"Accountant, vessel in which a substance is heated to a high temperature and then transferred, divided, shrunk, or counted."
Welcome to the wonderfully deranged world of writer Ben Marcus. His book of stories -- titled The Age of Wire and String (Dalkey Archive, 140 pages, $11.95) -- is a foray to the limits of language that paradoxically uses objects ready at hand to warp and redefine reality. The stories in the book range from odd twists on the language of definition to eerie first-person accounts that appear to have been beamed in from a dimension that vaguely touches on our own.
Marcus, 31, teaches in the creative-writing department at Brown University, where he also edits an Internet literary magazine called Impossible Object. In keeping with this part of Marcus' work, we exchanged e-mail about both his book and his magazine last week.
RFT: You've gotten a lot of positive press for The Age of Wire and String, and with it a lot of comparisons -- Joyce, Beckett, Sterne, the Bible, Lewis Carroll. Can you clue us in on any other formative influences? Am I wrong in reading a healthy dose of Gertrude Stein (tactically more than linguistically) in your book?
Marcus: It's tricky to cite influences, because I would never want to presume I share company with writers I admire. I can say who I was reading then, who excited me, and who made me feel as though I could write what I wanted to. Stein is certainly among this group, as is Borges, Harry Mathews, Raymond Roussel, Stanley Crawford, but let's not omit Judy Blume, Paul Zindel, Robert Cormier, the great teen writers who regularly blow the young American mind; and last is the unpublished Mexican "slow" pornography of Louis L'Amour. I would also have to list nonfiction sources, such as the DSM manual of case studies and Stith Thompson's Index of Folk Motifs. Back then I generally read everything for its fictional possibilities, freely looting from whatever rhetorical source excited me, fiction or not, and really more often it was not. Plus I was looking at a lot of encyclopedias, and I was particularly attracted to turn-of-the-century reference books that had been poorly, or arcanely, translated into English. I was interested in discovering beautiful accidents of language that might present literary possibilities for me.
What was the genesis of the book? I'm curious about this because there is such a convincing mix of intimacy and dispassion in it, and I wondered which came first and was followed by equally convincing writing in a different style.
I wrote the harder, dispassionate pieces first. I had an anti-sentimental instinct, was eager to move as far away as possible from cliched presentations of emotion, which resulted in a willful avoidance of all emotion, a sort of emotional stance of its own. But a common critique of what I was doing -- by other writers, anyway -- was that it was heartless, cold and brainy. I tried to discover some kind of antidote within the book, a way to work grief into this impenetrable scientific voice, because I probably thought I walked the world with the lion's share of grief and this should be reflected in my writing. This is still really a goal of mine, to fuse these seemingly opposite territories. I like the idea of something that is formally hard and cold yet still almost unbearably emotional.I'm curious about what you make of how Alan Sokal has skewered some cultural writers' exploitation of the gray area between literary theory and math and science with pranks and now a book. It seems to me that your book -- while taking a different path -- has a similar debunking streak in it, and it's hard not to read some parts of it as an outright attack on language's ability to measure and quantify.
I first of all don't have an agenda, and I'm not attacking anything. To me, this isn't what fiction is for. On the other hand, anything sayable can be debunked, probably, but the act of debunking is itself a structure of language that has its dubious properties. There's an inherent problem in using language to critique the hilarious fallibilities of language. You can't escape language. I don't have any philosophies about this, I just know that rhetorical stances of truth and authority are really seductive to me; I see them as expert fictions, beautiful illusions. I love the way authoritative voices, delivered deadpan, seem to assist even the most absurd content toward some semblance of truth. I'm glad it's not my job to draw conclusions from this, though, because I don't care -- I only want to play with the possibilities of what can be said and how. I don't have a social agenda, but I do want to stick my hands as far as I can into people's heads and chests, to disrupt what they think they know and feel. This might involve rhetorical subterfuge, ventriloquism, throwing my voice into some surprising territory. Camouflaging fictions in common forms of seductive rhetoric is one way to invade people in a literary way.
Another thing that struck this suburbanite-turned-urbanite about your book was the language of farming and harvest that is woven into it throughout. It's a language that has strong resonances but little practical application in most people's everyday lives, apart from a quick flip over to the Weather Channel. Did you find this language an effective ghost?
It's hard for me to see events and activities as having a language of their own: the language of farming, the language of swimming, the language of dying. Maybe there's an accepted, traditional way of talking about these things, as well as a special vocabulary, but if I used the language of farming, I didn't know I was doing so. More likely, I used imagery or visions that attracted me. I have a shame-continued on next pageMARCUSconitnued from previous pageless impulse to try to create beauty, so I'm not thinking categorically in terms of agriculture or something like that -- I'm rather trying to bloom images that hold my attention.
I found Impossible Object on the Web. Could you could talk a little bit about how you came to edit it? Some of the material is quite traditional fare for literary magazines, but features like the "Hypertext" section and "The Expert" create a novel twist on the form that in many ways can only be accomplished on the Web.
I had worked for Conjunctions, a very serious and distinguished literary magazine, and my main interest there was to bring into print young writers publishing for the first time. Impossible Object was started at Brown to publish almost exclusively unknown or student-aged writers and also allow graduate students to try their hand at editing and publishing work without the economic obstacle of print publishing. I see editing -- enabling the work of other writers -- as part of a writer's communal responsibility. Encouraging graduate writing students to edit can take them out of a more passive, consumer-based stance as students. Publishing on the Web is easy and free, so we can try all sorts of things that would be prohibitive or impossible on paper. The most interesting section of the magazine, to me, is the one called "The Expert." Here we have generally unclassifiable writing, satire, reviews, etc. All of our satire is published anonymously. It's a pretty small operation, held together mostly by myself and a graduate student at Brown named Matt Derby. But I would like to keep doing some kind of small Web magazine, and there is possibly another one in the works.
Ben Marcus reads from his work as part of the International Writers Center Reading Series at 8 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 8, at Washington University's West Campus Conference Center, 7425 Forsyth Blvd.