The Flame Alphabet may be the most disturbing book I’ve ever read. The fact that it is beautifully written only adds to the nasty queasy feeling one is left with at the end. The sense of being made complicit in a series of cruel acts. I’ve never read a book which contains so much that is wrong and off and weird in the most unpleasant ways. Oh, but it is brilliant.
The subject of the novel is language. When language becomes toxic and lethally unspeakable, unhearable, and unreadable, all relationships fall apart, and love itself becomes impossible. Society breaks down, and the post-apocalyptic world is characterised by an inhuman desperation to re-connect with one another. That’s a very basic summary of the plot. The strangeness of the setting, the twisted Heath Robinson-esque contraptions deployed by the narrator in his efforts to cure himself of language illness, the secret cult of the Forest Jews who listen to sermons through flesh-like ‘listeners’ attached to cables underneath the earth, the scripts and signs that are also diseased – this all makes for a very odd novel full of thematic richness. But the most disturbing elements of the book are to do with parenthood, with fatherhood, to be precise. And in many ways, the novel is traditional – it has a protagonist and a plot, a beginning, middle and end. Yet there is something absolutely surreal and estranging about the writing that washes you up somewhere very far from home.
This novel made me feel slightly sick, if I’m honest. I appreciate that this is a meta-message – language is toxic – but mainly, I just feel a bit ill.