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The Age of Wire and String (1995)

by Ben Marcus

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4331550,258 (3.66)26
In The Age of Wire and String Ben Marcus welds together a new reality from the scrapheap of the past. Dogs, birds, horses, automobiles and the weather are some of the recycled elements in Marcus's first collection - part fiction, part handbook - as familiar objects take on markedly unfamiliar meanings. Gradually, this makeshift world, in its defiance of the laws of physics and language, finds a foundation in its own implausibility, as Marcus produces new feelings and sensations - both comic and disturbing - in the definitive guide to an unpredictable yet exhilarating plane of existence.… (more)
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» See also 26 mentions

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This reminds me a lot of the Codex Seraphinianus, and to some extent the wonderfully strange (and unVance-like) early Jack Vance short story The Men Return. Also, some British readers might remember a guy on TV called “Professor” Stanley Unwin: I always wished Unwin had written a book, and if he had—a sort of textbook, with diagrams—it might have come out something like this too. There are any number of ways of interpreting it; at the top of page 188 are five lines which talk about the devising of “an abstract parlance system” in an era during which the very meaning and usage of words became uncertain, and a number of newspaper book-reviewers in particular have picked up on that.
   To me what it reads even more like though is post-apocalypse, the aftermath of some surreal disaster. People, buildings, whole landscapes, the weather—all seem to have been, not destroyed, but more sort of stirred or blended together. Page 189 (“The Great Hiding Period”) talks about a time when most people retreated underground, while those who had remained at the surface “…could not discern forms, folded in agony when touched, and stayed mainly submerged to the eyes in water”.
   There is one long seventeen-page passage, similarly post-apocalyptic in feel, but in which the narrator also sounds like the subject of some sick experiment in genetics, or neuroscience, or who-knows-what. A laboratory is mentioned a number of times (“…in his lab room…”) and, just once, “Subject A” (“…This is Subject A speaking…”).
   But then again, is it a glimpse of another universe altogether, a universe similar to our own but fundamentally different too, all the way down to the laws of nature themselves? Overall perhaps each reader will see something quite different in it—like a book of those ink-blot pictures psychologists use, but all done in diagrams and prose (and some lovely prose at that).
   The Age of Wire and String is probably not recommended for anyone who prefers the conventional, the cosy, or even the usual format of plot / characters / dialogue and all the rest. It is (very tentatively) recommended for the more adventurous, or anyone bored by the plot / characters / dialogue format and who likes peering out beyond the Edge now and then to see what else might be possible. ( )
  justlurking | Oct 31, 2022 |
Stories? I don't know about that, but it's good. ( )
  Adammmmm | Sep 10, 2019 |
I have a lot to say, but generally I write short reviews...

First of all, I really like the essay Marcus wrote for Harper's about why experimental and difficult novels are important.
I read it after looking up what the heck I was reading, somewhere in the middle of this book.
I didn't find anything useful out there, maybe this:
"The Age of Wire and String" shows us what we don't see. An unspoken story, apparently autobiographical, pushes in against the words we are given to read--a story of a father, a mother, a brother, possibly even a Midwestern farm, where "members move within high stalks of grass--cutting, threshing, sifting, speaking."
Because we never look at this family directly, it remains intact, even as we desire to know more about it. The result, for the reader, is a certain sadness, the sadness of nostalgia.

If you haven't had a look-see into this book, then you won't really know what that all means. Essentially, this book is very experimental. It seems like he took ordinary words, and has replaced their meanings with other meanings...making its deciphering nearly impossible. Which is ok. Because the simple act of reading these familiar words in a very unfamiliar way is fun and exciting and discomforting. Plus, as that review suggests, you do still somehow get the sense, just outside your line of vision, of some kind of meaning, or some kind of ...importance. A dead brother? A math-professor father... Is this in the future? Is the narrator insane? Or part of a cult? OR! Does this book take place in a dystopian future, wherein the narrator is part of a cult...and has lost his mind.

Solved it. ( )
  weberam2 | Nov 24, 2017 |
It’s entirely possible that I am wrong about all of this.

The Age of Wire and String presents as a response in eight sections to an initial “argument” that sets the conditions of the piece. The sections have headings like “Sleep” or “Food” or “Weather”. Each has a ‘Terms’ section closing it off which appears to give definitions for words or phrases. But both individually and collective what we have here is a nonsense. Not in the frivolous fun sense of nonsense. Rather this is non-sense. None of these sentences, despite cohering to semantic rules, in fact makes any sense.

Initially you might think that Marcus has written something in an obscure code. If only you could work it out, then it would all make sense. I don’t think that is the case. On the other hand it isn’t gibberish. Unlike gibberish, this always has the semblance of sense. That must very hard to do. Imagine writing 140 pages that is utter nonsense but never devolves into gibberish or slides into frivolous sense-based nonsense. It must take immense effort. But then your next question is bound to be, “Why?”

Why indeed.

I suppose on some level this could be taken as a form of concrete poetry or sound poetry. That’s about the best option I have come up with. But I don’t really believe it. And so I’m left with thinking this is merely an exercise, remarkable perhaps in its execution, but with no further meaning. And that just doesn’t do it for me.

Of course, as noted, it’s entirely possible that I am wrong about all of this. ( )
  RandyMetcalfe | Mar 27, 2016 |
Ben Marcus employs an experimental playfulness in taking everyday language and subverting it to find new meanings. This is a surreal book, but there is a thread there to follow. In the book, Marcus has imagined a parallel existence and supplied a book of obscure rules and regulations for the inhabitants to follow. It’s all nonsense, but I had fun trying to follow it.

What I liked about this book was that I had to be willing to catch hold of something different and see where it took me. Kind of the literary equivalent of abstract art. Marcus might have one thing in mind as he writes, but it’s so abstract that the reader might imagine something completely different in order to make their own sense of it. ( )
  missizicks | Jan 12, 2016 |
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In The Age of Wire and String Ben Marcus welds together a new reality from the scrapheap of the past. Dogs, birds, horses, automobiles and the weather are some of the recycled elements in Marcus's first collection - part fiction, part handbook - as familiar objects take on markedly unfamiliar meanings. Gradually, this makeshift world, in its defiance of the laws of physics and language, finds a foundation in its own implausibility, as Marcus produces new feelings and sensations - both comic and disturbing - in the definitive guide to an unpredictable yet exhilarating plane of existence.

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