The Flame Alphabet

Ben Marcus

Artist Bio

In The Flame Alphabet, a terrible epidemic has struck the country and the sound of children’s speech has become lethal. Radio transmissions from strange sources indicate that people are going into hiding. All Sam and Claire need to do is look around the neighborhood: in the park, parents wither beneath the powerful screams of their children. At night, suburban side streets become routes of shameful escape for fathers trying to get outside the radius of affliction. With Claire nearing collapse, it seems their only means of survival is to flee from their daughter, Esther, who laughs at her parents’ sickness, unaware that in just a few years she, too, will be susceptible to the language toxicity. But Sam and Claire find it isn’t so easy to leave the daughter they still love, even as they waste away from her malevolent speech. On the eve of their departure, Claire mysteriously disappears, and Sam, determined to find a cure for this new toxic language, presses on alone into a world beyond recognition. The Flame Alphabet, which was published by Alfred A. Knopf in January 2012, invites the question: What is left of civilization when we lose the ability to communicate with those we love?

Award Year


Ben Marcus

Ben Marcus

New York, NY

Ben Marcus is the author of three books of fiction: Notable American Women, The Father Costume (with images by Matthew Ritchie) and The Age of Wire and String. His Creative Capital project, The Flame Alphabet, was in January 2012 by Alfred A. Knopf. Marcus’s books have been published in Japan, France, Italy and England, as well as in the United States. Marcus’s fiction, essays and reviews have appeared in Harper’s, The New Yorker, The Paris Review, The Believer, The New York Times, Salon, McSweeney’s, Time, Conjunctions, Grand Street, Cabinet and BOMB. He has received a Whiting Writers’ Award, an award from the National Endowment for the Arts, three Pushcart Prizes and the Morton Zabel Award for innovation in literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He is the editor of The Anchor Book of New American Short Stories, and for several years was the fiction editor of Fence. Marcus is an Associate Professor and former Chair of the Creative Writing Program at Columbia University’s School of the Arts.