Books

The Age of Wire and String: Stories

Jonathon B. Walter

The Age of Wire and String: Stories
By Ben Marcus
Knopf
October 2005, 144 pages


"Heaven: Area of final containment. It is modeled after the first house. It may be hooked and slid and shifted. The bottom may be sawed through."

-- Ben Marcus, "The Age of Wire and String"

That's probably as good a definition of heaven as has ever been written by any theologian, and yet the book it comes from might be one of the strangest and most baffling pieces of experimental fiction ever published in the United States. Calling this thing "fiction" is actually being kind; Ben Marcus's collection of alien yet strangely logical how-to articles and wild definitions stretches the definition of literature itself. The terms "how-to articles" and "definitions" might be awkward and ungainly, and in fact barely scratch the surface of what Marcus is trying to accomplish, but they'll have to do because nobody else seems to have any idea what to call this idiosyncratic, confusing and just plain odd piece of fiction. Even the publishers themselves seem split; the back cover proclaims it "a collection of stories" while the front cover, conversely, states it is "a novel".

What it resembles most is a kind of nihilistic Boy Scout handbook from another planet, or perhaps a post-apocalyptic Earth, where words no longer mean quite what they meant before. Marcus holds to the basic rules of grammar and syntax, sure (and thank God for that), but replaces certain nouns and verbs with different ones in specific places so that the reader is forever this close to understanding what's being said -- but not quite. The final effect of this over 140 pages is genuinely weird and unsettling; the word "dreamlike" is tossed around like confetti in book reviews, but this might be the first book I've ever read where a description of the prose might actually warrant its use.

The book's various pieces are split into sections with titles like "GOD", "FOOD", and "HOUSE", with a "TERMS" section at the end of each in which the various strange objects (and people) used as nouns in that particular section are defined just as strangely. The author even defines himself (three different ways), stating that the "Ben Marcus" is a "false map, scroll, caul, or parchment" or "the garment that is too heavy to allow movement" or "figure from which the antiperson is derived; or, simply, the antiperson." Some short pieces, like "Leg of Brother Who Died Early", have been suggested by some to be autobiographical, but that seems to be a rather desperate clutching for meaning seeing that the book's elliptical, unknowable language makes it impossible to assume anything at all.

To get more concrete, reading The Age of Wire and String is comparable to listening to a bearded psychotic complete with grocery cart and incomprehensible Xeroxed handouts rant and rave on a public street corner. In both cases, there's clearly some kind of logic to what's being said (it's not just random words), but damned if anyone but the person speaking can understand it. A sample: "When children sleep on these points of lawn, the funeral of air passes just above their heads in a crosswind with the body. Funerals generally are staged in pollinated wind frames, so that the air can shoot to the east off of the children's breath, dying elsewhere along the way, allowing fresh, living air to swoop in on the blast-back to attack the house ..." And the book generally goes on like that, at varying levels of comprehensibility and incomprehensibility, until it just…stops. There is no character development, no plot (and therefore no resolution), no situation, no theme, no real setting.

Only one section of the book courts, however obliquely, with a plot -- "The Weather Killer", which may in fact be its greatest moment, a disturbing collection of anecdotes ("The morning sun was loud, and they ran into the open and gouged at their ears with wire. He collected oil from broken drums and led them in prayer. A rag was found hooked on a tree branch. Men could no longer urinate and their hips blackened") that completely dispenses with the "handbook" language and uses simple third-person prose. While it is impossible to comprehend exactly what happens in "The Weather Killer" (the setting and characters, if any, remain oblique) the general feeling created is one of utter terror, destruction and pointless violence. To completely alter the meaning of words and still maintain a sense of impending doom is a real literary achievement. The obvious precursor to this kind of writing is Gertrude Stein, whose Tender Buttons (which gave us the infamous "Out of an eye comes research, out of selection comes painful cattle") went down similar avenues of pure linguistic musicality; but Marcus's attempt may even outdo hers in its uncanny ability to generate a feeling, a mood, using nothing but the beautiful and jarring sounds created by one word placed after another.

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