Wednesday, February 29, 2012

When children's speech becomes just too painful

Originally printed Feb. 9, 2012.

While my 5-year-old daughter and I were walking the other day, she seemed to be complaining less than usual.

She soon explained that she wasn't getting tired — even after nearly two miles — because she had learned the secret of how to keep going: just keep on talking.

"As long as I talk, Daddy," she said, "I make energy, and that let's me keep walking."

She was clear that this energy also depended on getting enough sleep and eating healthy food, but it was the talking, she stressed, that let her keep walking even when her legs hurt.

So I let her talk, and a flood of words came out. Some of them were questions I was expected to answer. Some of them were statements I merely was expected to acknowledge. Most of them were nonsensical chatter that I was supposed to walk through uncomprehendingly.

If I were a character in Ben Marcus's "The Flamee Alphabet," however, my daughter's gush of language not only would have left me unenergized, it also would have begun sapping my existing strength. Her carelessly uttered words, in fact, would have made me ill. And, if I would let her continue talking, it eventually would kill me — along with killing any other adult who was foolish/loyal enough to remain within earshot.

Marcus's novel joins a number of other recent literary "Twilight Zone"-like morality plays:

From Kevin Brochmeier's "The Illumination," in which everyone's personal pain gets displayed as light emanating from the body,

To Tom Perotta's "The Leftovers," in which the Christian Rapture occurs, but it takes a completely random sampling of people and leaves behind a world in stunned confusion.

But Marcus uses his plot device as an excuse to ruminate on the limits of language and on the sheer impossibility of true communication — especially between parent and child.

Add to that Marcus's delving into the mysteries of Reconstructionist Judaism, and "The Flame Alphabet" reads like an extended tale by Borges or a mystical, magical-realist, fabulist twist on George Orwell.

"A list of speech rules filled the inside cover," Marcus writes of a pamphlet describing how to protect yourself from the language toxin he describes. "... A list of rules so knotted that to follow them would be to say nearly nothing, to never render one's interior life, to eschew abstraction and discharge a grammar that merely positioned nouns in descending orders of desire."

The effects of the language toxin seeps into Marcus's finely crafted prose as well. His basic metaphor — that the language of children produces a wasting effect on their parents — is both so powerfully true and untrue that it becomes difficult (even painful) to linger too long in the world he's created.

"The Flame Alphabet" makes you long for your kids to stop talking long enough for you to hold them tight.

Opinion editor Jeff Charis-Carlon can be contacted at

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