Because the terms of propaganda, public relations and even cliché can be quite literally dangerous, language is often described as being ‘toxic’. The danger of such language is an indirect one, though – it always exists at one remove from the harm it causes. Would that this were so for the characters of The Flame Alphabet, Ben Marcus’s novel in which exposure to the speech of children causes adults to become so physically unwell that certain descriptions recall nothing so much as Edmond de Goncourt’s harrowing account of his brother’s last hours before dying of syphilis. As time passes, the language of adults becomes similarly toxic, people begin to die off, crisis is declared and the protagonist, Sam, finally arrives at Forsythe, a secret lab where he is charged with inventing a new, less toxic language. The subtext could not be a clearer manifesto for serious writers. A welcome change from the arrogant and retrograde certainty of Franzen and Eugenides, Ben Marcus is one of only a few American writers attempting to engage with the problem(s) of language.
Words: Kevin Breathnach