The Age of Wire and String
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13 of 13 people found the following review helpful
on December 13, 1997
"There is no larger task than that of cataloging a culture," writes Marcus, "particularly when that culture has remained willfully hidden to the routine in-gazing practiced by professional disclosers, who, after systematically looting our country of its secrets, are now busy shading every example of so-called local color into their own banal hues." Marcus' own compulsively secretive catalog guts our conceptions of American culture like a lit match held to a tinder-dry house. In chapters titled with emotional primitives -- Sleep, The House, Animal, Persons -- short treatises on such worn elements of our daily experience as "Automobile, Watchdog" invert those objects into their otherworldly counterparts: "Girl burned in water, supplementary terms 'help' or X, basic unit of religious current."
Like all master stylists, Marcus is something of a guerrilla tactician. His self-declared task is the re-invention of the wheel, and the weapons he brings to bear on the problem include the modes of writing used in histories, personal narratives, and product manuals. The chapter on God includes such metaphysical redefinitions as "HEAVEN. Area of final containment. It is modeled after the first house. It may be hooked and slid and shifted. The bottom may be sawed through. Members inside stare outward and sometimes reach." This same neutrally-toned, semantically dissociated language is frequently used to disguise charged accounts of childhood experience -- warming his hands in winter by the "burning ball," an older brother's asthma attack, the mysterious girl called Jennifer who causes "partial blindness in regard to hands." Often the disguise is complete and we have absolutely no idea what Marcus is trying to convey; but the intoxicated music of his syllables compels us up through those elided sections of the work toward a transformed vision, vertiginous in its clarity, of those things we hold to be most true.
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24 of 27 people found the following review helpful
on October 23, 2001
I cherish this book. I bought it a long time ago, when it was a Knopf hardcover, from a little bookstore now defunct.
Structurally this is one of the few books that has attempted this format. I mean, this isn't quite a novel, not quite stories. In a sense, this book could be read in any direction, front to back, middle towards the outsides, etc. It has a hypertextual feel, to use a fancy word.
I'm really enthusiastic about structure. I'm always thrilled when a book comes out that seems to share my enthusiasm.
Not many books have done this well. Robert Coover's short story The Babysitter is a common example, mainly because it is such a great story.
Julio Cortazar's novel Hopscotch develops a similar structure: There are three or four different orders in which to read the chapters. It is a sad story of two lovers.
James Kelman's newest novel, the powerful book Translated Accounts is another example of this structure.
What makes Ben Marcus's book so unique besides this shared, rare structure, is the sudden, jarring ways in which he uses language. Everything is folded and shorn, each word teeting on the edge of nonsense, like the lyrical antics of Dr Seuss.
There is a creeping sense of autobiography behind Age of Wire & String that I have heard will be further explored in his next novel Notable American Woman, due out in January, I think. The cover is to be designed by the same guy who did the redesigns of Rick Moody's books, so I suspect it'll be a spanking good-looking book.
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12 of 14 people found the following review helpful
on July 20, 1998
Language is essentially arbitrary-- a collection of sounds we make with our mouths and little squiggles of circles and lines-- and from this mess of linguistic scratching we find meaning and ultimately create a bit of identity for ourselves, our families, and our communities. In "The Age of Wire and String" Ben Marcus has turned this relationship between humanity and language inside out. In a tone that is in turns technically earnest and sweet, Marcus describes our world as it must appear to an alien race visiting earth. The incredible feat in this collection of "stories" is that while it seemingly "makes no sense," some sense does, in fact, bubble up through the intricate narrative tangle. By lumping his stories together in sections such as "Animal," "Persons," and "The House," (with glossaries that further confound the reader), Marcus gives us impressions of physical reality as though they are being experien! ced in utero; there's a primal, pre-historical feel to many passages, even the ones that make vague references to the twentieth century. Like the more rambling works of Donald Barthelme or the Richard Brautigan of "In Watermelon Sugar," what keeps you reading "The Age of Wire and String" is the author's seeming incomprehension that you won't understand a single word he says, which makes for some compelling reading indeed.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on October 7, 2006
Ordered this book while doing a stint as a bookseller, but didn't manage to buy it before the company tanked and closed our store. I did, however, manage to read it. I'm still not sure what I read, exactly, but I was certain that I wanted to read it again. Strange obfuscations, language as weapon and target simultaneously, suburbia as new mythic landscape, most wondrous strange, really. Appropriate that the dalkey archive published this semantic violence; Flann O'Brien is sorely missed, surely. Anyway, one of the present commentators likened this book to hypertext, with its variable narrative(?) possibilities. I would add Tom Phillips' A Humument to that list, another obfuscation of language's (and text for that matter) possibilities. Recommended for anyone with a yen for the experimental.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on April 17, 2006
In Ben Marcus' recent article in Harpers was a cynical, albeit realistic view on the publishing world. He said, basically: most people are stupid and read stupid books. Of course, the rhetoric was veiled. His claim was that the public wasn't interested in new concepts and forms of literature, that they only wanted the linear character driven mini-sagas of social realist novel. He went on to deride Jonathan Franzen's Corrections. It is not surprising (if anything, it is only fitting) that Marcus appoints himself the spokesperson of `avante garde' fiction, for his work is truly experimental.

In `The Age of Wire and String', Marcus weaves together utterly strange, almost indecipherable, `stories.' These `stories' act more like definitions and explanations, as if describing an alternate world. This world mainly consist of such quotidian things like: wind, air, fathers, boys, lawns, houses, cars, etc., but it is the way he describes each entity that is eerie and somehow sad. For example, instead of describing kids playing in the lawn and going back inside, he talks of them being `vessels for sod' distributing their `product' towards emptiness. Looking through Marcus' eyes is like watching a National Geographic piece about some foreign animal species, a subject we are still trying to understand. Only in Marcus' world, humans are the strange species.

Likely counterparts are Pynchon, Kafka, Calvino, Borges, D.F. Wallace, and Barthelme-but here is perhaps how Marcus stands out: his ability to juxtapose concepts together to bridge new meanings is unparalleled. His logic is absurd yet somehow so obvious, like his world has been around, is all around us, only nobody bothered to look. Examples: he sees shadows as the residue of cells, or snoring as densely packed language. The books is hilarious at times and also very stark. Reading it, I felt as if the world suddenly ended, and aliens were taking notes about this world.

Ben Marcus' uniquely original writing (along with his publishing world rants) might make him seem like a snob, but when you're that smart, how could you not be?
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on May 28, 2009
In many ways, this book is extremely unique --I'm never quite read anything like it. On this merit alone, it's worth checking out.

At the same time (and this might not matter to most people) I was a little disappointed to learn (from my lit teacher) that a great deal of the world Marcus is 'constructing' in the Age of Wire and String came about because he took actual encyclopedia entries and changed a few words to make them surreal. The entry 'Dog, Mode of Heat Transfer in Barking' for example, is actually just the text from the Columbia Encyclopedia entry on "convection," with some selected words changed or added (there are numerous other examples).

I can't say that this means the book isn't incredibly original (it still is), but a great deal of the 'meaning' other reviewers seem to be reading into some of these entries just isn't there --it isn't even intended to be. Some will argue that the book is essentially adult Mad-Libs, others that the process of its creation should have no bearing on how we view the quality of the final product. But either way, this book is worth reading.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on March 1, 2002
Like those other young cult leaders John D'Agata and David Wallace (before his popularity at least), Marcus exhibits a rare talent that actually allows him to get away with some of the absurd flights that his formal inventions take. Nothing in his generation of fiction comes close to this aching collection of longing.
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on October 17, 1996
sometimes i get a little mad at the world and i feel i am
ready to experience it in a new way. so i pick this book up
and one passage will stay with me for days. good food for the
brain. as good as a frozen banana and nutella.
with words like pooter, who could resist a trip into the
madness of the author's peception?
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on March 3, 2010
I like wordplay. Playful words play me. Same
for a number of fine, brave writers I follow.

Heading the pack, my subjective favorite, is Gary Lutz. Stories in the Worst WayOthers you'll find at Amazon are Robert Coover, Gertrude Stein, David Foster Wallace, George Saunders, Donald Barthelme and Richard Brautigan - among who knows how many other not-ready-for-literal-ity experimental word players. Maybe what Hemingway was once thought to be. Oh, there's the daring Italian writer, Italo Calvino, too, maybe one of the first into the deep end of this particular pool.

I gave Marcus only four stars because his word plays were solely, it often seemed, for their own sake and not to make a point or tell a story or convey information. Sometimes some kind of story emerges; but not often. He sort of tucks his work into jabberwocky, I think maybe a Lewis Carroll term, from that Wonderland Alice, which verged on this genre.

The other writers on my above list make points, tell stories; for Marcus here, it seems word gymnastics are generally enough. They are entertaining, though. Momentarily.
Interesting because they're odd, strange looking for substance. For you, which is more important, what's said or how it's said?

FYI, Marcus also edited this: The Anchor Book of New American Short Stories His writer/story choices lean into this style for style's sake sack. (Like that) Many strange for strange sake, which obviously appealed to their editor. Me, I still look forward to post-postmodern stuff.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on February 22, 2014
This is Ben Marcus' first book. Most of the pieces consist of underlying simple expository prose, subject-verb-object, as one might find in a college textbook. But then oddly unsuitable terms are overlaid, producing a surreal effect, viz., of water.: "It oxidizes slowly in ALBERT and rapidly in LOUISE. It is attacked by solutions of RICHARD 3 and by concentrated or dilute SAMANTHA 7G." This is something of a one-trick pony, and the author has gone on to more conventional styles. But The Age of Wire and String is a brilliant work, disorienting and satisfying, and very often quite clever.
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