain of new mythology that addresses both the necessity and dangers of human communication. Marcus writes with clarity and economy, managing a vivid portrait of a world in which vagueness has settled over everything like a damp blanket and created a Twilight Zone-like atmosphere of dread and uncertainty.
Marcus appears at City Lights Books on Tuesday (Jan. 31) to discuss the book. He spoke to us by phone a few days ago.
The Flame Alphabet is about much more than a plague. But why are plague scenarios are so pervasive in literature and entertainment at the moment?
There seems to be a desire to produce bad dreams, and a desire to consume them. Are we rehearsing our endgame? Why are we fascinated by these things?
One argument is that entertainment has to continually escalate its terms in order to stay vital. Dramas get more grisly. Comedies get raunchier or weirder. So it's possible that literature is looking for a way to escalate, and so is looking at these apocalyptic scenarios.
I think I've always written a little bit outside of reality, and with a little bit of the texture of a bad dream -- something that isn't quite real, but is possible to imagine. That's always been an attractive territory to me.
The descriptions of the plague's symptoms are very vivid. Did you do any research into disease or terminal illness?
I didn't really research symptomology itself. Turned out I just had a knack for describing suffering, which isn't much to brag about. [laughs] But I got interested in reading about the history of medicine. And also about how drugs used to be developed and tested -- people testing on each other.
I also got into this website where people who are interested in longevity and maybe even living forever share vitamin and supplement regimens, and they post their blood test results and discuss how to live longer. They are extremely serious. They seem very educated about nutrition and science and longevity. They post all this data and recommend these enormously extensive blood tests. I was fascinated by this culture of people who sometimes experiment on themselves with drugs in order to be superhealthy.
In the household of the main characters (narrator Samuel, his wife Claire, and their teenage daughter Esther), communication between parents and daughter is dysfunctional in a way that is recognizable to many of us. How does this familial problem connect to the concept of a "language plague" as a hard-to-define fever that spreads across the country?
There were other choices. I could have had this speech fever visit a perfectly happy, well-adjusted, highly communicative family, and it would have been like a meteor crashing through their roof. But I found myself far more captivated with this notion that they already had a toxic language problem.
I'm drawn to the ways that family members can speak to each other. It's safer within a family, in general, to say the worst things, and get away with it. Some families do that as a matter of habit, and others are more buttoned up and don't just let fly at each other.
A long time ago, I was dating someone and I brought her to my parents' house for dinner. My whole family was in town and pretty soon there was some nastiness flying across the table. I didn't even really notice. But afterward, the woman I was dating was so upset; she thought the whole family was never going to speak to one another again. It made me realize, "This is sort of what we do. There might be some hate speech in the family, but we do love each other."
And that's because it's the kind of thing you can't do out in the world. It's not safe. You can't do it at work. You can't do it to friends, really. It happens because, in a family, emotional bad behavior can have fewer consequences. Kids can test out behavior on their parents because their parents aren't going to break up with them.
Also in the novel, information flows back and forth that is really unreliable and untrustworthy. There's little that Sam can rely on with confidence. Is all information that way?
I think it's harder and harder for any one person to verify in any real way anything he or she hears or reads. We need to trust our experts. We need to believe that experts in any field are delivering at least their best guess. I found in the novel that when language starts to make people sick and the doctors and scientists are first in denial and then are caught just sitting on their hands, this whole idea of "no experts" was really scary to me and really interesting -- the idea that individual people had to think for themselves and diagnose what was going on in the world. If you cut off communication when there's something going wrong, and all of our networks of understanding are gone, we're just isolated people who need to find information.
The novel's scenario of untrustworthy information seems very current. As I read, I kept thinking about the Internet as a place where information flows back and forth freely, and often it's completely unverified -- and maybe unverifiable.
Absolutely. We simply don't have the time or the means to verify the things we hear. In the book, the most compelling element of that has to do with the religion that Sam and his wife practice. They are out in this forest synagogue (a hut built only for two), listening to their rabbi through a complicated radio that's hard to maintain. They collect all of their religious guidance this way.
When I found that that system itself could become vulnerable and you might suddenly learn that your religion itself might not come from the place where you thought it did, these became interesting questions for me. I thought, "Well, what if we learn that it wasn't this prophet, but that one -- but that the content is the same? Would we care? Would it undermine our belief system?" Because what we feel that we know in terms of our own religion, or lack of religion, is important and personal. I found that if I poked at that idea, it seemed to create a lot of possibility in the story.