After reading the first few pages of The Flame Alphabet, it's easy to see why this is the case. There's nothing propulsive about it, and the syntax is jarring. (Sample, representative paragraph: "Far above the work site, birds rode thermals inside the Jew hole space of Forsyth. The most gorgeous birds I've ever seen.")
In spite of its alienating language, the book has an irresistible premise: the sound of children's speech has become lethal. When adults hear it, they weaken and cough up horrifying fluids. Their faces and
tongues mortify and shrink. Then they die. Marcus's best trick — and it's a great one — is to fabricate this bonkers premise with common language arranged in original ways, thus generating a grinding dissonance that disoriented me from the first page to the last.
TONE POEM Marcus's The Flame Alphabet is unique, continually surprising, and often flat-out disgusting.
What's more, Marcus has a message. The narrator is tasked, in part, with forging a new alphabet, one that won't have the same deleterious effects on those who use it. The English majors among you will have already figured out that this is a metaphor for the author's own efforts to break free from the moribund conventions of contemporary American realist fiction. Reward yourselves accordingly.
Reading through Marcus's many elegiac descriptions of everyday speech causing small-faced, small-minded citizens to shudder their last breath, I got the sense that he might be angry with the way this whole literature thing is playing out these days. This is a healthy anger, one I began directing at myself about midway through the novel. Around the time I started thinking of The Flame Alphabet as a very long tone poem, I began to enjoy it and found myself questioning the need to understand or relate to what I was reading.
The tenets of modernism dictate that real literature needs to be difficult, otherwise it's kitsch. I'm no unreconstructed modernist, and I'm not going to tell you that Marcus's novel is good precisely because the dribbling masses wouldn't touch it with a 10-foot pole. Rather, I'm telling you to read The Flame Alphabet because it's unique, continually surprising, and often flat-out disgusting. There is nothing Marcus enjoys more than writing about leaking bodily fluids and foul-smelling air "like the rank breath of people who've been buried alive." He writes sex scenes that can put you off sex forever. Objects are often encrusted in sputum or shit.
It's so hard for fiction to evoke genuine disgust in this topsy-turvy Human Centipede world of ours. More often than not, gross-out imagery in literature is played for laughs (cf., Sam Lipsyte's Home Land: "How's bathing at knifepoint in the phlegm of the dead? Is that a feeling?") or for scary horror (cf., Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian: "All about her the dead lay with their peeled skulls like polyps bluely wet or luminescent melons cooling on some mesa of the moon. In the days to come the frail black rebuses of blood in those sands would crack and break and drift away. . . . "). Marcus's work is a strange mélange of winking horror and disgusting horror, a funnier, more cerebral H.P. Lovecraft with all the biliousness and claustrophobia that implies.