Cover of The Flame AlphabetThe Flame Alphabet by Ben Marcus (Granta)

We all know how powerful language is, though we use it without thinking (much) every day. A misguided tweet can land you in prison; an internet troll’s comments can leave you physically reeling. In The Flame Alphabet, the experimental novelist Ben Marcus imagines a world in which language takes on a toxic aspect; at first, issuing only from the mouths of children, it leaves parents confused and sickened, whilst the kids rampage around the towns with their new found power, shouting down (quite literally) anyone who comes across them; the toxin spreads until even reading and letters themselves have an ill potency.

Marcus centres his story around a single-child family of “forest Jews”, Sam, Claire and their daughter Esther, who worship in secrecy in a hut in the woods. We are, it seems, in an alternative America, where technology has become a Cronenbergian extension of the body: they receive sermons and advice from orange cables that have a kind of life. Many moments in the book revolve around these cables; at one point, a desperate Sam fixes the end of one into his mouth in order to receive guidance. He doesn’t get it. Sam fixates upon finding a cure for the toxicity, testing powders and chemicals, all to no effect – in this book, individual power is nothing.

When the epidemic, as it is soon called, reaches pandemic proportions, all the children are evacuated and placed in quarantine. Sam wonders why there are no mythological precedents for parents leaving their children; he might have thought about some literary ones closer to home – John Wyndham’s The Midwich Cuckoos, for instance, in which a clutch of alien children cause havoc in an English village; or a recent horror film, The Children, in which young uns, infected with a mysterious disease, turn upon their parents. The idea of children as vehicles for pain is not a new one; there is a curious coldness to Marcus’s exploration of it. It’s almost as if, in his eyes, this toxic language is to be expected from the way that teenagers comport themselves with adults.

The adults are left to fend for themselves; some end up at a scientific facility that is run by the enigmatic LeBov, a character who releases enigmatic materials about the epidemic and is now engaged upon producing “the flame alphabet” – “a new code, new lettering, a way to pass on messages that would bypass the toxic alphabet, the chemically foul speech we now used.” It is on this that Samuel finds himself working for the latter part of the novel – although, as he soon finds out, in the absence of any communication it is very hard for anyone to know what they are meant to be doing there at all.

What Marcus has done, very successfully, is create a mechanical world that has the quality of a nightmare or an inescapable hallucination: it is as if he has superimposed another layer of reality upon our own. The writing is pared, clipped and lit with fluorescent bulbs; Sam, a frustrated scientist, views everything through a rational lens. There is little passion: “We coupled under the hiss of the module until Thompson’s broadcast kicked on” is how he describes sex with his wife early on; later, in the facility, sex becomes just a matter of rubbing together. Human relationships, complex as they already are, are rendered impossible by the lack of language.

This is all fairly obvious – what would we be without language? It is tempting to see an anti-technology fable in this novel, except that Marcus almost seems to relish the long lists of equipment: “medical salts and a portable burner, a copper powder for phonic salting, plus some rubber bulbs and a bootful of felt.” The strange, clinical movement of the words in this book doesn’t have the cumulative effect of toxicity; they are too burnished and metallic for that. Better, I think, to see it as a robotic parody of what humanity is – and thus, by contrast, it leaves us thankful for the smallest and most ineffectual of emotions. And whilst the individual does not exactly win out, in the end, there is still room for that most powerful of feelings – hope.