reviewed by C.J. McCarthy
|BEN MARCUS was born in 1967 in Chicago, received a BA in philosophy from NYU, then an MFA from Brown University. He has edited the literary journal Conjunctions, and has lectured in Creative Writing at various universities in the US. Although he has published in a number of American journals, The Age Of Wire And String (Knopf, 1995) is his first book publication. After a preparatory ‘Argument’, the book is divided into eight sections, as if for the sake of clarity: SLEEP, GOD, FOOD, THE HOUSE, ANIMAL, WEATHER, PERSONS, and THE SOCIETY. It sounds like some kind of anthropological manual, and that’s exactly what it is—a kind of user’s manual for life in the Age of Wire and String, which one does as well to dip into at random, as into an encyclopaedia, as to read from end to end.
And what an Age it is, one in which there are different versions of Detroit, in which 1983 happens more than once, in which rain contains beef seeds, in which an incomprehensible but strict legal framework for the consumption of food operates… In short, the reader can take the book either as an alternative catalogue of our own age or of an altogether alternative reality. Indeed, the reader regularly feels dared to read a great deal into this difficult, Cabalistic text.
AUSTRALASIA & ASIAEUROPE
Each of the eight sections consists of a number of phenomenological descriptions, written in a cool, pedagogical prose. But the reader has missed the start of the class and can never quite catch up, so that only a partial understanding of what is described is possible, with the reader being forced to make up the deficit. This might be frustrating—if not outright tedious—were it not for the fact that Marcus regularly uses the resultant license and ambiguity to comic effect:
SNORING, language disturbance caused by accidental sleeping, in which a person speaks in compressed syllables and bulleted syntax, often stacking several words over one another in a distemporal deliverance of a sentence.
These definitions are always presented in a dead-pan manner, to be received absolutely literally. Any metaphorical reading is the reader’s own.
One of the many ‘archetypal’ situations described in book involves an attempt to penetrate a ‘static-ridden corpse that once spoke familiar messages…’ Here the text might well be describing itself. The book hopes that it may be ‘the first of many forays into the mysteries, as here disclosed but not destroyed’ —concerned at the destruction of just these mysteries by ‘professional disclosers, who after systematically looting our country of its secrets, are now busy shading every example of so-called local colour into their own banal hues…’ This book, then, is concerned with restoring a sense of uniqueness and particularity to ‘the world and its internal areas.’ And it succeeds in audacious, unexpected ways.
Each section ends with a glossary of key terms, as though to clarify what has just been read. In one such glossary, The Age of Wire And String is itself described as the ‘Period in which English science devised abstract parlance system based on the flutter pattern of string and wire structures placed over the mouth during speech…’, thus hinting at the concern throughout with exploring such affinities as may exist between the most varied phenomena. However, the recurrence of these key terms throughout the text does not facilitate any coherent interpretation; rather, it provides a sense of some reality to which the text ultimately refers, but to which we can have little access. Given only fragments of that reality, our understanding of it is severely—perhaps irremediably—compromised.
This sense of distance is achieved by a style and structure which regularly follows nothing but the outward form of logic, reason, grammar and definition: ‘PALMER. System or city which is shiftable. A Palmer can be erected anywhere between the coasts.’ Even here, however, the vulnerability of definition is mirrored by the vulnerability of a moveable city; touches like these lend the text an acute air of unsentimental melancholy.
The effect is regularly one of a militant subjectivity, for which the accepted sense of familiar words has been lost. It is at once despite and because of the text’s efforts to explicate itself, particularly through the use of glossaries, that we can never feel confident of sharing in any community of meaning with the author. Indeed, the more terms are defined, the more obscured their meaning becomes, so that all the reader and author can share is an attempt to approach such a community, an inclination towards interpretation and understanding. That said, some of the definitions provide an unexpected clarity and pathos: ‘Your man can run, walk, sleep, drink, eat, and, of course, weep and die.’
Indeed, the deep sense of unease and melancholy with which the book is infiltrated becomes most poignant where the definitions are at their most familiar:
MOTHER, THE The softest location in the house. It smells of foods that are fine and sweet. Often it moves through rooms on its own, cooing the name of the person. When it is tired, it sits, and members vie for position in its arms.
The presence of such evocative interludes means that the book can never be dismissed as a Dadaist gambit. The opaqeness, fragmentation and disruption present in every line of the text do not so much distance any sense of loss and sadness as thrust and hold it to the very fore of the reader’s mind. That Marcus does this while simultaneously maintaining a wicked air of satire, parody, and vivifying tomfoolery is perhaps his greatest achievement: ‘When analyzed, the messages are often simple. Pull me out, they say, the water has risen to the base of my neck.’