An Inter(e)view with Ben Marcus
For readers who aren't familiar with Ben Marcus's first story collection, The Age of Wire and String, published in 1995 by Knopf, the paperback issued this fall by Dalkey Archive provides a second chance to discover this exciting and innovative fiction. An experiment in linked vignettes, the book received praise from Robert Coover, Harry Mathews, and others. Mathews described this first book publication as "delicately sustained linguistic displacements [that] rigorously reinvent [our] society."
I interviewed Marcus (who teaches at Brown University) last year; he spoke of a wish to create a fictional landscape for readers who see language "as more than just an occasion for diversion or entertainment - a chance to hide and forget - but instead as a possibly biological event, as crucial as eating and maybe more so." It's a romantic notion, but one that is necessary for fueling fiction as deeply imagined, committed, and unromantic as Marcus's. And while his prose works to elide standard notions of story, motivation, lush description, and plot, it also possesses an edgy, pristine hue of its own, and a spooky, otherworldly tension.
Using short, unsentimental orbs of prose, Marcus describes an odd North America in which plain people live as normally as they know how. Marcus's setting is perhaps one to which writing students should turn for a first-rate illustration of the tension and balance between description and restraint. Indeed, the Ohio-like locale of this book takes much of its shape from numerous nearby strange engines, machines, and activities - and in this place, too, "electricity mourns the absence of an energy form," and nouns like "frusc" and "willis" abound (Marcus often uses proper names - even his own - to denote events or actions). By turns, AWS's scenarios and small accretions of action are comic and bizarre; story titles, rich in themselves, include "Half Life of Walter in the American Areas," "Food Storms of the Original Brother," and "Dog, Mode of Heat Transfer in Barking."
AWS has the syntactical ring of car repair manuals or religious tracts. Sentences like "Warning - it often clogs the port. It is often sugared" are employed to describe the intricate workings of machines or customs; they seem at once serious and mock-serious. And as the writer/narrator finds it his utter duty to inform readers of this world, he calls to us across a chasm, abstracted or disassociated by the stark weirdness of the place and by his own observations.
There is a small wan quality in the prose as well, with its locales recalling towns in the grassy Midwest: "Mind the hill. Throw the water. Pull the wood. Crack up the fires. Fix their feet. Don't talk. My father says do this when we have the good air. But it is empty here, and so I will mark instead, in case the messenger comes. No one is climbing up. My Jason hasn't climbed up, nor ever has Grandover since they hauled my father up the mountain. Am I supposed to put food out for them? We have the wood that holds our meals. I brought it in from the birdless side of our hill. Can I ask a question now?"
With that instructional-manual sense of both roteness and dire purpose, Marcus's syntax has a quality that sounds translated - as if from English to some diametrically opposing language, such as Japanese: "Rules invariable apply to food hidden within houses, churches, and other recognizable structures; in certain townships, they obtain also when potatoes and bread are camouflaged within a manufactured landscape. Artificial food (Carl) is often used to disguise the presence of real food in these settings. The law respecting the transfer of dough and sugar suspended from the hips of a citizen differs somewhat."
It certainly seems that Marcus has toyed with inserting unexpected nouns into the rhetoric of technical manuals or sociological tracts, mixing and mis-matching words on purpose, yet this book leaps far beyond formalist experiment-driven narrative, one of the banes of college writing workshops. Marcus's mysterious pastiches employ both heavy restraint and connotative vocabulary, so while the narrative is often deliberately wooden, a sensation of absence and pathos also lurks, the sort of haunting tenderness that is linked with memory and which much current American sentimental memoir and fiction seeks and fails to convey.
Marcus's meticulous and remote language works tirelessly to create small disruptive images, and these, along with the text's self referential glossaries, create a sense of controlled obsession. However, the pages of AWS are neither easy nor difficult to read. Like a painting by Hopper, landscapes and scenes are dissembled then defamiliarized; both language and experience are taken out of time, turned on their collective ears. And like much good art, Marcus's prose is difficult to describe, and contains cruelty: "The man powers in, arranges a prison of wire or rope onto the member of the shelter - the soft membrane of the floor, to attain a posture of attention to his own body that will render its demise he queries the animal likeness carved into his garment."
I asked what he had to say about the "autobiography question," since after the Knopf release of AWS, more than one reviewer remarked that the text was, at bottom, a highly stylized version of a Midwestern boyhood. Marcus responded that this was explicitly not his intention, pointing to reviewers' notorious tendency to read rotely. But if a writer declares that his work is devoid of the typical first-book impulses to write from life, should we believe him? Is the act of fictionalizing one's childhood actually less rigorous than creating fiction that proceeds from a theory?
"Autobiographical impulses are complicated," he said. "While it might be autobiographical to write about where you vacationed last summer, it certainly, at least usually, won't put the writer into a tense enough position to create interesting work. A younger writer can make the mistake of believing that an audience is inherently interested in everything that has 'happened' to them. A writer makes another mistake, I think, in believing that the things that happen are the things that make up a life. Maybe your real life is everything you don't know about, ideas and feelings you haven't confirmed or even imagined yet. The writing is instantly more powerful if there is an act of discovery on the writer's part as well, as Stein points out. If you look at the memoirs interested in Michel Leiris or the novels of Thomas Bernhard, you can see a menacing form of self-discovery at work, in which the author does not congratulate himself for his insights, as does the common memoirist, who shows off psychological platitudes at every turn, but rather is continually punished by the truths that his language seems intent on revealing. The task, for me, is to build a body beyond what my daily life has evidenced, to discover the outer possibilities of my heart and mind and possibly, as a result, produce a new kind of animal."
I also asked Marcus about the health of innovative fiction at this cultural moment, and about the importance of distinguishing the novel from shorter forms, since AWS exclusively employs vignettes or indistinctly defined "stories." "My theory is really pretty simple: to light literal fires in the heads and homes of my readers," he responded. "Genre distinctions have always been boring to me. Let the marketplace call it whatever they want to, but a novel is whatever engaged artists say it is, or want it to be. I try not to trouble myself with the category name for what I write, although it's sometimes interesting to play with people's expectations, as with certain poets calling their poems novels. Pressure from the market for writers to write 'novels' will always be there, and there are plenty of other pressures that conspire against innovative literary art: the pressure to makes sense, conform, to be easy. But a writer who writes for the market has a different set of values and often sacrifices a more lasting, substantive effect. You can't have it all. You choose your purpose in these matters, and pressure from the marketplace is the least interesting pressure, or obstacle, a writer can face."
It appears that, like his work, Marcus moves rather insistently according to a very conscious set of principles. He also appears to be tough on himself. But this practical attitude is indispensable. For future projects, he plans to continue molding language to "create a system that might read like an 'essay' or a religious text."
"My struggle is formal," he said. "When it comes down to it, my model for fiction is more of a religious than narrative one, although I recognize that religious systems employ narratives to great effect."
Marcus is currently working on another book project, under the title, "Notable American Women." In the meantime, readers can ruminate on the eerie machinations of AWS's self-generated world and its highly original rendering of American life.