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The Age of Wire and String

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In The Age of Wire and String, hailed by Robert Coover as "the most audacious literary debut in decades," Ben Marcus welds together a new reality from the scrapheap of the past. Dogs, birds, horses, automobiles, and the weather are some of the recycled elements in Marcus's first collection—part fiction, part handbook—as familiar objects take on markedly unfamiliar meanings. Gradually, this makeshift world, in its defiance of the laws of physics and language, finds a foundation in its own implausibility, as Marcus produces new feelings and sensations—both comic and disturbing—in the definitive guide to an unpredictable yet exhilarating plane of existence.

160 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 1995

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About the author

Ben Marcus

64 books445 followers
Seemingly the most conspicuous aspect of Ben Marcus' work, to date, is its expansion on one of the most primary concerns of the original Surrealist authors -- perhaps most typified by Benjamin Péret, husband of the acclaimed painter Remedios Varo -- this being a very deep interest in the psychological service and implication of symbols and the manners by which those symbols can be maneuvered and rejuxtaposed in order to provoke new ideas or new points of view -- in other words, the creation of, in a sense, conscious dreams.

While Marcus' writing plays similarly with the meanings of words by either stripping them of their intended meaning or juxtaposing them with other words in critical ways, it also abandons the 'experimental' nature of so much of the Surrealists' writing for stories that describe human psychology and the human condition through a means that has in later years become notably more subjective and sensory in nature than that used in the broad range of fiction, both 'conventional' and 'nonconventional'.

The surreal nature of Marcus' work derives in part from the fact that it comprises sentences that are exact in their structure and syntax, but whose words, though familiar, appear to have abandoned their ordinary meanings; they can be read as experiments in the ways in which language and syntax themselves work to create structures of meaning. Common themes that emerge are family, the Midwest, science, mathematics, and religion, although their treatment in Marcus's writing lends to new interpretations and conceptualizations of those concepts.

Marcus was born in Chicago. He attended New York University (NYU) and Brown University, and currently teaches writing at Columbia University where he was recently promoted to head of the writing MFA program. He is the son of Jane Marcus, a noted feminist critic and Virginia Woolf scholar. He is married to novelist Heidi Julavits.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 182 reviews
Profile Image for Glenn Russell.
1,356 reviews11.8k followers
January 11, 2023

Astonishing, unique, endlessly fascinating.

In a Fahrenheit 451 world, The Age of Wire and String is my book.

Oh, how I relish every single sentence. Here's how Marcus the Ben begins:

"This book is a catalog of the life project as prosecuted in the Age of Wire and String and beyond, into the arrangements of states, sites, and cities and, further, within the small houses that have been granted erection or temporary placement on the perimeters of districts and river colonies."

Welcome to an alternate reality. Welcome to language hallucinating as magic theater. Welcome to an entire culture performing flips on a high wire without a net.

Wire and String - a catalog produced by a narrator I’ll call Marco. Marco appears to be a slightly confused recent arrival to this astounding age and culture where all is new to him, thus much of his descriptions tend to not only to be a tad jumbled but the age’s life and culture are filtered through the alembic of his own highly original, personalized language.

Wire and String contains a prologue and eight chapters with such headings as Sleep, God, Food, Animal. Since so much of the beauty of Marcus the Ben's book revolves around the exactitude of language, I'll zero in on one entry, Air Trance 16, by linking my comments to the five sentences that constitute this piece:

"If the motion of wind were to be slowed, as weather is slowed briefly when an animal is born, we would notice a man building and destroying his own house."

That's curious logic, Marco. Are you telling us in this land of strings and wires, an animal's birth causes a change in the weather, specifically a slowing of the wind? And such a slowing of the wind causes, in turn, a man to build a house only to destroy it? If so, we must drop our usual categories of reason and logic and open up to this stringy wire age following its own bizarre-o laws. By extension, applied to this novel, sounds like Marcus the Ben is asking us as readers to shift gears from our routine perceptions, to take seriously Marco's words in the prologue (Argument), where he notes "the outer gaze alters the inner thing, that by looking at an object we destroy it with our desire, that for accurate vision to occur the thing must be trained to see itself, or otherwise perish in blindness, flawed." In other words, gang, hang easy, dangle loose and let alternate reality take over.

"If we speak to the man through a dense rain, our speech is menaced by the DROWNING METHOD, and we appear to him to be people that are angry and shouting."

Ha! Ten years after Marcus the Ben wrote these words, he fired off his Harper's essay, a reply to Jonathan Franzen and other stiff, uptight self-appointed guardians of the conventional. Hey, Franzen, you're creating a dense rain, a DROWNING METHOD, so dense my books are reduced to little more than anger and shouting. No you don't buddy! Rather than running after popularity and fame, literary writers should be free to be inspired and enriched by the depth and texture of language and write in ways that expand a reader's horizons.

"If my father is the man we are looking at, he will shout back at me, protecting the house with his hand, and his voice will blend with whatever weather he has decided to create in the sky between us to form a small, hard animal, which, once inside me, will take slow measured strategic bites."

Sounds like a dose of the oedipal inserted into the mix. Beware the father power capable of changing the weather so a small, hard animal can form inside Marco (his skull? heart? gut? balls?), the critter methodically chomping away. Ouch!

“The animal’s eating project will produce in others the impression that I am kneeling, lying, or fading in an area of total rain, taking shelter behind my upraised hand.”

Not only does father cause the destruction of Marco but Marco is totally dehumanized, one pathetic, powerless dude in the eyes of others.

“Since they will be standing above me, the people will need to request special powers of vision, which will be immediately granted, in order that I appear in slow, original colors, viewed from any possible perspective, chewing with great care at my own body while the house gets smashed behind me.”

Echoes of Shirley Jackson's The Lottery transformed via alternate reality into a kaleidoscope of slow motion death complete with background of structures shattering and splintering pancake flat. Where's the wire and string when they're needed most?

Does this mean Mortality Marco? Fortunately not. After all, Air Trance 16 is catalogued under Sleep, as in sleep perchance to dream, even if his sleep takes place during the age of wiry string. Marco the fresh foreigner moves on to his next adventure and then composes a glossary of terms for the Sleep section (Marco provides a glossary for each of the eight sections). An example of one of the terms for Sleep:

JENNIFER The inability to see. Partial blindness in regard to hands. To jennifer is to feign blindness. The diseases resulting from these acts are called jennies.

In all, should we say The Age of Wire and String plays with satire, parody, dry humor, black humor, lampoonery, mockery, absurdity, insanity, foolery, all mixed together and served up as Saturday morning cartoon capers? We could but we will not.

More important to say The Age of Wire and String counts as a breathtaking tour de force of language and imagination. For, after all, as Marco Marcus Ben puts it: "I'll clean out the bird and put the hair in it so Monk, the dog, and the others who were smashed and put behind it can dress up again, and we can be on the hill and pour the weather bottle on one another."
Profile Image for Joshua Nomen-Mutatio.
333 reviews878 followers
May 1, 2012
Fuck everything. For my purposes today, this is less a nasty hyperbolic command about coitus and more of a two-word summation of a somewhat complex suite of contradictory and powerful human yearnings. A yearning to tell the Universe to go fuck itself while at the same time demand that it hold you close to its motherly bosom and make all the bad things go away. A yearning to differentiate oneself from the dull hum of the world at large, to have the throngs fall at your feet and acknowledge that you--a living, breathing, eating, shitting, growing, decaying multicellular machine with a world of thought boxed inside--exist. A yearning to destroy yourself for regularly finding the phrase 'Fuck everything' ensnared in the stupid agony of your thoughts. A yearning to just feel better in general instead of worse. Fuck Everything reaches from base to ornate, from oceanic deep end to thin mud puddle. Fuck Everything can feel both cathartic and suffocating, depending on the millisecond that it arrives. Fuck Everything takes on the form of suicide, mass murder, futile depression and drug abuse cycles, and, even more commonly, both terrible and magnificent artwork. I think Ben Marcus captured a slice of Fuck Everything in his debut publication that cycles through all of this but ultimately leaves me impressed and satiated.

I've already described the basic point of view that Marcus brings to the table in a review of Notable American Women as "often comparable to what a visitor from an indescribably foreign world might see; or perhaps how another terrestrial species, if given the ability and/or desire to commune with our grammar and vocabularly, might describe what takes place amongst we humans." I think this can be applied here as well but with even more emphasis on the alien quality. The Age of Wire and String is an inexorably strange take on the commonplace. Tying in further to the sense of it being written by an extraterrestrial outsider, it's written as a series of clinically-removed indexes and glossaries and case studies (i.e., stories). I often got the sense that some sort of hum drum suburbian environment was being described in the most bizarre way possible, but it's often so impenetrably strange and made-up seeming that one will probably never feel such closure about the True Intent of the author. I found it all exhilarating at first, but soon enough got worn down by its unrelenting strangeness and would require a break from it for a while. It was not something I could read straight through in a single sitting.

I've read a fair amount of experimental fiction but honestly this is by far the most uncompromisingly weird book I've ever read. And not only is it weird but you can really sense the amount of careful cognitive labor that went into it, unlike some 'weird' books that just take a bunch of odd things and slam them all together into a mush. This is far more inventive than that. It's a sort of carefully constructed world of the best, most original sci-fi, but with the plotless, abstract spirit of Old Time Surrealism all filtered through a young writer trying to do something truly different.

It's alternately infuriatingly and joyously confusing. I found myself laughing at or along with certain overwrought descriptions. I found myself stunned by the lengths that some of the depictions continued to go into the uncharted wilderness of the word. It's a largely emotionless work on the surface, but this can generate an interesting mix of emotions in the willing and capable reader if they collide with it at just the right moments. For the most part, I found myself in the midst of such serendipitous collisions.

The books that would eventually follow this in the Marcus oeuvre maintain some of the clinically-removed, Fuck Everything quality that I enjoyed in this, but allow some of it to be shed and replaced by things more recognizable and warm. In Notable American Women you can dig through the bizarre layers of symbol and object-fetishization and find an autobiographical family drama, and this is even more pronounced and well-balanced in The Flame Alphabet. I picture all three books on a continuum of increasing accessibility, or lined up as a three-circled Venn diagram measuring cold strangeness and warm familiarity--the balance was way off on this one, but seeing where it all led to makes me feel more forgiving towards its flaws.
Profile Image for MJ Nicholls.
2,022 reviews4,067 followers
December 11, 2011
Regard the mushroom people: their Vauxhalls are emblematic of an anti-inflatory ecosystem. To decode their literature, commit the following procedure. [1] Insert a zucchini into the Upper Ventilation Shaft, taking time to scalp the rogue dripping insidious seedpeople. [2] Suggest a mode of dance for the staplers. Do not describe their weevils as disrespectful. You risk criticism from the unholy arc of M.J. Nicholls—a disgraceful cannibal among the pigeons. [3] Caulk the skirting boards of the Shadek Temple for the arrival of Prince Edward Island, the foremost performers of foul-mouthed Scottish indie. When the sky tilts upwards, regard this review as a rather obvious parody, and scoff at grade nine, then torch the weak badgers: their sides are green. Fire a warning shot at the rich and overly educated author, Mr. “Ben Marcus,” and perhaps comment on his producing a work of such slick literariness after his five million dollar private education at Brown etcetera. Retract this comment as sour grapes or dour skates. When all is over, regardez-vous the debut as sub-Italo Calvino and dismiss it with a cavalier contempt, then go looting for peachier literary treasures amid the salt.
Profile Image for Greg.
1,109 reviews1,843 followers
March 5, 2010
Ben Marcus infuriates me.

I had safely dismissed him as the type of writer I didn't enjoy, but then in the current issue of Tin House he wrote a jaw dropping, throw yourself down the stairs, amazing story; so I had to go back and give his older work another shot.

I'm not quite sure what these stories are supposed to be achieving. I think they are not 'stories' per se, but just parts of a whole that is only being partly exposed in this book. Every so often there is a great line or a glimmer of an idea but then it would disappear again from me.

Now I'm ready to blame myself, I'm not giving this work enough energy. I've read it less than ideal circumstances, I need to be a more active reader, etc., and that is probably true. And I've tried, a couple of stories I re-read a few times, and I tried to unpack lines and see what was going on below the surface with absolutely no success. But then I'd get to feel really stupid when I see the gushing blurbs about how amazing the book is and that it's a work of genius. Maybe it is, but I have no idea what the fuck is going on, or what is being achieved. And to tell you the truth I'm not sure I even care enough at what Marcus might be doing to give this work, or Notable American Women the energy needed to make sense of it.

What I've been thinking of since starting this book is part of the forthcoming book about David Foster Wallace. At one point he talks about avant-garde fiction and how it's too much like contemporary poetry, in that it's only being written for other writers of the genre. And later he talks about the changes his editor suggested in Infinite Jest, parts that were going to be very difficult for readers that were cut on the logic that by making a certain scene easier DFW was given a debit of sorts to make another scene more difficult, that parts of the book would take work on the readers part, but there had to be a give and take between the author and the reader.

I've thought of this and in relation to this book, and realize that for me at least there is no give on the authors side. Ben Marcus isn't giving me anything in this book, instead it's like I'm expected to do all the heavy thinking and putting together the mess of convoluted imagery to make something coherent out of this, but without having any kind of promise that there is anything worthwhile to be made out of all of this. Seriously, at times I felt like I was reading a bad version of Derrida or Lacan trying to explain the everyday world but in the most obtuse and confounding ways.

I worry that my annoyance at this book just shows how dumb I really am. If any of my goodreads friends who have given this four and five stars (especially the five star people) would like to explain what I am missing here I'd really appreciate it.
Profile Image for Nate D.
1,583 reviews997 followers
May 29, 2017
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.

Profile Image for TK421.
556 reviews260 followers
March 21, 2012
Perhaps I bit off more than I could chew with this one. I mean, I like me some experimental fiction, but this was the kind that aggravates me more than enlightens me. Allow me to elucidate. Ben Marcus is a genius, no doubt. But the pieces collected in THE AGE OF WIRE AND STRING seem to me to be little more than random thoughts jotted on a piece of paper and then followed by a brainstorming period of writing down whatever comes to mind. Again, I can appreciate that…if its intention brings me somewhere, anywhere. These pieces were really all about navel-gazing…jeez look at how clever I am. Or, perhaps I missed the point entirely. That is not out of the realm of possibility.

I guess it comes down to this: Experimental fiction can be wonderful (Barthelme, Barth, Borges, Selby Jr, Joyce…and many others) if the intent is to illustrate a point (I am willing to contend that these authors make a point in their writings); but when experimental fiction goes into the category of Figure Me Out (Finnegan’s Wake, Barry Yourgaru’s A Man Jumps Out of an Airplane…and many others) it gets tiresome for me, even if somewhat enjoyable.

Take a chance with Ben Marcus, you’ll be hearing a lot about him in the future, methinks.
Profile Image for Marc Nash.
Author 19 books341 followers
October 13, 2020
you can let the words and language here wash over you as if you are in a wondrous hot tub, having the lexemes lick at your skin and gently massage the subcutaneous tissue. Or you can begin to feel mounting paranoia of the relentless jets of bubbled water buffeting and barraging you as if trying to dissolve you entirely. depending on your temperament and predilection, this book will either offer you up its delights, or have you hurling against the wall. I can't take responsibility for this review ensuring the happier of two said outcomes.

The book presents itself as some kind of alien report on human culture. But either the alien intelligence can't quite penetrate the connections between things and the relationship of cause and effect; or they can, but are stymied by the structure of their language and ability to organise their observations using our foreign terms. So what you get here is a series of conflations, whereby images are ripped from their familiar frameworks and soldered together with something rather discordant. So for example the opening chapter conflates sex and resuscitation of a dead wife with powering up household devices such as toasters. Food is treated as an outcrop of textiles, so that a map drawn upon an animal skin supposedly indicates the points at which food can be located according to the very grain of the animal pelt. Which is close to the truth but not quite nailing it. God is conflated with the weather, which again is not so wide of the mark when you consider early religious pantheons. The enunciation of names equates to generation of actual power, which again is a wonky version of what was once believed by mankind. Elsewhere the words we speak, when not construed as formed by the reverberations of wire and string draped across the mouth, are also conflated with weather systems. Tattoos are contraband ways of smuggling films on the skin, which again a tattoo could be read as a cartoon, but also is so wide of the mark.

There is no code here to be penetrated I think. That's why you either just go with it and let the words lap you like an incoming tide, or you blow your brains out at the exasperation of it all. Yet there is an increasing narrative legibility. By two-thirds of the way through, our non-human observer is able to string together coherent sentences that follow one after another in a logical fashion, even if the internal content of each sentence is still jumbling up its connections and images. The observer is moving towards narrative, towards putting together a block of story-relating text by the penultimate chapter. It's very sly indeed. However for me, the biggest reward was in reading the glossary of terms after each section - just as jumbled up, but a boiled down pith of what Marcus is doing here throughout. In a way, this book could easily have just been the glossaries and it would still have yielded the same amount of recoverable meaning. Some of the 'definitions' were an absolute delight. Whole microworlds of superstitious belief and metaphysics contained in so few words. Indeed there are times when sections of the text read as abstract and abstruse as a religious enchiridion.

So ultimately what is this book for? By which I mean is it worth the read? Well apart from the uniqueness of the experience, I think it possesses a validity in what it does with language if you're interested in that sort of thing. It's noteworthy that the book is short enough not to drag in its opaqueness. Here are our own logics reflected and refracted back to us through this text, showing us up to be absurdly non-rational beings in our habits, practises and behaviour. This is how alien we must seem to a, well to an alien. Ben Marcus has pulled off the not insubstantial feat of being a human writing about seeing humans from a non-human perspective. The aliens have assimilated our lexicon and basic rules of grammar, yet they are producing virtual nonsense text in order to set down their analysis of us. Our language lets them down. Possibly because it seems alien to them with all its subtle shades and ellipses, that is you need to be human to use our language correctly. Or else the language itself is so self-reflexive, that for all millennium of effort, it remains a poor tool for examining and casting light on ourselves, let alone its opacity to a different species.

Heady stuff. Over to you now. Look into, well not your soul, but your central processing chip and decide if you want to spare the necessary RAM to fence with this book.
Profile Image for Cody.
506 reviews182 followers
October 9, 2021
Art, great Art, tasks us to think beyond the narrow shutters we self-impose upon ourselves via our accepted form(s) of reality. Anything that pushes against these borders is too often disregarded for non-conformity to our understanding of aesthetic beauty, qualifications of form, etc. As a result, certain instances of art, defying the social convention, fly by us unmolested by thought through the sheer determination of our own willful ignorance. The great Art? On vine, dying.

But sometimes you just gotta call bullshit when you see it.

Look: I’m not going to say that The Age of Wire and String is entirely without merit. First of all, I only play a critic on TV. Secondly, there are passages that really are very effectively evocative and quite lovely (even when they’re disturbing, there’s a passivity to the prose that renders them harmlessly so—like scarecrows). Marcus clearly has a faculty for language beyond measure, and his framework is rather original: an anthropological cataloging of ethnographic detail regarding some animist American terror-verse simultaneously imagined, actual, and near-distant. But here is where I quibble (‘cause quibble I must).

When the book is ineffective—which is more often that not—it’s just alphabet soup. I love language experiments as much as the next beret-wearer, but sometimes Marcus is pulling it out of his ass and charging the reader to assign whatever subtextual symbolism they can to it. Sure, why not? I like a good stroke of the ol' goatee now and then. If you don’t find all that much below the surface, the deficit is certainly with you, not the work. So when THE CLOTH EATERS are scarfing down bolts of linen and THOMPSON is pulling a JENNY when clearly a DAVE would be crushing food between its buttocks, if you don’t see that it’s all meticulously-crafted symbolism and commentary upon the American obsession with materials and possession then, man, where you been hanging out at? The YA section? Come on: if you don’t dig it it’s because you don’t GET it. There’s no other possible explanation. Because that would, y’know, mean that plenary endorsement by the GR stroke-o-sphere would be wrong. And that can never, never happen.

(Rounding up to 3, despite my better judgment, due to some winning passages, but more to ward off the pitchfork and torch-bearing Goodreader’s that trouble my dreams. I can’t afford another castle to hide away from the villagers in. I believe the term is 'cash poor.')

(Shout-out to Sofia for making sure I was properly armed with the correct "assumptions" before reading. Otherwise, I probably would have read the dang book upside-down and backwards! Remember, folks: never meet Art on its own terms—always "act under assumptions.")
Profile Image for Kevin Holden.
Author 6 books56 followers
March 18, 2008
This is the most exciting book of fiction I've read in a while. It makes me really, really happy. At the (very) start I was resistant, as it reminded me of a lot of contemporary work (poetry) in which "stuff," it seems to me, is just made "up." But as I kept reading, I realized it was much stranger, much more lovely, much more thoroughly imagined. I keep thinking of a blend of: Calvino, Lisa Robertson, and Wittgenstein. The invention is like Calvino, as is the world-building activity, and the language is sort of like Robertson, or Silliman plus Cortázar, or Stein. As for Wigwit, I think this would be a great exampledocument of another form of life: not SO different from our own (the grammar has many similarities), but different. The differences in lexicon *imply* a very different grammar, of which the reader gets strange glimpses. (Which are, as glimpses, partial.) So it's "uncanny," the unfamiliar in the familiar, or vice versa. It's a text of another world, as it wer'r'r, one that is coherent, but at the edge of our understanding. And it's very beautiful. As people have noted, there is not much normal narrative. But (I think) that works well here. And there's so much more... Anyhow, yay yay. Yay.
Profile Image for L.S. Popovich.
Author 2 books322 followers
February 14, 2021
A subversive set of things, diagrams, words, playful sounds squeaked out of pregnant silences, ideas leaping off cliffs like lemmings, and all winding up in a hovel of unremembered foreboding. An odd feeling encumbers me throughout the perusal of this book-thing, and the fangs of demons fall from between pages blackened with geisha dribble, and the haunting silhouettes of dreams extruded through cheese graters, and the fossilized rain of embittered ghosts wafting from sizzling skylights of the mind. A weird catalogue of brazen experimentation. A colored-outside-the-lines-mommy embarrassment. A gross exaggeration. A shaggy-dog-manifesto. An Ogden Nash prose poem spaghettified across 160 tie-dyed pages, tinted with humor, infused with wrath, infected with the unrecognized memes of the future. Sadly, sifting through the myriad layers of dense chortle yields only a smattering of friable ideas. It sounds good in the mouth. It's a big old glass house with manikins in it. It could be just me, but it only makes sense when you're standing in the puddle, drowning your toes. As soon as you look up from the dream, the magic has vanished.
Profile Image for Phil.
35 reviews12 followers
August 18, 2017
The third generation of smoke builders wove bean sprouts into sky frameworks. Though the annals of the dirt cobblers explain these actions as worship of Winston, veterans of the Soup Wars still surviving in dusted-light suspension tanks tell a different story. The Winston worship story is only a husk covering the truth inscribed on the sides of seedling cattle. These husks protect our swarm walls from the errant cable swings set in motion by cloud goblins. When they make these attacks, the goblins are said to be "jennifering". In truth, the bean sprout frameworks provide an alibi for Joe to scratch his ass. As long as the bubble-blowers in the balloon baskets refrain from painting their daughters silver, Joe will be able to scratch his ass and chew dream putty at the same time. The chowder reservoirs remain safely hidden as long as the fat kids keep juggling. Pete doesn't know this, but then again he's goating the suspension bridge, so Paul will be able to pick his nose before the tornado mafia publishes the seventeenth volume of its ecclesiastical history of the fried chicken architects. We press a towel to the wall to hear the powder imps telling henrys to the salted angels. Those manning the roast beef catapults are oblivious to this, embedded as they are in the resonant striations. The pastry fields are safe tonight, as they crawl over disturbance walls natalied with bead smilers (so of course the rustic negative lava spaces shield them from the flamingo-angled flying quonset huts of the donkey council's nest of martini bugs).

I can keep going like this. Where's my advance?

I like experimental fiction and absurdist what-have-you as much as anyone, but this particular experiment failed miserably. I think Ben Marcus read Bruno Schulz and some of William S. Burroughs' cut-ups, felt really excited and eager to write, smoked an enormous joint, then said to himself, "Fuck it. I'll just do some Mad Libs." Or maybe he just watched this.

The food references that I parodied are actually there, though they begin to drop off about halfway through the book in favor of pseudo-scientific treatises on aspects of the world Marcus is attempting to create. This sort of thing can work. In fact, it's the kind of thing I probably tend to enjoy more than a lot of people. I like to aestheticize representations of data. This can be done most easily with visual representations—tables, graphs, charts, etc.—but it can also be done with text in a non-visual, perhaps quasi-synaesthetic way. I get a kick out of reading scientific, philosophical, and technical papers, and selectively ignoring content while focusing on the formal relations of their constituent parts, as if they made up some kind of conceptual analogue of an abstract painting. Obviously, when the "data" is completely bogus, this is even easier to do. But Marcus doesn't even make a real attempt (repeating nonsense and glossing nonsense in terms of more nonsense doesn't count) at giving even a vague sense of internal structural consistency to these "stories", so I wasn't even able to get anything like this out of them. Granted, this is a a pretty bizarre criterion on which to judge a writer's work, but as I read the book I was looking for some way, any way, to bridge the gap between the author's undeniable stylistic skill and creative imagination, and the impression that he was just dicking around and stringing together a bunch of empty statements, hoping that dressing them up in the language people associate with narrative or history or science would conceal the dearth of ideas. But crap served up on a silver platter is still crap.
Profile Image for Adam.
407 reviews139 followers
May 2, 2017
Most texts this outre are absorbed without a plop, why did this one make such a splash? Rather than spend a few weeks researching the historical context, let's just read the damn book again. It's all grown up now, with two decades of debate and acolytes and detractors in tow. Does anyone remember dodecaphony? It is much much older, yet to this day it will still clear a room of Music Lovers quicker than a fire alarm. Thus it is with experimental writing and Book Lovers. How do we know what we're hearing if there's no theme, variation, and development?! How can we read without characters, plot, and setting?! And so, whenever wherever whatever The Age of Wire and String is, we come again as children upon the as yet still vacant scene of desire-in-formation wondering, What the hell is happening... and why do I like it so much?!

Since knowledge and enjoyment are mutually exclusive, the only method by which to pursue bliss (not pleasure!) is experimental, the etymological root of which--ex peri--means to risk peril, failure, and death. It does not seek to gratify expectations and promises no success except perhaps that of surviving the journey. Language is stretched on the rack until in ecstatic dismemberment it gives up its ghostly secret. The recalcitrance to habitual modes of one-to-one signifier/signified relationships culminates in an unsettling, limitless abundance. Of reliable parameters we have none. The near-epiphany (shades of Lot 49) is made a formal principle. Absurd offshoots and tendrils of the everyday take shapes that might as well be everyday, and this little book--which is precisely as long and difficult as it is short and sweet--is one of many replies to Miz Maas's plaintive query, "Shall I project a world?" Pledge allegiance, chew the cloth, suck the stone, what's the difference?

No one can convince you to "like" the book, but such an opinionated pass/fail verdict delivered without undergoing the trial of understanding is inadmissible testimony. And in fact, if I may be so bold to hazard, the struggle to wrest sense from nonsense using only the psychical appurtenances we drag with us like a slug trail from history and bring to bear on the infinite manifold of contingent appearances and sensations IS the point of Marcus's work. It demonstrates in literary terms a tenet of modern psychoanalysis: all cathexis is phantasmal. To do so the text mimics the cherished devices of allegory and metaphor but perversely overloads the circuits of signification. This slim offering is surfeited with necessary excesses, which does not always succeed but is the only path to success worth commemorating. By vigorously eschewing singleness of index the plenitude becomes omni-potent, capable of anything as long as its fragile vibrancy remains cloaked in allusive tones. At work is a scrupulous sabotage of causality and syntax, the superstition that named things are thus and language corresponds to the way things are, that utterance and intent and meaning are One. The form is actually familiar; all the august keywords of literature are here but pried loose. It speaks of forebodings and hope, of creation and purpose, but the contents are utterly alien. Which begs the question: would we be the same sentient, desiring, finnicky creatures if the deck of matter in our lives were as shuffled and redealt as Marcus depicts? The MO is not simply to tell the same old story but in a sententiously “difficult” manner, so that once one discovers the secret code all the mysteries are unlocked and there is left only the desultory task of deciding whether to like or dislike the content. No, it is a total reimagining. And very, very funny. There will be no Rosetta’s stone or Stuart Gilbert to explain how and why “this means that” because the interpretive work is its own reward. It is only as difficult as the dichotomy between work and play or seriousness and childishness is rigid.
Profile Image for Steven Peck.
Author 27 books220 followers
September 9, 2012
An amazing book! For the first half of it I kept expecting to find a key, that would translate all the concepts into those from our world . . . a 'this is really this' so that I would get a translation back to the world I knew. When I realized this was not coming, I settled into it and allowed the world to manifest itself on its own terms. It was an amazing ride. I had to read it slowly because taking it in all at once gave too much at one time, there was something lyrical and poetic that seemed to demand slow attention. Too much seemed to overwhelm my brain, but still, it's going down as one of those necessary books.
Profile Image for Richard.
Author 1 book39 followers
October 31, 2022
This reminds me a lot of the Codex Seraphinianus , and to some extent the wonderfully strange (and unVance-like) early Jack Vance short story The Men Return. Also, some British readers might remember a guy on TV called “Professor” Stanley Unwin: I always wished Unwin had written a book, and if he had—a sort of textbook, with diagrams—it might have come out something like this too. There are any number of ways of interpreting it; at the top of page 188 are five lines which talk about the devising of “an abstract parlance system” in an era during which the very meaning and usage of words became uncertain, and a number of newspaper book-reviewers in particular have picked up on that.
   To me what it reads even more like though is post-apocalypse, the aftermath of some surreal disaster. People, buildings, whole landscapes, the weather—all seem to have been, not destroyed, but more sort of stirred or blended together. Page 189 (“The Great Hiding Period”) talks about a time when most people retreated underground, while those who had remained at the surface “…could not discern forms, folded in agony when touched, and stayed mainly submerged to the eyes in water”.
   There is one long seventeen-page passage, similarly post-apocalyptic in feel, but in which the narrator also sounds like the subject of some sick experiment in genetics, or neuroscience, or who-knows-what. A laboratory is mentioned a number of times (“…in his lab room…”) and, just once, “Subject A” (“…This is Subject A speaking…”).
   But then again, is it a glimpse of another universe altogether, a universe similar to our own but fundamentally different too, all the way down to the laws of nature themselves? Overall perhaps each reader will see something quite different in it—like a book of those ink-blot pictures psychologists use, but all done in diagrams and prose (and some lovely prose at that).
   The Age of Wire and String is probably not recommended for anyone who prefers the conventional, the cosy, or even the usual format of plot / characters / dialogue and all the rest. It is (very tentatively) recommended for the more adventurous, or anyone bored by the plot / characters / dialogue format and who likes peering out beyond the Edge now and then to see what else might be possible.
Profile Image for Alexander Weber.
263 reviews42 followers
April 3, 2017
I have a lot to say, but generally I write short reviews...

First of all, I really like the essay Marcus wrote for Harper's about why experimental and difficult novels are important.
I read it after looking up what the heck I was reading, somewhere in the middle of this book.
I didn't find anything useful out there, maybe this:
"The Age of Wire and String" shows us what we don't see. An unspoken story, apparently autobiographical, pushes in against the words we are given to read--a story of a father, a mother, a brother, possibly even a Midwestern farm, where "members move within high stalks of grass--cutting, threshing, sifting, speaking."
Because we never look at this family directly, it remains intact, even as we desire to know more about it. The result, for the reader, is a certain sadness, the sadness of nostalgia.

If you haven't had a look-see into this book, then you won't really know what that all means. Essentially, this book is very experimental. It seems like he took ordinary words, and has replaced their meanings with other meanings...making its deciphering nearly impossible. Which is ok. Because the simple act of reading these familiar words in a very unfamiliar way is fun and exciting and discomforting. Plus, as that review suggests, you do still somehow get the sense, just outside your line of vision, of some kind of meaning, or some kind of ...importance. A dead brother? A math-professor father... Is this in the future? Is the narrator insane? Or part of a cult? OR! Does this book take place in a dystopian future, wherein the narrator is part of a cult...and has lost his mind.

Solved it.
Profile Image for Andrew.
1,989 reviews699 followers
March 9, 2013
If nothing else, Marcus is completely and absolutely uncompromising, and for that I admire him.

It's a baffling book in the same way that something like Gertrude Stein's Tender Buttons is. Except more comprehensible-- the sentences themselves are short, declarative, and straightforward-- but the net effect is entirely disconcerting. I'm still not sure how well Marcus accomplishes his goals, especially when a writer like David Markson can be similarly daring and experimental but still utterly heartfelt, but he gets an A++ for effort.
Profile Image for Ebony Earwig.
97 reviews4 followers
April 3, 2022
One of the best books I read since joining Goodreads, and definitely a fine addition to my avante-garde table book collection.
Profile Image for Daniel KML.
56 reviews17 followers
October 21, 2022
Quoting from wikipedia:

" Colorless green ideas sleep furiously is a sentence composed by Noam Chomsky in his 1957 book Syntactic Structures as an example of a sentence that is grammatically well-formed, but semantically nonsensical. (...) it was used to show the inadequacy of certain probabilistic models of grammar, and the need for more structured models."

Well, I believe that Ben Marcus managed to write a novel fully composed of semantically nonsensical sentences - the feat here is that he made it in a way that it still feels like reading a piece of fluid and well-crafted (and sometimes beautiful) literary prose. I will have to sleep on that.
Profile Image for Sabin.
298 reviews28 followers
November 14, 2020
Reading, a process by which humans interiorize and digest words from outside sources, often found in books on which they cast their vision. The words are usually codified by means of strings of symbols of varying length which have one or more associated meanings to be discerned by high level readers from context, namely the pattern created by the flocking of other words around their intended target.

A Ben Marcus exemplar is read not with the natural assumptions of a discerning reader, but with new notions created through the folding and refolding of articulate language through hoops of brilliance and blended on ropes of heat and gas. The resulting fluid is then separated by a mechanical process named shredding which nets living creatures who are left to die on the page so as to coagulate into the humanly-readable word-forms.

Another aspect to neglect, or not, whatever the reader’s mood may be, in the reading of said Ben Marcus, is the intertwining of biographical elements with the mechanical capabilities of our post-industrial era and a magical and absurd rendition of natural phenomena, written in the same style that a child may write an instruction manual to every-day life. Reading such a collection of symbols may elicit disgust in some readers, for whom an aspirin, or another hard tranquilizer is recommended. Whatever elephants and dogs are conjured up in the mind of the unmedicated reader, as they transgress the process, is due entirely to the smell of the Ben Marcus, as a personification of his very own Thompson.
Profile Image for Jimmy Cline.
150 reviews189 followers
February 16, 2009
In order to avoid a lot of vague babbling about this book, I'm going to do the cheap thing and leave everyone with a somewhat exemplary passage.

"Words have as little individuality as people-there are moments when any of them will do, provided the parts allow for a thrusting enunciation. The proper use of space is to find out the things we have not said, and how our hands might make sure they stay that way."

What Marcus does offer is a sort of encyclopedia of the modern human condition. Parts Lynchian, others reminiscent of John Hawkes. His characters struggle to make meaning out of social and historical concepts that have a tendency to intermingle to the point of meaninglessness. Yet whatever is being told about such a vague confusion with modern existence is spoken in an obtuse voice that somehow manages to compel the reader to apply their own perspective and interpretation. While it seems like a somewhat standard approach for an experimental writer, the result is profound and disturbing.
Profile Image for Drew.
238 reviews122 followers
December 18, 2011
I feel like this is a perfect example of what Wallace was talking about in terms of literary fiction going the way of poetry; that is, serious literary fiction being written mostly for other authors and maybe a small, isolated little group of smart readers. Marcus is clearly talented, and he's clearly got something to say, but there's got to be a way to do it that doesn't make the casual reader feel like the victim of an elaborate prank.
Profile Image for Adam.
558 reviews349 followers
August 21, 2007
Beautiful shorts in the style of Cortazar's Cronopios and Famas and Beckett's prose, wonderful anti-fictions with playful, surreal language, oddly affecting and humorous.
Profile Image for Adam Goddard.
132 reviews23 followers
January 22, 2023
A puzzle of a novel (if I can even call it that), functions as a dictionary of a sort detailing the practices of a post-civilization? giving terms and definitions. To me this book feels like a lingual-fiction and a near science fiction wherein words we are familiar with take on entirely different meanings for the age of wire and strings citizens (eg; the author himself is defined as a "1. false map, scroll, caul, or parchment" which I'll definitely have to re-read at some point, though for now I must say I really like the unorthodox structure of the book!
Profile Image for Robert Morgan Fisher.
510 reviews11 followers
October 7, 2018
Marvelously esoteric and inaccessible. Marcus' first collection serves to remind us of what is possible in short fiction. What exactly constitutes a story? Well, from reading this book it's clear that all is needed is vivid imagery, wordplay and an absolute authoritative conviction in describing the world created. The stories bear little resemblance to actual life--yet feel very real. Some stories are merely glossaries, "Terms."

The book is divided into sections: Animal, Weather, et cetera, and make no mistake--this is metafiction on steroids. It's no wonder Robert Coover is a fan. Some of the invented terms show up in later books (e.g. "Thompson"). Is there anything between the lines? Father issues, for sure. Also food and sex. In a traditional short story we're conditioned to look for that "hook," that relatable element. Marcus says "Not so fast."

Some of the "stories" are simply declarative lists and dictionary-esque definitions. In fiction of this type, all the reader can do is immerse oneself in the tone, the atmosphere. And the atmosphere here is bleak, dystopian at times. Funny. I loved it--even when the random associations begin sounding like the unhinged rants of a street person. Marcus stays consistent to the unconventional tone for most of the book before "rewarding" the reader with stories that feature some semblance of plot. Using previously introduced "terms," it's almost as if Marcus is saying, "Okay, now that I've set the table for this world, you can eat."

I'm personally glad that his later stories in Leaving the Sea and Notes from the Fog skew more conventional--but as a debut, this is a shot across the bow. The Age of Wire and String comes off as nothing less than a game-changer. As a writer and reader, I found this collection very liberating and inspiring.
Profile Image for Printable Tire.
745 reviews79 followers
March 9, 2010
Finally I have discovered what all the "fiction" writers in the College Hill Independent have been ripping off!

At the risk of sounding like a philistine, I will state the obvious by saying this book don't make a lick of sense. Yet I think it does achieve whatever it set out to do, and has the elegance of narrative-spam, or words that form a sentence without much logical meaning, and has the ability to create magical elements or talismans out of the ephemeral detritus/arch platonic junk of a landscape (much like how modern art is all collage/mosaics of pez dispensers and used condoms).

To be honest I couldn't follow a section for very long without being completely thrown out of it, but that doesn't necessarily mean I didn't find the writing pleasurable or wouldn't want to try reading it again. I especially liked the "terms" sections, which were little bullet points of inventive "nonsense jargon" reminiscent of a cross between Douglas Coupland and R.A. Lafferty.
Profile Image for Michael Dworaczyk.
37 reviews10 followers
December 16, 2012
I need to find a bird that has eaten white air to give me light to write my review. No need for wire and string to cover my mouth since communication will be over laptop composed of rice and blood. If I whirl the dead leg of forgotten brother, perhaps enough song will escape to allow formative sentences to escape.

Did I like this book. No, I loved it with all my skin and hair (more skin than hair, in my case as well as Marcus', I presume.) It will take another few readings to fully come to something of an understanding. What I have now is a brief glimpse, a squint into Marcus' first world. I could live in this book. If I didn't have to live in another.
Profile Image for Ian.
18 reviews7 followers
April 10, 2007
"Experts believe that our bodies grow heavier after being noticed, lighter when touched, and remain the same when left alone."
November 28, 2018
A beautiful book. Being John Malkovich meets Fantastic Planet in the hands of a technical writer who has gone stark raving sane.
Profile Image for Leonard Klossner.
Author 2 books17 followers
December 12, 2018
This is a codex of history and guidelines for a reality that is other than the one we know. The Age of Wire and String is completely divorced from this world; devoid of sense. The signifiers are all familiar, but what is signified cannot be understood until the reader, having first reviewed an incomprehensible diagram, studies the following glossary of terms (pictured). The language in this book (titled as a collection of stories; a misleading subtitle) is all Marcus' own; it corresponds to a world we are not familiar with, a world into which only a glimpse is allowed through a (no doubt perplexing) reading of the book.

I first caught wind of Marcus through some excerpts of the Flame Alphabet posted by another user and, some time later, in a moment of blind serendipity, thumbed through an old issue of The White Review to find it contained an interview with Marcus, but I settled for Wire and String since the bookstore I visited didn't have The Flame Alphabet.

This is a damn strange book which at first glance presents itself as mere stories or perhaps essays on certain apparently hum-drum themes: sleep, God, food, the house, animal, weather, persons, etc. Also pictured is one of my favorite chapters (Brian, Treated to a Delicate Meal; second picture) which is so absurd it nearly made me laugh out loud.

I haven't read through anything like this. It was a fascinating and quick read (the pages are full of all sorts of arcane sketches and diagrams), and I had only read through twenty or so pages before I made a trip to another local bookstore that stocked The Flame Alphabet to read once I was finished with this. What a trip.
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