Weekly Wire
Weekly Alibi Life is Short. Read Hard.

By Blake de Pastino

SEPTEMBER 14, 1998: 

Ben Marcus' The Age of Wire and String

Few things can put your mind in a state of razor-sharp readiness, I find, like a really difficult book. If you've ever slogged your way through Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury or Joyce's Finnegan's Wake, then you know what I mean. Some kinds of writing call for a strange sort of focus on the part of the reader, something that's halfway between casual reading and Zen mediation, both conscious and beyond conscious. It's a pretty wiggy head space--and a demand that tends to send most avant-garde books right into B. Dalton's discount bins--but that's exactly the kind of mindset you'll need to bring to Ben Marcus' highly experimental debut novel, The Age of Wire and String. If you do scuttle your mind long enough to enjoy this brief, cluttered story, you'll find it's yet another example of how the most difficult books are often the most rewarding.

Simply put, The Age of Wire and String defies all the literary traditions we hold dear, moreso than any other novel in recent memory. It forgoes things like plot, dialogue and character to become something that resembles a handbook, a user's guide to a ghostly, vaguely America-like world. This is a place where "difficulties with dog populations" are said to have "generated the mass suffocation of Ohio." Where the people of Montana use "food costumes," including something called a "fudge girdle, a one-piece garment that spreads from waist to feet." Is this some horrible, post-apocalyptic asylum? Some kind of sci-fi-flavored shadow world? Those, it turns out, are the least of your worries. Because this is where any likeness to orthodox fiction stops.

In chapter after succinct chapter (most of them are no more than a page long), your anonymous guide describes the many ethereal forces that keep this world in motion, as well as the sickening rituals that its inhabitants undertake to keep them at bay. But none of them really make sense, and it's clear that they're not supposed to. Just how this netherworld works is kept mysterious, not only by Marcus' absurd descriptions, but also by his heavily wrenched prose. Chapter One, for example, explains how you can restore power to your house by having intercourse with your dead wife ("An improvised friction needs to take place," the narrator explains, "to goad the natural currents back to their proper levels"). Then there is "the technique for detecting the position, motion and nature of remote objects like birds ... by means of craning or stuffing the mouth with cloth." And later, there's the custom of "the roarer," a disembodied leg of a departed brother, which is swung over a young man's head "to ward off those who may try to outrun him to the mountain." There is no decoding passages like these. Instead, you just have to listen to them. All of Marcus' statements quietly make suggestions, and what they suggest is uniform and moving: Dismemberment. Death. Superstition. Fear. They are images shot through with loss, longing and the deep kind of soul-searching that only literature like this can elicit. It's sure to disturb a lot of people, not only because it's so grotesque, but also because it's so damn difficult to understand. But as the narrator himself says (in his definition of "rhetoric"), writing is "the art of making life less believable."

Of course, as with any famously bohemian book, there's a lot more to the story of Wire and String than just its heterodoxy. There's the fact that its author, Ben Marcus, was all of 28 when he penned this little bit of wonder. And the fact that the book has not, in fact, been dumped in remainder bins at outlet malls but actually has become such a cult favorite that it's now in its second printing by its second publisher, the little indie house Dalkey Archive Press. For now, though, all you need to concern yourself with is the trip. The Age of Wire and String is raw ether, a work of literary chemistry that will soften your brain and sharpen your senses. Save it for when you are at your most meditative. (Dalkey Archive, paper, $11.95)


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