What happens when communication kills and familial relationships become toxic? Some serious shit, according to Ben Marcus. I loved "The Flame Alphabet" as much as it's possible to love something that causes discomfort.
First the prose - beautiful in a clipped, near emotionless sort of way. Marcus writes in the short-sentence style of Hemingway. The tone is flat and paints a picture of a dimming and grimming world. Sam's description of their neighborhood could substitute for his thoughts on language:
"Our neighborhood was chilled and flat and all green growth was gone. I loved it so stripped down and frozen. There was something sculpted to the shapes, as though our streets had been carved from ice, colored with pale dyes squirted from a dropper."
Sam - a father who struggles to communicate with everyone of any importance in his life - would love a language that's stripped down and frozen, one that gets him in less trouble and makes it near impossible for him to be in meaningful relationships with his wife and daughter. Everything's "smallwork" for Sam. And just as language represents a "crushing down" of mystery-laden reality into symbols more palatable to the reason-trained mind, the language fever represents a "crushing down" of relationships, inner worlds, and even bodies, hence the slang term for the feeling attached to being inundated with verbal or written communication - "The Crushing".
Marcus depicts a shrinking, claustropobic, atomized world where toxic language causes faces to shrink, families to disintegrate, adults to quarantine their children, religions to scrap the communal aspect, road signs to be defaced to the point of unreadability, and children to become expendable. Ethical debates run throughout the novel. How far should one be willing to go to maintain their ability to speak? What place does altruism have in a world where basic communication makes meaningful relationships nearly impossible? Theology plays an important role as well. Marcus includes scripture passages like "And they were killed with their own names" (Psalms) and "Beware your name, for it is the first venom" (Revelations) to emphasize the importance of language. I never could get the third commandment - "You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain, for the Lord will not leave him unpunished who takes His name in vain" (Exodus 20:7) - out of my head. And if I remember correctly, the ancient Jews were not permitted to say the name of Yahweh except during Yom Kippur, and that was only permitted of the high priest! Language took on a mystical, deadly quality for ancient people. Marcus plays with such ideas throughout "The Flame Alphabet".
I could go on for hours more about this book, but I'll stop here. I've only scratched the surface of what could be discussed. I really did love "The Flame Alphabet" in all its disconcerting glory. I suggest reading it on the couch with a loved one nearby, just to keep you grounded.