Monday, June 11, 2012

The Necessity of Inventiveness: Ben Marcus's "The Age Of Wire and String"

Two of my previous posts hinted, either directly or indirectly, to creative writing styles that upend expectations. Edouard Levé's Autoportrait was crafted in a fashion that subverted the norms of fiction and autobiography, and the stories in Lindsay Hunter's Daddy's took often explored themes and exposed them in brutally honest and intentionally uncomfortable ways. These forays into refreshingly new styles were invigorating for me, yet I analyzed them in what I hope was a grounded, critical manner. While I write reviews to aid my belief that independent literature deserves a wider audience, I realize that some styles or forms won't appeal to all types of readers (I touched upon that more in the end of my Lindsay Hunter piece). The above thoughts were even more mixed and highlighted by my recent reading of The Age Of Wire and String, a story collection/novel by Ben Marcus. My literary essays are less marked by superlatives as opposed to when I was younger, but this work is probably one of the most original pieces of writing I've ever read. Generally, throwing around terms like "original," "unique," or "inventive" are limited to blurbs, and given that I've referenced two other authors in this opening, I'm not trying to say that The Age Of Wire and String is better than the others. Its uniqueness is its own, and in a strange paradox, its form and execution make it a challenging work to tackle, but show the many new ways that language can be explored in fictional settings.

It's important to immediately dispense with labels and take it as a long piece of writing, even though it can be read as a story collection or as a novel. I read the first forty pages twice, getting to that mark and having to start over from the beginning, not out of chronological confusion, but out of an attempt to figure out what The Age Of Wire and String was trying to do. This admission might give potential readers pause, but my second beginning showed me that I needed to immerse myself in the experience, rather than look for any tangible connections (those connections are there, and I'm sure they will be more apparent on a second or third reading). The chapters explore people, places, and events in sometimes cryptic, sometimes journalistic tones, suggesting a myriad of possibilities: it could be an avant-garde work, a revisionist history of a given era, or even a post-apocalyptic world. Commonplace items are given new names, and there are occasional pages of definitions that paradoxically help and cloud the understanding at the same time. Given these hypotheses and understandings, it's amazing how fluidly the book reads, even if one has to set aside concrete understandings. In Marcus's style, the work quickly makes sense in an abstract way. The introductory chapter, entitled "Argument," offers helpful hints, but is by no means meant to be an explicit explanation.

"This book is a catalog of the life project as prosecuted in the Age Of Wire and String and beyond, into the arrangement 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. The settlement, in clusters and dispersed, has long required a document of secret motion and instruction--a collection of studies that might serve to clarify the terms obscured within every facet of the living program (Marcus 3)."

The best examples, however, can be culled from any chapter of the book. In the section entitled "Food," there's a chapter called "The Food Costumes Of Montana," which details exactly the title, and struck me as one of the more compelling chapters in an odd way.

"In the morning in Montana the leg was bound from the ankle to the knee with bacon or hair and then cross-gartered with thongs or strips of uncut rice; later a slack taffy, bound at the ankle, was worn. As the lower legs of the taffy became more fitted, they were called slews, and as the slews eroded or spoiled to the knee, fitted milk skins called loops were worn. By 11:30 a.m., feet were added to the loops. As slews grew shorter, loops became longer; by c. 12:20 p.m., the loops reached the hips and were attached by butter webs to the stomach. By c. 1:00, the loops and slews formed one garment; thus shads were first known. Beans and nuts were used, as was kale, and color became extravagant. The shads were multicolored and often each leg was clothed in a contrasting food style. As the upper part of the loops became more decorated and puffed out, a separation occurred (c. 2:30); the upper part became known as pike rings because of the swimming motion the food made as it circled the thigh, and the leg coverings were for the first time called bones and recognized as a separate accessory of dress (Marcus 31)."

The "Terms" sections highlight words that appear in subsequent chapters, and while cross-referencing them might help, I found it just as beneficial to read and digest the terms on their own, since they are defining the undefinable, and even with the terms memorized, they're not meant to summarize or shed specific light on the events and actions. Once the reader is comfortable with the book's pacing, the terms make sense in the overall arc.

"OHIO The house, be it built or crushed. It is a wooden composition affixed with stones and glass, locks, cavities, the person. There will be food in it, rugs will warm the floor. There will never be a clear idea of Ohio, although its wood will be stripped and shined, its glass polished with light, its holes properly cleared, in order that the member inside might view what is without--the empty field, the road, the person moving forward or standing still, wishing the Ohio was near.

LAND SCARF A garment that functions also as a landmark, shelter, or vehicle. To qualify, the item must recede beyond sight, be soft always, and not bind or tear the skin down (Marcus 61)."

The people who make appearances in The Age Of Wire and String seem to be presented just like the landscapes and objects, but their humanity adds a layer of mystique. Their actions and thoughts are strange and seem to be intentionally hiding a bigger picture, and compared with the usual definitions and times, the above hypotheses become even more magnified. Are these people in the past, present, or future? Would a concrete time period make more sense, or would it take away from the objective tone? I've read samples of The Flame Alphabet, his latest novel, which is a a definite dystopian work, but with my above mention of The Age Of Wire and String potentially being an implied post-apocalyptic work (that's just a possibility; I could be way off), some of the character passages could take on new meanings. At the very least, the ambiguity leads to a wealth of potential scenarios, including religious undertones.

"I pray to the bird and I know that the sky is the bird. How many times until I am hollow, the way, the bird is when it flies? Yes or no, Father said that the bird has to be hollow so it can eat itself and keep flipping inside out. He said that if I looked at it right, I could see it flip over and over and hear the wings beating to keep it from falling. That's what the noise in wind is, and if wind didn't make noise, it would mean the bird was falling all over us, so that we would be getting pecked at and pecked at. How many other hills are there? I want to ask. How many other birds are up stuck up there guarding how many other hills? Or does our bird know about us? I am making a plan so that I will become known to it (Marcus 112-113)."

Again, depending on how the book is read, my opinions could be accurate or completely off the mark. This was Marcus's first published book, and it's hard to imagine a writer coming out with such a painstakingly original debut, especially one that so intensely defies classifications of form, genre, or tangible outcomes. The Age of Wire and String has echos of David Foster Wallace, Italo Calvino, and Anthony Burgess, but not in a way that calls these writers to mind immediately. Instead of inventing a new world, Marcus lets the language take over, therefore creating what could be a new world, an old one, or a fantastical version of a present one. It's a challenge for any reader, no matter how versed he or she is in experimental forms, but the work is captivating and creates vivid scenarios in even the most obscure details. Like any important work, it demands multiple readings, but even after I reread the opening chapters and the occasional passage during my time with it, I'm sure most of the book will seem new whenever I return to it. It's an intelligent, satisfying experience that may cause some stumbles, but through no fault of Marcus. The scenarios are carefully constructed, and it's best to set aside preconceived notions of what a novel (or story collection) normally does. This is postmodernism at its best, and while I try to avoid superlatives, it's almost impossible to explore the work without them. I'm very much looking forward to covering more of Marcus's bibliography, especially since he set the bar so high in his first outing.

Work Cited:
Marcus, Ben. The Age Of Wire and String. Copyright 1995 by Ben Marcus.

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