The Flame Alphabet

Ben Marcus

Published: 2 May 2013
Paperback, B Format
129x198mm, 304 pages
ISBN: 9781847086242


A terrible epidemic has struck the country and the sound of children's speech has become lethal. Radio transmissions from strange sources indicate that people are going into hiding. All Sam and Claire need to do is look around the neighbourhood: In the park, parents wither beneath the powerful screams of their children. At night, suburban side streets become routes of shameful escape for fathers trying to get outside the radius of affliction.

With Claire nearing collapse, it seems their only means of survival is to flee from their daughter, Esther, who laughs at her parents' sickness, unaware that in just a few years she, too, will be susceptible to the language toxicity. But Sam and Claire find it isn't so easy to leave the daughter they still love, even as they waste away from her malevolent speech. On the eve of their departure, Claire mysteriously disappears, and Sam, determined to find a cure for this new toxic language, presses on alone into a world beyond recognition.

The Flame Alphabet invites the question: what is left of civilization when we lose the ability to communicate with those we love? Both morally engaged and wickedly entertaining, a gripping page-turner as strange as it is moving, this intellectual horror story ensures Ben Marcus's position in the first rank of American novelists.

About the author

Image of Ben Marcus

Ben Marcus is the author of The Age of Wire and String, Notable American Women, The Flame Alphabet and Leaving the Sea. His work has appeared in the New Yorker, Granta, Harper's and the Paris Review. Marcus has received a Whiting Writers' Award, a Berlin Prize and a Guggenheim Fellowship. He is on the faculty at Columbia University in New York. More about the author


The Flame Alphabet drags the contemporary novel kicking, screaming, and foaming at the mouth back towards the track it should be following’ Tom McCarthy



The Flame Alphabet's magic is its unsettling otherness, its weird beauty, the energising effects of its associative power’ David Annand

‘A genuinely new thing in an age of recycling. Is the novel history? Not while people like this are still taking risks on it’ Tim Martin, Books of the Year

‘A sci-fi disaster-movie plot with a determinedly cerebral twist. Marcus offers a vividly realised dystopia, and it's an impressive feat of imagination (and, of course, language)... jump in if you want your brain stimulated’ Cathy Dillon

‘A story with the potential to wound, to shock, and to horrify’ Adam Langer

‘A terrifying modernist masterpiece’

‘A thoughtfully written, clever tale’ Lesley McDowell

‘An authentic meditation on the sacred cruelty of communication that will leave his readers speechless’

‘An engrossing story that is both an intelligent exploration of what is left of life when verbal communication breaks down, and a thrilling story about survival at all costs’

‘Ben Marcus is one of the rare inventors in our literary language.... His [stories] can enchant and wreck your mind’ Jonathan Lethem

‘Brilliant and disorientating’ George Pendle

‘Echoes of Ballard's insanely sane narrators, echoes of Kafka's terrible gift for metaphor, echoes of David Lynch, William Burroughs, Robert Walser, Bruno Schulz and Mary Shelley: a world of echoes out of which the sanely insane genius of Marcus somehow manages to wrest something new and unheard of. Feverishly turning the pages, I felt myself, increasingly, in the presence of a classic’ Michael Chabon

‘Formally inventive, dark and dryly comic ... The Flame Alphabet has the feel of an event’

‘Gets into your head and under your skin and stays there’ Josh Cohen, Books of the Year

‘I assure you that Marcus' chilling vision will haunt you long after his novel ends’

‘I want the English language to do things it hasn't done before, and I want American fiction to do things it hasn't done before, and I want to be in a state of arrest at the moment of gazing upon a page of text, and Marcus is one of those very few writers who can do that’ Rick Moody

‘It's wickedly funny, but also a brilliant, eccentric horror story’ Kate Saunders

‘Larded with creepy metaphors, the author's own wayward language destabilises the reader's sense of linguistic propriety’

‘Marcus has created a disorientating masterpiece. You'll never look at words in quite the same way again’

‘Marcus is the rarest kind of writer: a necessary one. It's become impossible to imagine the literary world without his daring, mind-bending and heartbreaking writing’ Jonathan Safran Foer

‘One of our most audacious and inventive writers catches fire in this thrillingly subversive book’

‘One of the most powerful works of fiction I have ever read... a revelation and a castigation’ Stuart Kelly

‘Part-fairy tale, part-horror story, part-literary dissection of these: a mutant worthy of the best experimenters’ Jonathan Gibbs

‘Strange and moving and endlessly fascinating, this novel is yet another of Marcus's wicked triumphs’

‘The most unsettling novel of the year... It looks from a distance like a sci-fi dystopia but is, in fact, far more interesting than that’ Nicholas Lezard, Books of the Year

‘To people who just want to read a good yarn and who think Ben Marcus is too weird for them, I'd say: Think again . . . The novel can operate on multiple registers: as metaphor, sociology, conventional thriller, and, at bottom, discourse on parenthood and family that is freakishly sad and incredibly good’

‘What I found fascinating about this book, after its remarkable premise, and the cold beauty of its prose, was my own reaction to it. I can put it no better than to say that this book got to me... A masterpiece’ Nick Lezard

‘What Marcus has done, very successfully, is create a mechanical world that has the quality of a nightmare or inescapable hallucination: it is as if he has superimposed another layer of reality upon our own’ Philip Womack

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