My favorite short story of last year was a New Yorker piece by Ben Marcus, "What Have You Done?," that never answered its title question. It related the homecoming of a 40-year-old man who traveled to a family reunion in Cleveland after a long self-imposed exile, only to find himself trapped again in the role of abusive son, unable to explain or even indicate how he had changed. No one understood him.
So it is unsurprising that Marcus was finishing a novel, The Flame Alphabet, about a plague that makes children's speech poisonous to their parents. It's a terrifically evocative allegory for generational hostility: In the book, simply hearing the words of anyone under 18 wracks adults with convulsive pain, causes sores to break out on their backs and their faces to constrict against their skulls, slowly shriveling their tongues in their mouths. They die in shrunken, voiceless agony. The book's narrator, Samuel, and his wife, Claire, are reduced to hiding in their bathroom with the faucets running, terrified of overhearing the teenage babble of their daughter Esther. "There was a soiled quality to her words," Samuel tries to explain, "something oily that made them, literally, hard to hear."
This is plenty of material for a book—though, unfortunately, it is not enough for Marcus. When he chooses to be blunt and explicit, The Flame Alphabet is a scintillating novel, but his avant-garde inclinations (Marcus is notorious for a 2005 Harper's essay that pitted experimental fiction as the great hope to defeat the banalities of Jonathan Franzen) lead him to abstract, alienating flights. Swaths of the text are nearly as unreadable as the written words that eventually cause seizures across the globe. (The toxicity of language extends beyond kiddie voices and even the aural, until silence turns the world's population "into a kind of emotive cattle.") There is also an extensive subplot of Jewish mysticism, involving the sermons of rabbis transmitted through a series of tubes under the ground, that reads like a congressman trying to explain the Internet. But it is brave of Marcus to attempt a novel set in a world after words: As Esther's family expels her to stay alive, this book has the dystopian queasiness of Terry Gilliam's Brazil.
The conceit also makes dialogue more precious for being so painful and rare. It helps that Marcus gives much of it to the best character: a hulking, redheaded, anti-Semitic scientist named LeBov. He is a kind of Bond villain of religious doubt, and his calculating corrosion of faith wakes The Flame Alphabet from occasional stupor. "Is there anything more basic than having people believe things?" he sneers. "There's not even that much artistry required. You should try it." It is an experiment Marcus is ultimately unwilling to conduct.
GO: Ben Marcus reads at Powell's City of Books, 1005 W Burnside St., 228-4651. 7:30 pm Friday, Jan. 27. Free.