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February 15, 2012 / schulerbooks

Schuler Spotlight: The Flame Alphabet

Children’s voices literally kill people.

They cause limbs to swell, blood to thicken and the very air to strangle adults that hear and understand them. Children, misunderstood and lashing out against whatever discipline might attempt to corral them, have gained the control of the situation and have instead begun to corral the disciplinarian.

The Flame Alphabet focuses on the lives of two parents who unknowingly cultivate and fester in the words of their beloved daughter. The reader is given a brief back story as to why children’s words can kill. Then, having come to the realization that absence not only makes the heart grow fonder, but clears up all of their maladies, the parents are off to the races trying to find a place that can live without fear, trying desperately to figure out how to combat something so extraordinary.

If bleak isn’t your thing, and you find yourself prone to turning away during even the less squeamish parts of The Walking Dead, then Ben Marcus’ The Flame Alphabet is not for you.

If, on the other hand, you became fascinated by the world brought to life in Cormac Mccarthy’s The Road, or have a fascination for the more dystopian side of storytelling then you will no doubt find something to like here.

Personally I find the frankness of the author’s presentation inspiring. The overall tone and language are established very early and by about page 10 you’ll know whether or not you want to continue.  Marcus does not mince words, and does not try to sugar coat the reality that he is trying to portray.

The ‘What If?’ of Marcus’ story (what if kids voices could kill?) is just a jumping off point where bad circumstances significantly darken. Parents hold their healthy children to their chests while they watch their own bodies quickly deteriorate. Whether he intended to or not Ben Marcus has written a manifesto on over-parenting and the need for the guardian to understand their role as that of a mentor that cultivates rather than one who emotionally suffocates.

The children who populate this story are the personification of over dramatized childish threats. The, “I hate you daddy” and “I wish you were dead” come to life. Though the dialogue is never so blunt, there is no question in the narrator’s mind and therefore in that of the reader’s that these children know exactly what they are doing, even from the start.

Parents and adults, their roles reversed with that of the normal child-parent dynamic, quickly become the blind leading the blind. They search frantically with their hands, feeling for answers, clinging to any sort of hope.

Adults, even with their vast combined wisdom, medications and technology are helpless. Their reactions to this helplessness range from hopelessness to acceptance. Some search frantically for a cure while others set up areas where they can go and use the sounds of children’s voices as a drug, poisoning their bodies in order to maintain some sort of high. Others, including the majority of reactors have refused to believe that the cause of their illness is their beloved child and pay the price for that denial.

Ben Marcus’ vision is ambitious. His goals, high and lofty. As a reader, I would hope for nothing less than that when dealing with concepts this bizarre or, in the end, this interesting. I won’t say that this book was a thrill-a-minute read, or that it attained Marcus’ lofty goals, but it brought in to sharp relief an author who is not content with doing what has brought him prior success. In The Flame Alphabet,  Marcus’ work is difficult and challenging, qualities that I admire much more than an author who just connects the dots.

-Jason, Grand Rapids


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