Nate D's Reviews > The Age of Wire and String

The Age of Wire and String by Ben Marcus
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's review
Mar 21, 2012

liked it
bookshelves: read-in-2012, stories, surrealism, dalkey
Recommended to Nate D by: dog, mode of heat transfer in liquids
Recommended for: If you rush the eye, they can't sight-stop you
Read from March 14 to 21, 2012

Ostensibly a sort of anthropological self-description from the depths of a baffling society, this is a series of mytho-scientific descriptions of mundane and maybe much-less-mundane phenomena in the most alien ways possible. Marcus has a couple tools for this. First, running against the claim that this is a culture describing itself, he has a kind of terminal outsider-confusion where everything, even normal things, are utterly unfamiliar and so described in garbled manner. (My favorite wikipedia pages have this baffling quality, as in this old definition of "sock": "A bag-like covering of the foot.") The second, and even trickier part of this, is that Marcus has entirely re-written the language on his own terms, so that many words have new and difficult meanings. Some of these are given in pseudo-scientific glossaries, but some seems not intended to be unravelable.

This starts off as breathtakingly weird and fascinating. The anthropological note gives way to a section called SLEEP, and the brief opening passage-story "Intercourse with Resuscitated Wife", instructions on how to restore energy to dead household appliances, once the center of the home is an abscence, via ceremonial necrophilia. Like the best of Blake Butler's writing, this seems to be a hallucinatory reconstruction of an all-too-familiar sense of human loss. It's fantastic, eerie, sad, absurd. Here, let me just transcribe the whole thing, it'll take less time than to talk about it:

Intercourse with resuscitated wife for particular number of days, superstitious act designed to insure safe operation of household machinery. Electricity mourns the absence of the energy form (wife) within the household's walls by stalling its flow to the outlets. As such, an improvised friction needs to take the place of electricity, to goad the natural currents back to their proper levels. This is achieved with the dead wife. She must be found, revived, and then penetrated until heat fills the room, until the toaster is shooting bread onto the floor, until she is smiling beneath you with black teeth and grabbing your bottom. Then the vacuum rides by and no one is pushing it, it is on full steam. Days flip past in chunks of fake light, and the intercourse is placed in the back of the mind. But it is always there, that moving into a static-ridden corpse that once spoke familiar messages in the morning when the sun was new.

Anyway, there. See? It's amazing as poetry or whatever, it makes a kind of internal sense, and it seems to point to things we know.

Not everything in this book is so identifiable, or so self-contained. Some of vignettes in The Age of Wire and String are stand-alone perfection like this. "The Food Costumes of Montana", for instance, is a totally comprehensible history of the evolution of sustenance-as-attire compressed into a single day. Weird, but funny and entertaining. These are terrific, by the way, for reading aloud.

Later, there's a long story that might be about a young boy trying to carry on family processes alone in his house after a disaster, without really understanding anything. This one is far tougher to pin down, but again, it's self-contained at least. It defines its own terms and has a progression within itself, even if we only have partial access.

At other times, perhaps mostly, in fact, the book seems like the anthropology text it claimed to be, interconnected unintelligible descriptions, maybe of everday phenomena, tapping a consistent set of words given new meanings. I'm sure some of this at least could be unraveled or decoded, but most of it stays outside my grasp. The tricky part is that some of this may not be possible to unravel. Because it seems like the actual content of a lot of these, in fact, is the language itself, the weird word-appropriations on the page. Or a kind of science-writing madlib with all the important bits replaced with something else entirely. Which are also fun to read aloud, playful and bizarre like good surrealist automatic writing (except, I suspect, quite systematic in this case). The problem is that I can't necessarily tell which exist just as words and which have something behind them I should be excavating. And this indecision makes it tough to invest a lot of effort in close-reading.

With all of this different material, it's hard to know what to make of this, as a whole. It claims to be "stories" but often is treated as a novel, and I suspect it's actually something in between: A bunch of disparate parts, often composed separately for different goals, housed together in a deceptively organized fashion to create an impression of a single whole, when what we actually have is a few wholes, maybe, and then a bunch of other parts jumbled about it.

Of course, this is all my surmise. Maybe it actually does have a very rigorous order to it. But if this was the point, why make it so hard to extract? And if this should be taken as a series of fine individual moments -- some stories, some word experiments -- why not be clearer on which is which? Actually, no, I take that back, maybe that confusion, where word experiments can be dissected as stories and vice versa, is interesting in its own right, allowing the reader to restructure this book as desired, to draw a wider-range of personal meanings than any author could actually intentionally construct. But is this sort of thing being done? By readers? That's up to us, I guess.

And so, I like this. It's original, strange, new, and occasionally manages to form itself into excellently balanced confusing-intelligibility. But it's also tricky, maybe deceptive, can become totally mind-numbing, and does not go out of its way at all to work with the reader. I base this not only on my own experience, but on the fact that of all the positive reviews of this book I've seen, everyone seems to agree that it suggests meaning but that they have yet to figure it out. Which is a pretty fascinating space for a work of writing to occupy, but also a something of a limiting one, ultimately.

Apparently this is the "hardest" Ben Marcus. He has two novels since then which I hear are still weird, but rather more rewarding to dissection. Plus they're novels so I can actually work with the expectation of a cohesive whole, which is the important piece that seems most missing to me here.

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Nate D New theory: could these, or the origins of these, be carefully touched-up Markov Word Chains?

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