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Tucson Weekly A Cunning Linguist

Ben Marcus Twists Language Until It Bleeds New Meaning In His ' Age Of Wire And String.'

By Jeff Yanc

APRIL 12, 1999: 

The Age of Wire and String, by Ben Marcus (Dalkey Archive). Paper, $11.95.

LANGUAGE IS THE mediating factor between idea and expression, the conduit through which perceptions of reality and the material world are carried to the reader, whose own relation to this independent text is contingent upon the ability to understand the culturally shared meaning of the language being used. Now meet Ben Marcus, whose collection of short stories, The Age of Wire and String , reveals an author who doesn't want you to easily understand his world or his language, but would rather have you contemplate your familiar world through his decidedly unfamiliar perspective. Part fiction, part prose poetry and part science manual, this ferociously inventive novel plays such a head-spinning game of linguistic displacement that the very concept of shared language begins to seem quaintly outdated.

Using the mock-authoritative tone of a science textbook, Marcus fashions a meditative rumination on the physical world and the rigidly restrictive structures we place upon perceiving and articulating our place in it, through language. Each section in Wire and String is constructed like a chapter from a long-forgotten high school biology textbook, complete with end-of-the-chapter glossaries and term definitions.

Marcus' fictionalized textbook categorizes the world by chapter headings, which in turn correspond to the vital elements of life and society on the big blue marble: "House," "Society," "Food," "God," etc. So far, so normal, with a pinch of gimmick thrown in for good measure. But the author's intention to immolate American notions of culture, family, sex, science and religion take a weirdly surreal detour via our shared linguistic experience.

Marcus' pseudo-scientific descriptions of Earth and its assorted populations give him the air of an eccentric sociologist attempting to make sense of a world where everything seems wired to everything else via language. He systematically recombines life's workaday elements into a completely unfamiliar perception of reality. For instance, he turns a keen eye to snoring and its effects on modern living, using a seemingly random combination of words and phrases designed to give the "impression" of snoring rather than a definition of it. His linguistic alchemy manages to make trite observation seem at once strangely unfamiliar and beautifully descriptive and recognizable.

In so doing, he urges readers to question the meaning of such routine acts: "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...it is often best to cull the sleeper forth from static communication by responding to its snores with apneic barks--sounds produced without air."

Throughout Wire and String, Marcus questions the foundations of language usage in society. He subverts the notion that a person's ability to fully assimilate a social system depends upon the individual's ability to understand culturally shared definitions of reality--i.e., the definitions language assigns to objects and ideas. The nucleus of Marcus' linguistic investigation is the following question: If at its most basic level language is simply comprised of a series of socially agreed-upon symbols used to describe things in the world around us, thereby giving us a frame of reference by which to evaluate what is "real," why not create your own language system to describe life as you see it?

With that imperative in mind, he gleefully deconstructs the prevailing language system, assigning new meanings to familiar words, and inventing new words and phrases. Even a term as seemingly innocuous and established as "eating" mutates into something strange and complex: "Eating is an activity of archaic devotion in which objects such as the father's garment are placed inside the body and worshipped." His bizarre and creative terminology is also pressed into service to make sense of seemingly random patterns of human behavior; terms such as the "mouth harness," which describes his own concept of people's need to block the intake of negative ideology that pollutes their minds and bodies: "the mouth harness is a device for trapping and containing the head. Mouths are often stuffed with items--the only objects legally defined as suspicious or worthy of silent paranoid regard. A claim is therefore made that we eat suspicion and become filled with it. The harness is designed to block all ingestion."

Marcus' prose at times reads like poetry, stretching for sensuous feeling rather than rational understanding. It is fiction without characters or story. It also attains a level of dada-like surrealism, filled as it is with weird non-sequiturs and the nonsensical, sing-song rhythm of a Lewis Carroll novel. Yet the cumulative effect of his rapid fire musings on life and language is one of new understanding and clarity--the feeling that an entirely new, crystalline perception of reality has been presented. By hammering through the crust of language that gives all of our lives a shared meaning, Marcus encourages readers to indulge in a little existential freedom, to create their own definitions of reality and to view the world from the position of the individual rather than the collective.

The Age of Wire and String is a bold excursion into language and meaning, and can be daunting: the book is as often confounding as it is enlightening. It's not an easy read, as it follows no logical pattern of literary narration. Yet it has all the makings of a cult classic, a highly original and highly weird piece of literary experimentation that echoes the innovative works of writers like William S. Burroughs and Samuel Beckett, while maintaining its own singular vision. It offers a thrillingly unique view of some possibilities that exist for an infinite range of realities, beyond the monolithically concrete definition we collectively share.

Marcus proves himself a renegade philosopher/writer who twists language until it bleeds new meaning, and in the process creates a truly audacious and wholly original view of life and the linguistic structures which give it substance. He articulates his agenda early in the book: "The outer gaze alters the inner thing, by looking at an object we destroy it with our desire--for accurate vision to occur the thing must be trained to see itself, or otherwise perish in blindness, flawed." In a book industry increasingly dominated by convention and the next sure thing, we can only hope that writers who dare to explore this inner vision will continue to find an audience.


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