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Book Reviews   |    
The Flame Alphabet

by Ben Marcus; New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 2012, 304 pages, $25.95

Reviewed by Benjamin Crocker, M.D.
Psychiatric Services 2012; doi: 10.1176/appi.ps.631205
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Dr. Crocker does various sorts of psychiatric administration in Maine while he waits for an opportunity to integrate himself into a primary care setting.

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I try not to buy books. Sometimes I get nonfiction tracts like Pharmageddon out of the library if they are too unpopular to be recorded for MP3 listening. The Flame Alphabet is the only book I have acquired in print of late. A whole page describes the type the book is set in. I find this suspicious. Much of the book imagines a toxicity of written symbols.

Allowing me to review a novel is like asking a teetotaler who long ago took a course in wine tasting to judge fermented beverages. The last time I did this for Psychiatric Services the book was like a film script in prose and featured the then-fresh technology of cell phones to accelerate plot development. That was as straightforward as a can of Bud. This time the task was much more complex, the drink heavy with a bitter aftertaste—not much sugar.

This novel has little plot, hardly any dialogue, and could not possibly be made into a movie. Although ostensibly set in the present, it takes place in a world stripped of almost all mass-produced consumer products and technology. The only thing approaching a system of communication is a network of buried orange cables that can be monitored only in some idiosyncratic organic fashion, if in fact the cables bear any message at all. Many theories about a strange contagion that is the starting theme of the book are mentioned, but they all lead nowhere until some possibly curative factor is extracted from children.

I pretended to study 20th century literary modernism in college, and William Carlos Williams, the doctor-poet, was my hero. He is the only modern literary figure to be named in this book; the original text that it paraphrases is something about no meaning except in things. That is as close as I can come to relating what this book is about: it is a description of a lot of odd things, places, and sensations to which I guess readers may bring their own meaning. If there are any ideas, they are embedded in the images and sensations described. There is no character development, nor are there really any characters. This book could be described as a series of impressionistic short stories or even poems.

For me, a minor magistrate of managed care trying to eke meaning and dialogue about children’s services out of primitive software, the absence of modern market technology or almost any kind of abstraction in this story is a fascinating negative presence and sets this book apart from the famous dystopian novels of the last century. This is a difficult, unfinished book, not an entertainment, but it has succeeded in sparking my interest in reading more fiction.

The reviewer reports no competing interests.




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